It is good news that the US recovered from North Korea 55 sets of remains of American soldiers killed during the 1950-53 Korean War. The goodwill gesture from the North should not, however, raise too much optimism about its denuclearization.
The repatriation of the first batch of remains was in line with an agreement made by US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in their June 12 historic summit in Singapore.
Thinking about the family members whose wishes to get back the remains of their beloved ones who perished in a land far away have been met finally, the two leaders deserve praise. Further, the repatriation could facilitate improvement of relations between the former war adversaries.
The problem is that despite such significance, the repatriation in reality makes little contribution to the core of the North Korean problem: denuclearization. Nevertheless, both sides seem to take propagandistic advantage of it.
The repatriation took place Friday, which marked the 65th anniversary of the armistice agreement that halted the three-year Korean War. The North renewed its call to formally end the war, which it insists should lead to the replacement of the armistice accord with a peace regime. Its ultimate goal is to drive out US forces from South Korea under the new peace mechanism.
For his part, Trump -- as he did in May when the North released three Korean-American captives -- is trumpeting the retrieval of the remains of soldiers as one of his foreign policy accomplishments. Indeed, bringing back what Trump called “fallen heroes” is no small thing, but that should not overshadow the US president’s mishandling of the core North Korean problem.
The biggest problem is that the denuclearization work, which stalled and slowed after the Singapore summit, is even retrogressing. A good case in point is the fact that the North is still producing nuclear fissile materials.
The latest US confirmation came from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Responding to a lawmaker’s question in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting last week, Pompeo said matter-of-factly, “Yes, they continue to produce fissile material.” This means the US government has evidence of the North’s nuclear activity but has not done anything to stop it.
It was on April 20 that Kim, declaring his country had completed its nuclear program, would freeze related activities and destroy a nuclear testing site. The announcement was followed by the first inter-Korean summit in 11 years in which Kim promised a complete denuclearization.
The North destroyed the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site in advance of the US-NK summit. Recently, there was some work to dismantle parts of a main missile-testing site in the North. South Korea and the US rewarded the North for its actions by halting their joint military exercises. The Seoul government is also pushing for a variety of exchange and cooperation programs with the North.
But Pompeo’s confirmation of the North’s nuclear activities shows that the North has not even frozen its nuclear program, let alone taking any step for completely dismantling its nuclear capacity. A complete denuclearization has become more elusive.
In the Senate hearing, Pompeo said the US goal is to achieve a complete denuclearization -- along with removal of other weapons of mass destruction like missiles and biochemical weapons -- within Trump’s first term which ends in January 2021.
That goal comes in conflict with his and his boss’s position that there is no limit to time and speed for North Korean denuclearization. Such a zigzag challenges confidence in US policy.
One good aspect of the Trump policy on the North is that it still remains committed to retaining the current “maximum pressure” sanctions against the North.
Pompeo mentioned a “patient policy” in the Senate hearing. That, however, should not be allowed to justify foot-dragging. The US side must be reminded constantly that the North will never abandon its double-faced strategy.