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N Korea at crossroads

Trump and Kim neglect nuclear deal a year after historic summit

Looming 2020 election distracts president while North Korea focuses on economy

North Korea leader Kim Jong Un, left, and U.S. President Donald Trump broke the diplomatic ice in Singapore on June 12, 2018.   © Reuters

SEOUL/WASHINGTON -- The historic summit between the U.S. and North Korea held in Singapore a year ago Wednesday ended without a denuclearization agreement, as did the second summit in Hanoi.

U.S. President Donald Trump has since put the highly expected "deal" on the back burner while his counterpart in Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un, appears to have done the same. Instead, both leaders are focusing on issues closer to home.

"I think that Chairman Kim would like to make a deal, and I'd like to make a deal with him," Trump said in Ireland last Wednesday. "And I look forward to meeting him at the appropriate time."

With this, Trump made it clear that, while still ready for dialogue with the North Korean leader, he was in no hurry for negotiations before the end of the year. Kim also said he would wait.

North Korea is not a high priority for Trump, who is seeking reelection in 2020. He evidently considers that America has little interest in North Korea -- a small faraway country -- compared to the U.S.-China trade war and domestic economy. Hence, his electoral chances will not hinge on North Korean policy.

Trump's handling of the economy is the main reason behind his relatively solid approval ratings. According to a recent CNN survey, 26% of Trump's base cite the economy as reason for their support, followed by unemployment at 8%, border management at 5% and only 1% for North Korean policy.

RealClearPolitics, an independent U.S. political website, noted that Trump's approval ratings hovered around 45% before and after his meetings with Kim, meaning that the summits hardly affected his appeal.

The Hanoi summit between the U.S. and North Korea ended abruptly without a deal, much to Kim's surprise.   © Reuters

"Trump plays games not to lose," said a Washington-based observer familiar with Japan-U.S. diplomatic ties. While keeping the North Korean issue alive in order to take credit should Pyongyang start to make concessions, the president has been praised for refusing to sign a watered-down agreement, according to the source.

In fact, Trump was praised by both Republican and Democratic leaders for protecting national interests after the second U.S.-North Korea summit ended abruptly in February.

North Korea was baffled by the failed meeting, which damaged Kim's prestige. Afterward, there were alleged purges in Pyongyang of senior officials involved with the summit.

To maintain his stature as the country's supreme leader, Kim must scapegoat the U.S. for the failed Hanoi summit. The North Korean Foreign Ministry emphasized this point, warning on Wednesday that the joint statement after the first Trump-Kim meeting would be a "mere blank sheet of paper." It added that there is a "limit to our patience."

Kim, who remains his grip on power due in part to the country's nuclear capability, is sending mixed messages as regards subsequent negotiations with the U.S.

North Korea would like to revisit the days of Kim Jong Il, who took advantage of government changes in Washington to win American economic assistance while continuing clandestine development of nuclear weapons and dragging its feet on denuclearization.

In late March 2018, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Pyongyang as then-director of the Central Intelligence Agency for a secret meeting with Kim. The leader expressed his willingness to denuclearize, saying that he did not "want my children to carry the nuclear weapon on their backs their whole life," according to Andrew Kim, former head of the CIA's Korea Mission Center.

At the Singapore summit in June last year, Kim declared his commitment to "complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." While the joint statement made no reference as to how this would be achieved, North Korea evidently sought to win concessions, such as the easing of sanctions, through gradual disarmament.

The strategy assumed that Trump would conclude a partial deal for the sake of a quick foreign-relations win, which he could then use on the campaign trail. But North Korea miscalculated and left the Hanoi summit without a deal.

With North Korea's predicament worsening because of sanctions, Kim unilaterally set a deadline of the end of 2019 for the U.S. to offer terms to break the stalemate at a third summit with Trump.

North Korea twice tested short-range ballistic missiles in May and is thought to be preparing to test an intercontinental ballistic missile. As such, the delay in striking a deal with Trump does not necessarily bother Kim, as he can use the time to further his missile and nuclear armaments programs. The May launches are said to have improved certain capabilities, including the accuracy of the missiles.

Meanwhile, Trump said the North Korean launches were not a violation of United Nations resolutions, maintaining his position that test-firing an ICBM capable of hitting the U.S. mainland is the only thing that matters.

While Trump's focus shifts to the 2020 election, how the North Korean economy fares will shape Pyongyang's approach to any new negotiations with Washington, and Kim seems intent on pushing programs to improve his country's outlook.

The Korean Central News Agency, the country's state news agency, carried a June 1 report on Kim for the first time since the missile launches. Visiting Chagang Province, which borders China, Kim issued instructions for new urban development, saying that "buildings were disorderly arranged" and that "more green spaces were needed," according to the report.

Kim visited Sinuiju, North Pyongan Province in November 2018 and issued instructions for plans concerning a large-scale urban development, including construction of a theme park and international airport reportedly aimed at luring Chinese tourists.

Spending by foreign tourists to North Korea is not covered by sanctions and are an important source of foreign currency. The Seoul-based Korea Institute for National Unification said 1.2 million Chinese tourists visited North Korea in 2018, up 50% from the previous year.

Tourist attractions are also being built in other regions. A huge resort is going up in the eastern city of Wonsan, while the development of the Samjiyon district near Mt. Paektu -- regarded as a holy site -- started after Kim's prodding.

But the prolonged sanctions have caused a materials shortage, resulting in construction delays. The country is also short of labor, necessitating deployment of orphaned children to construction sites, according Daily NK, a South Korean online newspaper covering North Korean issues.

With an easing of sanctions still nowhere in sight, calls for structural reform are becoming louder. When Kim visited Chagang, home to a number of munitions factories, he chided local officials about the workers' poor technical skills.

During the visit, Kim reportedly encouraged development of new weapons. But Kim Dong-yub, a former official of the South Korean Ministry of National Defense and currently professor at Kyungnam University, said Kim had "checked up on use of military technologies that could be used in the private sector" in light of his instructions to improve facilities and reuse vital resources.

To weather the sanctions, North Korea has no choice but to cut its sacrosanct defense budget.

The April leadership reshuffle also signaled signs of reform. Kim Jae-ryong -- appointed by the leader to the State Affairs Commission to head economic development and assume the title of premier -- became chairman of the Chagang Workers' Party of Korea. The new appointee is relatively obscure, as even the South Korean government does not know his age. However, he knows the power players -- and political landscape -- in Chagang well.

Ri Man-gon, who headed the Munitions Industry Department in 2017 when North Korea repeatedly launched missiles, also joined the commission.

The promotion of two officials familiar with munitions reflects Kim's resolve to carry out structural reforms despite hits to the national defense industry, said Thae Yong-ho, who was North Korea's deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom prior to defecting to South Korea.

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