Despite the fact that North Korea's new attitude toward its nuclear ambitions led to a series of historic summits in 2018, the peace talks involving Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington failed to produce a concrete plan for how to completely denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.MOSCOW (Pakistan Point News / Sputnik - 18th December, 2018) Despite the fact that North Korea's new attitude toward its nuclear ambitions led to a series of historic summits in 2018, the peace talks involving Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington failed to produce a concrete plan for how to completely denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.
Since the peace talks greatly reduced the threats of military conflict on the peninsula, North Korea has lost motivation to offer consequential concessions on denuclearization, since the nation is no longer facing the same kind of "maximum pressure" from the international community as it did last year.
During a televised New Year's Day speech, the North Korean leader expressed his willingness to improve ties with South Korea and said he was open to holding a dialogue, stressing the importance of easing tensions on the peninsula. Kim added that he would consider sending a North Korean delegation to the Winter Olympics, which took place in South Korea's Pyeongchang in February.
After trading insults with US President Donald Trump and threatening to fire its missiles toward the US territory of Guam during the peak of tensions in 2017, Kim Jong Un's policy U-turn eliminated the threats of warfare on the Korean Peninsula and brought new hope for peace talks.
Having threatened to respond to threats from North Korea with "fire and fury" in 2017, Trump responded to Kim Jong Un's new attitude with caution. "Rocket man now wants to talk to South Korea for first time. Perhaps that is good news, perhaps not - we will see!" Trump wrote in a post on his official Twitter account.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who actively promoted the "sunshine policy," which focuses on improving relations with North Korea, during last year's presidential campaign, responded to Kim's calls for dialogue positively. After the first inter-Korea dialogue in more than two years was held in early January at the border village of Panmunjom, North Korea agreed to send an official delegation to take part in the Winter Olympics.
The North Korean delegation went on a "charm offensive" during their stay in South Korea, where the synchronized performances of North Korean cheerleaders almost outshined the Olympic athletes. Kim Jong Un's younger sister Kim Yo Jong, who led the North Korean delegation, stole the spotlight during the Winter Olympics, when South Korean media almost followed her every move.
Speaking to Sputnik at the time, Cheon Seong-whun, a visiting research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, who served as a presidential secretary for security strategy in South Korea until early this year, predicted that North Korea's diplomatic "charm offensive" would continue after the Winter Olympics.
"Kim Jong Un is beginning to feel the pain from the growing pressure from the international community, especially since last July. They're running out of hard currencies and their major export routes are being blocked. Kim Jong Un's strategy now is to cool down the heat and use the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics games as his 'charm offensive' to the international community," Cheon said.
After returning from a two-day visit to Pyongyang in early March, Chung Eui-yong, the South Korean president's top security adviser and special envoy to North Korea, told reporters that both nations had agreed to hold a summit of their leaders in late April in the joint security area of Panmunjom.
Chung subsequently traveled to Washington and delivered Kim Jong Un's message of willingness to hold a face-to-face meeting to US President Donald Trump, who accepted the offer without hesitation.
In late March, Kim Jong Un traveled to Beijing for the first time since taking over as North Korea's leader in 2011 and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The opportunity to improve relations with North Korea came at a critical time for China, which was facing the danger of being left out of future peace talks.
Following the meeting between Kim and Xi in Beijing, both sides reiterated their commitment to maintaining the strong historical bond between the two nations.
In addition to repairing ties with China, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho visited Moscow in early April as Pyongyang continued to try to break from the diplomatic isolation it was put in the previous year over the rapid advances in its nuclear arms program.
Kim Jae-Chun, an international relations professor at Sogang University in Seoul and a former South Korean government adviser, explained why breaking the diplomatic isolation was important to North Korea.
"Kim Jong Un made this strategic decision to open up diplomatic relations, not only targeting neighboring countries, but also reaching out to countries in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. This is a testament to the fact that North Korea has been diplomatically isolated. It became a big burden on the Kim Jong Un regime," he said.
