One must give the devil his due – Pyongyang has played its part, making significant concessions. Just a few days ago it announced its intention to dismantle the nuclear bomb test site ahead of Trump-Kim summit, upholding the pledge to terminate tests. Observation and research facilities will also be removed. Foreign journalists are invited to witness the process. Missile tests have been suspended. The recent visit of State Secretary Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang was a landmark event.
So far, the revived dialogue between the two Koreas has been a success which fuels great hopes for the future. A lot of progress has been made on the bumpy road to finding a solution of the burning security problem. The future had looked bright until the US acted as a spoiler about to stymie the emerging détente.
Now Pyongyang says the much anticipated Trump-Kim summit in Singapore on June 12 is in question because the US and South Korea are holding a combined military exercise on the Peninsula. The annual two-week Max Thunder kicked off on May 11 to run through May 25. The event involves some 100 aircraft, including eight F-22 stealth fighters and B-52 bombers from Guam. There were joint drills held in March and April but the scale of Max Thunder and the involvement of bombers make Pyongyang see it as a provocation.
In response Pyongyang cancelled a high-level engagement with their South Korean counterparts that was scheduled to be held on the southern side of the demilitarized zone in Panmunjom on May 16. The possibility of the Singapore meeting cancelled seems to be a not-so-veiled threat.
In view of opening prospects for avoiding a war in favor of diplomacy the US could have suspended or postponed the exercise. Another option was to scale it back, keeping bombers away. Is it really so important to hold this drill right now when real progress is looming after so many years of futile attempts?
The process of normalization has just started but National Security Adviser Mike Bolton has already taken a tough stance, speaking the language of ultimatums. According to him, no progress is possible without North Korea allowing the US to take all its nuclear weapons and fissile materials to the processing center in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He believes total denuclearization is a precondition for easing economic sanctions to let American private sector come to North Korean market and make it prosperous. The US wants all nuclear weapons data destroyed and an estimated 10,000 nuclear scientists sent abroad.
This precondition for top-level talks is reported to be resisted by Pyongyang despite the fact that it is promised financial rewards in case of compliance. Has anybody asked the scientists what they think about it? Do they want to move? Should 10,000 scientists snap to attention and rush to carry out the order? And why should nuclear materials be transported to the US and nowhere else? There are other countries which have appropriate infrastructure for recycling. For instance, sending materials to Russia would save time and money as there is no need to cross the ocean. Will the US verify the compliance itself or any role for the IAEA is envisaged?
Mr. Bolton sounds like a burly army sergeant yelling at recruits in a stentorian voice. He does it even before the negotiation process started. Such a “bull in a china shop” approach has nothing to do with diplomacy. An interlocutor may walk away from negotiations simply because he is treated disrespectfully.
The bully approach to international problems has already led US into a tight spot with the Iran deal unilaterally scrapped. America became isolated on the world stage while other parties to the agreement vow to keep it in force. If America tears up its international agreements so easily without consulting anybody, who can guarantee that a would-be US-North Korean deal will not have the same fate as the nuclear agreement with Iran? And what about other countries involved?
The North Korean problem has been tackled within the format of six party talks. China, Russia, South Korea are neighboring states and Japan is situated in the proximity from North Korean maritime borders. All these countries have vital interest in settling the problem and are ready to contribute. A bilateral US-Korean summit is a good idea. It would be great, if it produced concrete results. But the return to an international format makes sense, especially in view of US propensity to flout its international obligations and rudely impose its will.