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International relations

North Korea has played the nuclear card before

The record of taking a 'phased' approach is less than promising

Chinese broadcaster CCTV shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing.   © Kyodo

SEOUL -- Though Kim Jong Un told Chinese President Xi Jinping that North Korea would work to resolve the standoff over its nuclear weapons, his call for a step-by-step approach carries the risk that the country is again making empty promises in hopes of an economic reward.

"It is our consistent stand to be committed to denuclearization on the peninsula," China's state-run Xinhua News Agency quoted Kim as saying at their summit this week.

But the North Korean leader also reportedly insisted that South Korea and the U.S. "create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace."

North Korea has used brinkmanship to draw concessions from the outside world before.

The country promised in 1994 to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for U.S.-supplied light-water reactors. In 2005, as part of the six-party talks with the U.S., Japan, China, Russia and South Korea, Pyongyang agreed to abandon nuclear weapons in return for energy assistance. North Korea received some heavy oil both times despite failing to uphold its end of the deal.

Kim Jong Il toasts Madeleine Albright at a dinner in Pyongyang in 2000. The then-U.S. secretary of state later said she had constructive talks with Kim, the father of current North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.   © Reuters

The 2005 agreement was to be implemented "in a phased manner," the six countries said in a joint statement at the time, but they never agreed on which party would take which step first. The U.S. later imposed financial sanctions on the North, and the regime -- led then by Kim Jong Un's father, Kim Jong Il -- ultimately responded with its first nuclear test in 2006. Following a total of six tests, Kim Jong Un said last year that his country had completed its nuclear arsenal.

It is unclear what Kim meant by "progressive" measures in his recent summit with Xi. But Kim's statement in July 2016, following a fresh round of sanctions by the U.S., offers clues.

Back then, he demanded that the U.S. pledge to not place nuclear weapons in South Korea, to stop the deployment of planned strategic weapons in the area and to pull American troops out of the South. Like he did in Beijing, Kim called for the denuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula, not just the North. Knowing Washington could not accept such conditions, Pyongyang continued to conduct nuclear and missile tests.

Kim wants to make progress in both nuclear development and advancing North Korea's economy. If China and the U.S. agree to his "progressive" approach, the North once again could take advantage of economic incentives such as an easing of sanctions without scrapping its nuclear weapons.

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