North Korea denuclearization: Can Pyongyang be trusted?

Despite the diplomatic advances of recent weeks, there's little trust in Japan for the North Korean regime. Pyongyang is critical of Tokyo's firm stance on "maximum pressure" and is desperate for sanctions to be relaxed.

The leaders of Japan and South Korea and the Chinese premier put on a united face during talks in Tokyo on Wednesday about the future of the Korean Peninsula and North Korea's nuclear weapons program, although there is still little trust in Japan in the regime of Kim Jong Un, and a widely held belief that the recent bout of diplomatic activity will ultimately come to naught.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hosted Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, and Premier Li Keqiang at the Akasaka Palace state guesthouse for a trilateral summit before bilateral talks between the three leaders in the afternoon.

The three nations have had deep political differences in recent years and the three-way meeting was the first of its kind since November 2015, underlining the regional effort to bring about the abolition of North Korea's nuclear arsenal and its ballistic missile capability.

In their communique issued at the end of the meeting, the three leaders welcomed recent developments that have — on the surface — helped to reduce tensions in the region, and vowed to continue to enforce strict sanctions on North Korea and to work together to achieve the denuclearization of the regime.

Read more: China supports North Korea's commitment to denuclearization

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'Complete denuclearization'

"We have to build on the momentum toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and peace and stability in Northeast Asia, and ensure North Korea takes concrete actions," Abe said in a press conference after the summit.

And while Japan is in step with Washington's policy of maximum pressure on the North, there are suggestions that South Korea and China are keen to take a softer stance against Pyongyang. While Tokyo and Washington insist there should be no rewards for the North — such as lifting of sanctions or economic aid — until there has been the "complete, verifiable and irreversible" destruction of Pyongyang's nuclear weapons and missiles, Beijing and Seoul appear to favor incremental rewards for each step that the North takes towards the final aim of denuclearization.

Read more: North and South Korean leaders make nuclear pledge

"The South is engaging with the North in a policy that I would describe as appeasement," said Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University. "The North wants sanctions relief and that is why Kim Jong-un has now visited China for talks with Xi Jinping twice in a matter of weeks," he added.

Read more: North Korea's Kim Jong Un makes second China visit for talks with Xi Jinping

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"North Korea breaks its promises, as we have seen countless times in the past, and I see no likelihood of them keeping their word this time," Shimada said. "So that means we must keep up the maximum pressure, whether economic or military, until they do what they say they are going to do and that can be independently verified."

Read more: Mike Pompeo in North Korea for pre-summit meetings

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

January 2, 2017: Missile test imminent

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in his New Year’s address that his country was in the "final stages" of launching an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). US President-elect Donald Trump, whose inauguration was set for January 20, said on Twitter: "North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the US. It won't happen!"

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

July 4, 2017: North Korea's 'gift packages'

North Korea tested its first ICBM — the Hwasong-14 — on US Independence Day. Kim reportedly told his scientists that "the US would be displeased" by the launch. This, he said, was because "it was given a 'package of gifts' ... on its 'Independence Day.'" Trump wrote on Twitter in response: "North Korea has just launched another missile. Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?"

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

July 28, 2017: US mainland threatened

Pyongyang tested its second Hwasong-14 weeks later. Experts estimated the new rocket could reach the US mainland. Trump lashed out at North Korean ally China, writing in a Tweet: "I am very disappointed in China. Our foolish past leaders have allowed them to make hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade, yet they do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk."

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

August 8, 2017: 'Fire and fury'

Trump appeared to threaten swift military action against Pyongyang when he told reporters: "North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen." North Korea responded by threatening to fire a medium-range ballistic missile into the waters around Guam, a US territory in the Pacific Ocean. It did not follow through.

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

August 29, 2017: Japan rocket test

Pyongyang sparked international outcry when it test-launched a mid-range ballistic missile — the Hwasong-12 — over Japan. The UN Security Council unanimously condemned the test. Trump said in a White House statement: "Threatening and destabilizing actions only increase the North Korean regime’s isolation in the region and among all nations of the world. All options are on the table."

