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US-N Korea relations: Mutual suspicion still exists


The US and North Korea have made a good start but uncertainty still persists. Singapore summit is, in fact, the beginning of a great gamble for both sides. Now it turns out in real terms, North Korea continues to be under economic sanctions and the US continues to be suspicious of Pyongyang’s commitment to complete, irreversible and verifiable denuclearisation. Washington will lift sanctions only ‘when nukes are no longer an issue’. Both leaders can pat themselves on the back, though, because the US has got Kim to sign off on denuclearisation in a manner that, although ill-defined, suits it, while Kim has been able to get the US-South Korean military exercises called off.





The US has given up on CVID as China has been vocal about step by step approach rather than high speed programs which might collapse.

Senior US officials who discussed with Japanese and Korean officials recently have narrated that the US will wait for solid proof of dismantling of nuclear and WMD programs of North Korea. 

 It appears the US will continue to be apprehensive until it is verified that North Korea is no longer capable of launching a nuclear strike against the US mainland.

The US may have halted its military exercises with South Korea, but what effect the summit agreement may have, if any, for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile defence system, which has also been a concern of China and Russia, is yet to be clarified.

Already, China is concerned about THAAD and the continuation of sanctions, which leave ambiguity in its trading relationship with North Korea. Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington are now involved in what may be termed “backward diplomacy”, a reversed diplomatic process in which high-level summits represent the beginnings of a negotiation rather than its concluding stage.

Beijing is undoubtedly involved in these processes. China’s longstanding alliance with North Korea has thus far allowed Xi Jinping to act in the shadows, limiting his exposure to this unconventional diplomacy.

Given the lack of fixed assurances, each actor is approaching the summit and the wider diplomatic process on the Korean Peninsula with different expectations.

This increases the risk of misunderstandings, making it hard to predict an outcome. Since China is getting apprehensive about future US policy towards N Korea, in case it fails by end of the year then Beijing will not be blamed for any outcome.

Having signed the document and with the economic sanctions against it remaining in place, North Korea will be wondering if giving away its only strategic leverage was too big a gamble. 

From the perspective of various developments, it looks too good to be true. It remains to be seen, however, if China will actually allow Kim to be stripped of all nukes. Trump’s tendency to upend traditional diplomatic praxes, his narcissism and entrepreneurial or transactional approach to foreign policy, has helped North Korea’s strategy.

Kim’s proposal for a bilateral meeting was made knowing that such an invite would entice the American president, inflating his ego while playing on his personality traits.

Moon Jae-in is patiently trying to bring the US and North Korea along, converging towards his mid-term strategy of securing a significant breakthrough on the Peninsula while working to ensure strategic dividends for all actors throughout the process.

Ultimately, South Korea is willing to redefine the security paradigm on the Korean Peninsula as an exclusive bilateral matter between Seoul and Pyongyang. This is happening for the reason that the US under Trump is becoming much more calculative and may become careless in case North Korea turns hostile. Thus, more efforts are needed to reach a meaningful conclusion.

Such an effort  will entail challenges for both North and South Korea, as each of their respective allies and security providers, the People’s Republic of China and the United States, need to willingly suspend their involvement on security matters on the Peninsula.

Both are permanent members at the United Nation Security Council and this fragile shift will be possible only if Xi Jinping and Donald Trump will allow Moon Jae-in to harness the North into deeper forms of engagement encompassing social and cultural exchanges as well as economic cooperation, military and political dialogue.

But China is not very comfortable with US plans to start the first phase of the process before July 4. In fact, China is suggesting a fresh MoU to be signed after the summit and the work can start by end of July. This will help Beijing to delete all its footprints in the development of nuclear and missile program of N Korea overnight.

China is unwilling to do it now even after the successful summit shows Beijing is unsure of US attitude as Trump is a puppet in the hands of arms lobbies and lunatic in some cases. At the same time, the US is deeply suspicious of China. Just few weeks ago, that meeting in Dalian was seen as an effort by China to ensure that Beijing's voice was heard when Kim will meet with Trump. In the on-again, off-again run-up to the summit, Trump at one point blamed Kim's trip to China for creating an unwelcome ''change in attitude'' by the North Korean leader. China moved quickly to urge both sides not to cancel the meeting. This means Beijing is now doing lobbying for sanctions on Pyongyang to be eased.

In fact, the US strategy is to give a considerable rope to North Korea first and then tighten it to its neck later. What is more serious is Trump's announcement to suspend joint US-South Korea military exercises. The suspension is apparently aimed at appeasing the North, which sees such drills as a grave threat to its security. Trump might argue it is necessary to halt the drills as part of his promise to provide security guarantees for the Kim regime. But he needs to realize his abrupt announcement caught South Korea off guard.