north korea

Since 1985, when North Korea ratified the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), negotiations between the United States and North Korea have proceeded in fits and starts, and have failed to halt the advance of the North’s atomic weapons program. Between 2003 and 2008 the US, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea engaged the North in multiple rounds the “six-party talks”, without success.

As the US officially demands full denuclearisation and North Korea maintains that they will never give up their guns and want to be considered equals, talks and negotiations never reached an agreement. What is more, North Korea has a track record of not playing by the rules, kicking out inspectors, and hiding secret nuclear facilities. These are all actions that decreased credibility and increased mistrust from the international community.

Combinations of international sanctions and negotiation attempts have not deterred North Korea in developing its nuclear weapons. North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test, of a hydrogen bomb, on 3 September 2017 and it is believed they are now able to reach American soil.

After decades of mutual mistrust, stalemates in negotiations, and the “strategic patience” policy sustained by the Obama administration, 2018 saw many landmarks: the rapprochement with South Korea during the Winter Olympics; the 6th nuclear test; and the US-North Korea summit of 12 June on Sentosa Island.

Sentosa is Malay for "peace and tranquility", a well-considered choice of location. The symbolism of the Olympics, the summit and the agreement appear to be positive developments, but experts are sceptical. The joint statement did not directly address North Korea’s missile development, chemical and biological weapons programs, or human rights situation, and some say this meeting undermines international standards and protocols as North Korea is still considered an illegal nuclear state that is not to be treated as an equal conversation partner. Did Kim Jong-Un get exactly what he wanted, without any concessions on his part?

Not only could the fraternization between US and North Korea undermine international rules and regulations, it could also mean a destabilisation of the Asian region. Japan and South Korea may feel more under threat and a new arms race could develop when the US is no longer the main protector of the realm.
However, the symbolism of the summit ensures that the maximum pressure campaign has peaked, or seems to have peaked for now. Even though some could say the summit is more symbolic than an actual historic achievement of great international importance. Symbolism in international relations is necessary and an important means to build trust that provides hope for possible agreements in the future. Engagement can definitely yield improved ties and improved ties increase opportunities for a reduction of the nuclear threat.

Author: Else Frijling