Kim and Moon met in the truce village of Panmunjom for their historic inter-Korean summit on April 27. The one-day meeting was the first rare chance for the rest of the world, especially the general public in South Korea, to have unfiltered and unscripted access to the young North Korean leader.
Despite appearing a little nervous when he first crossed the military demarcation line to shake hands with Moon, Kim showed that he was not very different from other leaders in the world today, making jokes and giving spontaneous responses on various occasions.
The North Korean leader even acknowledged the underdeveloped state of the nation's transportation system compared to that of South Korea.
"What worries me about President Moon visiting us is that our transportation system is deficient, and you might find it uncomfortable," Kim said.
The North Korean leader's performance at the summit impressed many political analysts in South Korea.
"Kim Jong Un was the influencer today. He was the main event. He outperformed and outshined Moon, largely because of the moments we have not seen from a North Korean leader. He was the center of attention today. He did that deliberately and those were all the choices he made. He had an agenda today, which is to steal the show. I think he did a very good job at it," James Kim, an international relations expert at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, told Sputnik.
However, despite Kim Jong Un's charisma at the summit, the joint statement released following his meeting with Moon lacked concrete steps on how North Korea planned to denuclearize, South Korean political analysts argued.
"The most important issue here is about denuclearization and peace. As expected, the joint statement is relatively very vague. On the issue of denuclearization, there's no mention about the mechanism by which the denuclearization will happen. There's no mention about the schedule of denuclearization," Professor Kim from the Asan Institute for Policy Studies said.
The joint statement from the summit, known as Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula, only had one paragraph mentioning denuclearization.
Following the summit, both nations took substantial steps to implement the agreement. They included a number of tension reduction measures such as ceasing hostile acts against each other, carrying out disarmament in a phased manner and pursuing the end of the Korean War by turning the 1953 armistice into a peace treaty.
About three weeks before the historic summit between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un was scheduled to take place on June 12 in Singapore, the US president abruptly decided to cancel the highly anticipated, first ever face-to-face meeting between leaders of their nations.
President Moon made efforts to try to save the summit he helped broker by agreeing to a second meeting with Kim Jong Un at North Korea's request. Trump subsequently reversed his decision after Pyongyang softened its rhetoric and sent a senior official to deliver a personal letter from Kim to the White House.
After trading hawkish insults and military threats against each other for almost one year, Trump and Kim made history when they shook hands for the first time outside the Capella Hotel in Singapore, where the two leaders had spent the whole morning negotiating.
However, despite Trump's claim that his meeting with the North Korean leader was "better than anyone could have expected," the joint statement released at the end of the summit failed to include details on how North Korea plans to move toward denuclearization, far away from the kind of "complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization" the US side had insisted on.
Similar to the Panmunjom Declaration after the first inter-Korean summit in April, the joint statement from the Singapore summit only included one sentence reiterating North Korea's pledge toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
"Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," the joint statement said.
Political analysts argued that the results from the summit in Singapore tilted heavily in Kim's favor.
"This is a completely useless agreement. The most important result from the summit is this is a victory for Kim Jong Un and a defeat for Trump. That's because this is exactly what Kim Jong Un wanted all along, verbal pledges to denuclearization without a specific timeline. This is the best result for him," Zhang Baohui, the director of the Center for Asian Pacific Studies at Hong Kong's Lingnan University, told Sputnik.
Following the Singapore summit, peace talks between the United States and North Korea stalled because Washington refused to lift stringent economic sanctions before Pyongyang took substantial steps toward denuclearization.
In July, US media reports alleged that satellite images showed clear signs of construction and significant improvement at major nuclear sites in North Korea, including a missile manufacturing facility in the city of Hamhung and the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center.
At the same time, US intelligence agencies believed, based on new evidence such as satellite images, that North Korea was building new ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States as the former continued to advance its nuclear arms program, US media reported.
