Map of Korean Peninsula. Image: iStock
Map of Korean Peninsula:Asia Times files / iStock

Nuclear weapons are considered an effective power-equalizer when conventional military capacities are glaringly unequal. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program seems to have arisen from a perception of insecurity (on account of its long-term international isolation). Its sovereignty, territoriality as well as other interests were at risk, and the acquisition of nuclear weapons was perceived to be pivotal in gaining the necessary bargaining power vis-à-vis the US to maintain its security.

In this light, it can be argued that the internationally isolated North Korean regime’s nuclear program was intended to serve as a deterrent against foreign military intervention. This perception has been strengthened by the experience of Libya, which made the mistake of relinquishing its nuclear program, making it easier for the US to support an uprising to topple and assassinate Muammar Gaddafi. This must have served as a lesson for the regime in Pyongyang. The regime appears to have considered the acquisition of nuclear weapons necessary to reduce its dependence on China.

However, the country continued to face stiff American sanctions over its nuclear weapons program, and the US appeared determined to prevent it from positioning itself to bargain hard. Meanwhile, the first summit meeting between the heads of North Korea and the US in Singapore on June 12, 2018, signaled that the Pyongyang, due to its persistence in pursuing nuclear weapons development in the face of heightened American sanctions, was able to bring the other party to the negotiating table.

The North Korean regime assumed three things. First, that the summit would herald a denuclearization process that would coincide with a process that would bring about the complete denuclearization of the South as well. Second, US troops would withdraw from the Korean Peninsula. Third, the summit would open up avenues for a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War and ensure security guarantees from the US which would prevent America from posing a threat to it in the future.

However, US officials apparently believed that North Korea was not sincere about its willingness to denuclearize. Therefore it insisted on the unilateral abandonment of the Korean nuclear program and refused to waive sanctions until the country denuclearized completely.

The negotiation process was conceived as a zero-sum game by Washington, whereas Pyongyang was expecting returns for each move it made

The negotiation process was conceived as a zero-sum game by Washington, whereas Pyongyang was expecting returns for each move it made. For instance, Pyongyang alleged that the US was expecting too much from a single summit without reciprocating its initial efforts to destroy the tunnels at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site (its only nuclear site), its freezing of nuclear and missile tests, and the return of American prisoners. This lack of reciprocity led to a stalemate.

Washington’s perception of the regime seems to be shaped by the conviction that a deep sense of insecurity, aggressive nationalism, and the consolidation of power by leader Kim Jong Un drives North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Many skeptics in the US political and academic communities suspect that North Korea will not disarm because they believe the country has been relentlessly pursuing a nuclear program for coercive purposes rather than for deterrence. Its objective, they think, is to weaken the US-South Korean alliance and forge a unified Korea. Mutual misperceptions will continue to stymie peace efforts.

John Bolton, the White House national security adviser, condemned the recent North Korean short-range ballistic missile tests, saying they clearly violated United Nations Security Council resolutions and President Donald Trump expressed his unhappiness with the tests initially but then played down their importance.

On the other side, North Korea chastised the US for its continuing sanctions campaign and seizing one of the country’s biggest cargo ships. It has also not cringed from accusing the latter of showing bad faith in negotiations by conducting nuclear and missile tests and military drills as a way to forcefully subjugate North Korea while it simultaneously advocated dialogue. It has been alleged that the US conducted a subcritical nuclear test on February 13, just days before the second summit meeting.

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North Korea points to how high-ranking US officials insulted the dignity of its supreme leadership and called North Korea a “rogue regime.” Meanwhile, South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported that Kim Hyok-chol and other Foreign Ministry officials who conducted working-level preparations for the summit meeting in Hanoi in February were executed a month later.

Any lack of foolproof evidence is likely to shape mutual perceptions. However, it is a positive sign for bilateral relations that Trump has expressed doubts about the accuracy of the news report and lamented that North Korea’s leader was blamed too quickly.

While the US accused the North Korean regime of backing away from its promises and questioned the regime’s sincerity in terms of meeting the first summit’s denuclearization targets, North Korea believed the summit in Singapore was the first move toward peace on the Korean Peninsula and would be to be followed by more dialogue. Mounting American pressure on North Korea without efforts to reach out to the long-isolated country with deeper engagements would only create mutual distrust and force Pyongyang to seek assistance from countries that share similar concerns about American hegemony.

While it is evident that the US policy of putting North Korea under sanctions until it denuclearizes is aimed at forestalling brewing tensions in the Korean Peninsula with rising threats from the regime’s muscular ambition of developing nuclear and missile programs, the unilateral thrust in the policy is unlikely to yield results unless negotiating peace is considered a reciprocal process backed by continuous efforts at building mutual trust.

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