Signs are growing that the denuclearization process for North Korea is going in the direction the North wants. The biggest concern is that the “maximum pressure” that contributed to the North coming to the negotiation table is cracking without any substantial progress in dismantling the North’s nuclear capability.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s visit to China on Tuesday and Wednesday -- the third in three months -- is yet another sign, as Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping must have discussed seeking relief from economic sanctions imposed on the North.
The visit, which took place only one week after Kim held a historic summit with US President Donald Trump in Singapore, is seen as a matter of course. Kim first needed to express appreciation to Xi for China’s help with the Singapore summit, including the provision of special airplanes for Kim and his entourage.
Both Kim and Xi must also have felt the need to fine-tune their positions and showcase their bond as the US and the North are about to start denuclearization negotiations.
For Xi, having Kim under his wing could increase leverage in his dealings with Trump amid the escalating trade war between the US and China. With Xi standing behind him, Kim could also believe that he would have a stronger negotiating position vis-a-vis the US.
In a sense, Kim and Xi have already got away with a windfall. In line with Trump’s initiative, the US and South Korea decided to suspend an annual joint military drill slated for August, a demand that had been persistently made by both Pyongyang and Beijing.
Now that North Korea and China have achieved one of their long-cherished goals, they might move toward the next step -- easing the harshest-ever sanctions imposed on the Kim regime over its nuclear and missile provocations.
Even before the Singapore summit during which Kim pledged a “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, there had been signs that China was opening its backdoor to the North.
News reports said that China has already resumed passenger air flights to North Korea, allowed sales of package group tours to the North and increased employment of North Korean workers.
The backdoor could open further as the US and the North proceed with denuclearization talks. For now, Trump has maintained UN-led sanctions on North Korea, but China alone could dent the international pressure, as it is the North’s biggest trading partner and supplier of food and energy.
In other words, maintaining sanctions by the US, UN and other members of the international community would be meaningless if China does not adhere to them.
Kim’s visit to Beijing and economic activities across the border between China and North Korea should be watched in this regard.
A bigger cause for concern is that Trump, who now seems to have a two-track approach -- military and economic -- toward what he had called “maximum pressure,” may ease his position on economic sanctions, too.
After meeting Kim in Singapore, Trump said that he would no longer use the phrase “maximum pressure” and that he would stop joint military exercises with South Korea. The two allies announced Monday the suspension of the Freedom Guardian drill slated for August in line with Trump’s push for alleviating military pressure against the North.
The decision has brought harsh criticism that the US made a concession without securing concrete measures and a road map for complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the North.
Given Trump’s unpredictability and abruptness, no one can guarantee that he will not seek to ease sanctions for unconvincing reasons.
As skeptics pointed out, all that the North has so far done is to promise “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” which implies a demand for corresponding actions from the US and the South, such as the withdrawal of the US’ nuclear umbrella.
As experts highlighted, it should be noted that Kim never mentioned CVID, only repeating a “phased, synchronized” approach toward denuclearization.
The North has so far dismantled a nuclear test site -- which some experts said had become useless anyway -- and pledged to destroy a missile engine test site and return remains of US soldiers who were killed in action during the Korean War.
Dismantling the core elements of maximum pressure is something that should be done only after -- or simultaneously at least -- with the dismantlement of the North’s nuclear capability.