Just two months after North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un succeeded his father Kim Jong-il in late February 2012, a glimmer of hope emerged in Washington that the young leader would end the nuclear standoff.
In what was dubbed the “leap day” deal, the North agreed on Feb. 29 that year to suspend nuclear tests, long-range missile launches and uranium enrichment. It also allowed international inspectors to monitor activities at its main nuclear complex.
“Today’s announcement represents a modest first step in the right direction,” then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said when she briefed lawmakers on the agreement. “It is our hope that the new leadership will choose to guide their nation onto the path of peace by living up to its obligations.”
|North Korea`s leader Kim Jong-un. Yonhap|
But the optimism was short-lived. Just weeks after the agreement, North Korea made a failed attempt to put the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite into orbit. Pyongyang followed that up with a successful launch of the Kwangmyongsong-3 Unit 2 in December 2012 and a nuclear test three months later.
Though largely forgotten, the leap day deal is seen as a reminder of unsuccessful nuclear talks between the US and North Korea amid the hopes that proposed summit between the two countries will be different from past negotiations.
Expectations are high for a possible breakthrough in the decadeslong nuclear standoff between Pyongyang and Washington, as US President Donald Trump last week accepted an invitation for a meeting with Kim Jong-un to be held by May.
Faced with harsh international economic sanctions, Kim would be more sincere about the talks with the US compared to other negotiations that took place under his predecessors, given that Kim now holds more sway over the country than when he inherited it from his father in 2012, experts said.
“I was under the impression that Kim Jong-un wants to draw up the major blueprints for all the issues that block its relations with South Korea and the US,” Suh-hoon, head of South Korea’s National Intelligence Agency, told local daily Chosun Ilbo on his way to Washington after meeting with Kim on May 5.
Those “stumbling blocks” include North Korea’s nuclear and missile program. During his six years in power, Kim has seen his country make significant progress in missile technology and vowed to massively produce missile capable of reaching the US mainland.
When he served as a university professor before becoming the spy agency’s chief, Suh suspected that Kim’s decision to walk away from the leap day deal stemmed from the fact that the young leader needed to appease hawkish generals as he had not yet consolidated his power.
|Kim Jong-un. Yonhap|
Joseph DeTrani, a former US special envoy to the six-party talks with North Korea, said the upcoming the US-North Korea talk will be “productive,” noting the historic significance of the first summit between the US and North Korea since the Korean war.
“Given that this is a leadership meeting, it’s fair to assume that they will be productive, at least in an agreement on issues related to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and on security assurances for North Korea,” Detrani told The Korea Herald.
For DeTrani, the successful model for the US-North Korea talks is the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement, under which North Korea agreed a to complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of its nuclear programs, in return for security assurances and other deliverables.
But the skepticism persists that the meeting may end up the same way as the previous failed negotiations as North Korea has continued to use the end of the US’ “hostile policy” as a condition for giving up its nuclear and missile programs.
After meeting with the South Korean delegates, Kim Jong-un said there is no reason for them to possess nuclear weapons, but the nuclear disarmament must come with the condition that military threats to the North are eliminated and the regime’s security is guaranteed.
“The prospective meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-un will be the same,” Gary Samore, who negotiated with North Korea during the Clinton administration and served as President Barack Obama’s arms-control coordinator, told The Korea Herald.
“Previous negotiations failed because North Korea has a very strong determination to possess nuclear weapons and the United States lacks sufficient pressure or inducements to persuade North Korea to give them up.”
Over the past decades, the US and North Korea have accused each other of violating previous accords since what is known as the first nuclear crisis in 1993 when North Korea threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The US has long suspected that North Korea is so intent on keeping its nuclear arsenal for the regime’s survival that it has never been sincere about denuclearization talks -- whether they were done through bilateral engagement or a multilateral platform.
A case in point was North Korea’s failure to honor the 1994 “Agreed Framework,” under which the North committed to freezing its illicit plutonium weapons program in exchange for light-water nuclear reactors, heavy fuel and normalized relations with the US.
Robert Gallucci, who served as the chief US negotiator of the Agreed Framework during the Clinton administration, said that while North Korea stuck to the deal with regards to plutonium, it had secretly engaged in uranium enrichment after receiving transfers from Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan.
“They cheated, and we caught them,” Gallucci said in an interview with CNBC on Saturday. “From their perspective, they weren’t cheating, they were hedging, and we failed to normalize relations with them, which was a key to that deal in 1994.”
By Yeo Jun-suk (firstname.lastname@example.org)