USA and North Korea tried to resolve their differences in favor of stability, but, in the end, there was no light at the end of the tunnel
Two years have passed since Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un met in Sentosa Island, Singapore on 12 June 2018. The historical first meeting of a sitting US President and a North Korean chairman raised the stakes of hope for a denuclearized and peaceful Korean peninsula. Now, pessimism reigns among their ranks.
Relations between the USA and North Korea are deteriorating with the flow of time, concurrently with the decline of the North-South Korean approach. Major obstacles have overshadowed the need for a lasting resolution of the prolonged disputes between the two countries. The precursor for the stability of the wider region did not endure a renewed confidence that this narrative will finally pay off.
Even so, the historical context behind the American and North Korean standoff suggests a return to the traditional hostility. It is a route from an era of clashes to a fruitless diplomatic initiative that, regrettably, could have been different.
Rivalry from birth
The resentment of the USA and North Korea begins in the Cold War, right after the very creation of the DPRK. The end of the Japanese colonization divides Korea between American and Soviet occupation. The former entity in the south declared independence in May 1948 and the latter in the north the same year in September. In a period of harsh bipolar competition, opposite spheres of influence are a potential danger to the sovereignty of each other.
Hostilities came relatively early when North Korea invaded South Korea on 25 June 1950. The war ended with an UN-enforced demilitarized zone separating the two entities in 1953. A formal peace resolution never took place between the parties and the USA continued to view North Korea as a malevolent actor. In the following years, theaters of the Cold War moved away from the Korean peninsula, while in the meantime the Juche establishment consolidated.
North Korea’s willingness to join the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1985 seemed like a step forward for peace and disarmament. But as long as the USA maintained nuclear assets within its southern counterpart, DPRK could not abandon its ambitions completely. The diplomatic efforts of the post-Cold War era fell through when both sides failed to comply with each other’s demands. After the 2003 collapse, North Korea hardened its stance.
Pyongyang left the NPT and started developing enriched uranium intensely. The international isolation of the regime pursued an abatement of the tensions but with no tangible results. With Donald Trump in power though, American strategy changed. North Korean test of ballistic missiles issued a war threat by the US president.
Sentosa and Hanoi summits
Although the situation between the USA and North Korea seemed to reach their nadir, an unprecedented Korean dialogue was already happening. South and North Korean leaderships managed to develop mutual understanding mechanisms which lead to a willingness by Kim Jong-un to meet with Donald Trump in person.
The two leaders finally participated in a summit meeting in Sentosa, Singapore in 2018. The summit was perceived with optimism both by the international community and the two leaders. They made a joint pledge to continue on the path of dialogue and gradually restore diplomatic ties with each other. The period that followed was full of de-escalating actions that sought to build mutual trust.
Donald Trump, in line with his pre-electoral promises, put an end to US-ROK joint military exercises, while Kim Jong-un disassembled nuclear testing sites. A mutual commitment to ending officially the Korean War has also been made and the two leaders promised another summit meeting in time.
But the next meeting was not concluded smoothly. In February 2019, the Hanoi summit took place in Vietnam where Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un met for the second time. The core obstacle in the discussions between them has been the demands each side sees as prerequisites from the other to continue the peace process. In other words, the USA expected North Korea to abandon its nuclear pursues completely, while North Korea asks for a total lifting of sanctions in order for this demand to be fulfilled.
The Hanoi fiasco plunged US-North Korean relations in a deadlock that the only way out of it was to go backward.
The two years anniversary of the historic Sentosa summit was “celebrated” by North Korean MFA by these very distinctive words: “Even a slim ray of optimism for peace and prosperity on the Korean peninsula has faded away into a dark nightmare”.
Donald Trump was the first US president that set foot in North Korea when he visited the Joint Security Area, together with South Korean president, on June 30, 2019. This fact, alongside numerous letter exchange between the two leaders, was not enough to curb the differences in favor of regional peace and stability. In October 2019, Pyongyang announced officially that negotiations have been terminated and resumed in aggressiveness.
Nuclear testing has also resumed in North Korea. Kim Yong-un felt betrayed by the American leadership, as it supposedly cared only about internal political gains from their joint effort instead of substantial ones. Pyongyang undermines verbally the Trump administration with every chance. The US also blames for a series of cyber-attacks in late 2019 and 2020.
By adopting the confrontational strategy again, North Korea aims to challenge the USA to accept its demands. On the other hand, the USA’s hard focus on complete nuclear disarmament, before any other steps from its part, has more to do with apathy towards this matter in favor of other priorities. At the end of the day, what only remains is that the Korean deadlock proves that this unprecedented diplomacy two years ago turned null and void.