In response, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo canceled a planned visit to Pyongyang in August.
Amid stalled negotiations between the United States and North Korea, the third inter-Korean summit took place as planned in late September.
After two days of negotiations between Moon and Kim in Pyongyang, North Korea agreed to allow international experts to monitor the closure of the Dongchang-ri missile engine testing facility and missile launch pad. Pyongyang also promised to permanently shut down its nuclear facilities in Yongbyon depending on corresponding actions from the United States.
South Korean scholars expressed serious concerns over North Korea's latest offer on denuclearization.
"This is progress, but it's very limited. That's because this is in line with what Kim Jong Un has promised many times this year: it's about future nuclear capabilities [of North Korea]. Denuclearization should address what you're going to do with your existing nuclear weapons," Professor Kim from Sogang University said.
To de-escalate military tensions on the Korean Peninsula, both countries agreed to expand maritime, air and ground military buffer zones close to the military demarcation line (MDL), as well as halting military drills near the MDL and disarm the joint security area in the Demilitarized Zone.
While the demilitarization measures may help temporarily reduce tensions on the peninsula, it could also hurt South Korea's military might, which is stronger in terms of conventional weapons compared to that of North Korea, political analysts warned.
"Maybe the Moon administration could accuse me of being locked in the 'Cold War' mentality. But the measures do raise my concerns, because they [North Korea] have nuclear weapons and we [South Korea] have stronger conventional weapons capability. What the two Koreas have talked about is reducing threats from conventional weapons. If we follow the measures to lower threats from conventional weapons, they do still have nuclear weapons," Professor Kim from the Sogang University said.
As part of the Moon administration's policy to promote engagement with North Korea, both countries agreed to a series of steps to boost inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation, including a joint project to connect railroads and roads across the border, reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex and resuming tours to Geumgangsan Moutain.
To further improve inter-Korea relations, both countries also agreed to open a permanent family reunion center to allow family members who were separated during the Korean War to stay in touch through video calls and letter. The two countries would also pursue plans to bid for a chance to co-host the Summer Olympics in 2032, according to the joint statement released after the inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang.
During the 73rd UN General Assembly in New York City in September, both Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, made similar suggestions to relax the strict economic sanctions against North Korea that were introduced under UN resolutions last year to rein in the rapid progress of Pyongyang's nuclear arms program.
In response, Pompeo stressed at UN Security Council meetings that sanctions should not be lifted before complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is achieved.
Despite critics having argued that the latest offers from North Korea failed to address the nation's existing nuclear weapons, Pyongyang's willingness and the steps it has taken to curb its nuclear capabilities need to be rewarded to push the denuclearization process further, political analysts suggested.
"Pyongyang has already started to reduce its nuclear capabilities by dismantling its missile engine testing facility and missile launch pad. If you look at responses from the United States, except for a few tweets from Trump, it has not taken steps to 'reward' North Korea's efforts or encourage it to move further on denuclearization," Zheng Jiyong, the director of the Center for Korean Studies, Fudan University in Shanghai, told Sputnik.
However, other political analysts argued that lifting sanctions would give North Korea less incentive to denuclearize completely, as Pyongyang was facing much less pressure today.
"Where is North Korea right now? I don't think North Korea is in any rush to denuclearize soon. They've never declared to go beyond what they've already stated as far as denuclearization is concerned. The [economic] sanctions are still in place, but military and diplomatic pressure is off," James Kim, an international relations expert at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, told Sputnik.
Negotiations between the United States and North Korea continue to follow a rollercoaster-like path, with Pompeo once again canceling a scheduled meeting with a top North Korean official in early November, after visiting Pyongyang in October.
Since US Vice President Mike Pence expected the second US-North Korea summit to produce a "verifiable plan" to disclose North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile sites, talks on North Korean denuclearization will not get easier in 2019.