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Editorial: N. Korea policy dangerously adrift after Hanoi summit failure

Officials from Japan, South Korea and the United States dealing with the North Korean nuclear weapons problem held talks recently in Washington. At the meeting, it appears likely that U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun laid out to the representatives from Tokyo and Seoul what happened at the failed Feb. 27-28 summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi.


At the leaders’ summit, Kim apparently offered to dismantle part of the North’s nuclear facilities in exchange for a near complete lifting of economic sanctions against his country. Trump demanded Kim give up his country’s nuclear arms infrastructure in its entirety. The two parted ways without finding a compromise.


What we learned from this was that the North Korean nuclear issue is thorny, with no straightforward solutions. Furthermore, there will be no easy route to getting the two leaders back together for renewed talks.


What’s more, the breakdown in Hanoi has cast a shadow on each of Japan, the U.S. and South Korea.


Trump was unable to make any progress on a concrete plan to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, and can claim no tangible success from the summit. While the U.S. and South Korea have canceled their annual large-scale war games, Washington is poised to consider strengthening its sanctions on Pyongyang unless progress is made on denuclearization.


Meanwhile, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s strategy of pairing progress on the atomic-armed ballistic missile problem with working toward a resolution of the North’s abductions of Japanese citizens has been badly shaken. Tokyo has backed Trump after the Hanoi meeting for not compromising with Kim too easily, but Japan’s attitude to stricter sanctions is far from clear.


South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s plan to improve relations with Pyongyang by restarting economic cooperation has also faltered. Inside South Korea, opinions favoring Moon taking a leading role in international engagement with the North are mixed up with a desire for greater cooperation with the U.S.


Furthermore, Tokyo, Washington and Seoul all have different approaches to the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula. Japan and the U.S. both put a lot of stock in punitive sanctions. South Korea, meanwhile, favors building harmonious relations, including bringing the Korean War to an official end and expanding North-South ties.


Though the Pyongyang nuclear threat has not been erased and conditions appear to be forcing a diplomatic course correction, none of the countries involved seem to have a clear idea where to go next. If this state of confusion continues, North Korea is likely to try to take advantage of it.


Meanwhile, a U.S.-based think tank has said it appears the North is rebuilding its ballistic missile test facility, which it had partially dismantled. President Trump has said he would be “disappointed” if this was true.


North Korea has frozen its missile tests, but it would not be surprising to see tensions rise if there is no progress toward a deal. Talks between U.S. and North Korean officials should be restarted as soon as possible.


If and when the Korean Peninsula is free of nuclear arms, cooperation among Japan, the U.S. and South Korea will be indispensable to reshaping the international order in Asia. A continuous adjustment of expectations and awareness is absolutely necessary going forward.

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