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N Korea at crossroads

Father's lesson weighs on Kim as denuclearization talks stall

Second summit remains elusive as distrust persists between US and North

TOKYO -- Efforts toward North Korea's denuclearization have come to a halt a month after U.S. President Donald Trump signaled a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, as the two sides struggle to overcome decades of miscommunication and distrust.

Trust was the overarching theme of North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho's speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September. He called for "bringing down the barrier of mistrust between the two countries which has existed for several decades," adding that both sides "should spend many efforts to building trust above all."

Before June's historic summit, the closest the countries' leaders came to meeting was in October 2000. Kim Jong Il, Kim's father and then-North Korean leader, sent his top deputy Jo Myong Rok to the U.S., leading to a joint communique declaring their commitment to "build a new relationship free from past enmity." Later, then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met the elder Kim in Pyongyang to pave the way for President Bill Clinton to visit the North.

But American officials were deeply divided on taking such a big risk during Clinton's last three months in office, especially with turmoil brewing in the Middle East, and his trip never became a reality.

Bilateral trust also took a hit in 2005. The U.S. professed "no intention to attack or invade" the North with nuclear or conventional weapons in a joint statement from the six-party talks that September, also attended by South Korea, China, Japan and Russia. But it imposed unilateral sanctions on the North for money laundering shortly thereafter -- a betrayal in their eyes.

"The U.S. can't be trusted," Kim Jong Il had told then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi at their summit in 2002.

North Korean military officials watch a parade in front of a portrait of North Korea's founder and Kim Jong Un's grandfather, Kim Il Sung, left, and Kim Jong Un's father Kim Jong Il. Kim Jong Il said the U.S. "can't be trusted."   © Reuters

North Korea gleaned key lessons from this botched deal. Trust is central to the North's plan for gradual denuclearization, where Pyongyang expects each step toward the goal will be rewarded with simultaneous action by the U.S. Without mutual trust, North Korea's claims of its nuclear facilities and arsenals could be discounted, leading to a thorough search by inspectors.

Kim is aware that North Korea will once again be a target of the U.S. should negotiations fall through. Even under Clinton, who was less hawkish than Trump, the two sides came dangerously close to a military clash in the early stages of his administration.

Eighteen years since the U.S.-North Korea joint communique, Kim now aims for a top-down breakthrough aided by Trump's iron-handed governing style. The North's leader insisted that a commitment to new relations be at the forefront in his joint statement with Trump in June.

Kim gambled on denuclearization talks, hoping to showcase a new relationship between the U.S. and North Korea. His aims is reverse Washington's hostile policy toward Pyongyang, convincing the U.S. to sign a peace treaty that replaces the 1953 armistice and lift sanctions.

Foreign Minister Ri, a nuclear expert who has long taken the lead in negotiations with the U.S., said in his U.N. speech that a declaration formally ending the Korean War needs to come before the North makes any move to dismantle its nuclear program.

Trump still has plenty of time left in office, unlike Clinton in 2005. Kim told South Korea he is prepared to finish denuclearizing before Trump's first term ends in January 2021.

Reports by North Korean state media suggest Kim is frustrated by the lack of progress so far. But the press has avoided directly criticizing Trump, as doing so would raise questions about why the North Korean leader agreed to their June summit in the first place.

Still, the path forward is far from clear. The U.S. midterm elections on Nov. 6 could complicate the situation, especially if Trump's Republican Party loses seats in Congress. "The very unpredictability of Trump is serving as a deterrence against North Korea," an expert said.

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