- Trump Downplaying Missile Tests Helps N.Korea Isolate Seoul From Denuclearization Efforts
Trump Downplaying Missile Tests Helps N.Korea Isolate Seoul From Denuclearization Efforts
The United States, by understating North Korea's recent missile launches, is encouraging Pyongyang to continue its weapons tests as a means to try and isolate Seoul from denuclearization talks, experts told Sputnik
On Friday, North Korea launched two projectiles in what appeared to be its sixth weapons test in less than a month. The launches happened as Pyongyang strongly criticized joint US-South Korea military exercises earlier this month.
Tensions further ignited after South Korean President Moon Jae-in gave a speech on Thursday, the anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japan, in which he vowed to reunite the two Koreas by 2045. The following day, North Korea issued a statement calling Moon an "impudent guy," and saying that any future inter-Korean talks were off the table.
Since first launches in late July, US President Donald Trump has been downplaying the weapons tests, noting that they did not threaten US national security or violate agreements reached at his first summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore in 2018. The US president also said earlier in August that he had received a "beautiful letter" from Kim and was not ruling out another bilateral meeting. The denuclearization talks have remained stalled since the US-North Korea Hanoi summit collapsed in February without producing any kind of agreement.
Even though the diplomatic breakthrough that resulted from the first Trump-Kim summit in 2018 is largely seen as an accomplishment of the Moon government, Trump's understatement of the recent weapons tests will likely lead to the further exclusion of Seoul from the negotiating process, Chiew-Ping Hoo, a senior lecturer at the National University of Malaysia, told Sputnik.
"By undermining South Korea's security concerns, the US has allowed North Korea to continue to undermine South Korea's position on the Korean Peninsula, by ignoring not only inter-Korean peace process, but also South Korea's place in fostering denuclearization process," Hoo said.
Pyongyang became particularly skeptical of Seoul's role as mediator after the North Korean leader returned from his second summit with Trump empty-handed despite hopes for sanctions relief in exchange for steps toward denuclearization, Dr. Sangsoo Lee, a senior research fellow of the Institute for Security and Development Policy and head of the Stockholm Korea Center, told Sputnik.
"Since then, Kim doesn't trust Moon's mediation and talks to Trump directly," Lee said.
According to the expert, North Korea is likely to continue launching missiles in the future while the United States will continue to downplay incidents as non-threatening to keep the negotiation channel alive, which, in turn, will result in Seoul's continued isolation from the denuclearization process.
At the same time, these recent developments indicate that Pyongyang was never genuinely interested in mending ties with its southern neighbor but rather used the opportunity to facilitate dialogue with the United States, Hoo speculated.
With regard to the possible consequences such isolation will have on the Moon administration, Lee stressed that it might diminish the ruling party's chances in the next election and see the return of Conservative political forces to power.
At the same time, North Korea may further interact with other regional stakeholders. These, in particular, include China, which has been supporting Pyongyang politically and economically, making South Korea's assistance unnecessary.
"Beijing expects North Korea will demand the security assurance from the US, including stopping military exercises and withdrawing US strategic weapons from the Korean Peninsula as they are also top regional security issues for China. If North Korea fires missiles, raising military tensions on the peninsula, the US will be willing to discuss more about regional security issues, which China is interested in, during the future US-DPRK [North Korea] negotiation," Lee said.
Japan is yet another regional actor that has long been making efforts to stay included in negotiations from North Korea. Apart from protecting its own security interests most of North Korea's missiles and projectiles were fired in Japan's direction Tokyo also seeks to repatriate its citizens who are believed to have been abducted by North Korean security services back in the 1970s and 1980s.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has even invited Kim to arrange a bilateral summit to discuss the matter and reportedly asked the United States to help organize this meeting. North Korea has so far rejected the offer.
Most recently, Tokyo reportedly offered the United States to use robotics technology it developed to decommission the Fukushima power plant reactor to dismantle North Korean nuclear facilities. According to Hoo of the National University of Malaysia, Japan's proposal has not only once again manifested the country's reluctance to be sidelined in North Korea's denuclearization but may also serve US interests.
"The US may however find the proposal attractive, and can be leverage in negotiation if North Korea has resistance towards American scientists' physical inspection of the nuclear facility," he said, noting, however, that any substantive progress toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula has proven to be difficult.
Despite repeatedly rejecting Japan's invitations to negotiating table, North Korea may agree to Japan's participation in the denuclearization process in exchange for economic benefits, according to Dr. Lee of the Stockholm Korea Center.
"If North Korea has a chance to get economic benefits from Japan, such as lifting its bilateral sanctions, North Korea will allow Japan to involve in the denuclearization process and mediate between Washington and Pyongyang as Abe is the closest friend to Trump," he said.
The expert noted that such a development would only make South Korea more isolated in the future.