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

September 3, 2017: Hydrogen bomb test

North Korea announced it had successfully tested its sixth nuclear weapon. Pyongyang said it was a powerful type of nuclear weapon called a hydrogen bomb and that it could be placed on top of a ballistic missile. Trump wrote on Twitter: "The United States is considering, in addition to other options, stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea."

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

September 19, 2017: Threat to 'Rocket Man'

In his first speech at the United Nations, Trump called North Korea a "rogue state" and said Washington "will have no choice than to totally destroy North Korea" if Pyongyang failed to stop its nuclear weapons program. Referring to Kim, he added: "Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime." Kim called Trump a "mentally-deranged US dotard" two days later.

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

November 29, 2017: Third ICBM test

North Korea test-fired its third ICBM of 2017. Pyongyang claimed it was a new missile, the Hwasong-15, which was superior to the Hwasong-14 and could hit any target on the US mainland. The US urged allies, including Germany, to break diplomatic ties with North Korea. Berlin ignored the call. Trump also called Kim a "sick puppy."

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

January 3, 2018: Who's got the bigger button?

Kim said in his 2018 New Year's address that the North had completed its nuclear weapons program and that a "nuclear button" was on his desk at all times. Trump wrote two days later on Twitter: "Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!"

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

February 10, 2018: Tensions thawing?

South Korean President Moon Jae-in welcomed Kim's sister, Kim Yo Jong, at the presidential house in the South Korean capital. She handed a letter to Moon inviting him to meet the North Korean leader in Pyongyang. Tensions appeared to be thawing. Seoul and Pyongyang had already agreed to send a unified hockey team to compete at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

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March 6, 2018: Momentum builds

South Korean National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong led a delegation on March 5 to Pyongyang to discuss the potential for peace talks. The next day, Chung said both sides had agreed to hold a joint summit in April and set up a telephone hotline between the two capitals. He also said Pyongyang would agree to stop its nuclear weapons and missile tests if the US agreed to hold talks with the North.

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March 9, 2018: Trump agrees

Chung flew on to Washington, D.C. to speak with Trump. After the meeting, Chung told reporters the US president had agreed to meet Kim by May. Trump later wrote on Twitter: "no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time. Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!" Foreign leaders welcomed the historic breakthrough.

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

April 19, 2018: 'Denuclearization'

A week before the scheduled meeting at the border between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Moon said North Korea wanted "an end to the hostile relations" and had expressed a commitment to "complete denuclearization" of the peninsula. The next day, the telephone hotline was connected for the first time since February 2016, so Moon and Kim could talk directly.

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April 21, 2018: Kim ends missile tests

Kim announced North Korea would stop nuclear and missile tests. Kim said: "We no longer need any nuclear test or test launches of intermediate and intercontinental range ballistic missiles, and because of this the northern nuclear test site has finished its mission." However, no mention was made of its stored nuclear materials and equipment.

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April 27, 2018: Historic summit

Kim and Moon Jae-in meet in the border town of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that has divided the two Koreas since the Korean War in 1953. The two leaders vowed to work towards a nuclear-free Korea and pledged an end to war. It was the first time a North Korean leader had set foot across the border since the 1950s and paves the diplomatic way for a Trump-Kim meeting in May or June.

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April 30, 2018: Seoul turns off broadcasts

South Korea announces its propaganda loudspeakers are to be switched off for good. They had been silenced temporarily ahead of the inter-Korean summit, which prompted the North to halt its broadcasts, too. Pyongyang also said it would adjust its time zone to that of the South as a symbolic gesture. North Korea has been half an hour behind the South since 2015.

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May 24, 2018: Trump calls off Kim summit

After North Korea slammed US Vice President Mike Pence for comparing North Korea and Libya, Donald Trump abruptly canceled the summit. Trump said the move was due to "tremendous anger and open hostility" displayed by Pyongyang.

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June 1, 2018: Trump backtracks

A day after scrapping the summit, Trump suggested he was still open to meeting Kim. US and North Korean officials met during the following week and on June 1, Trump met one of Kim's closest aides, Kim Yong Chol, in the White House. Shortly thereafter, Trump said the summit would indeed take place on June 12 in Singapore. "I think you're going to have a very positive result in the end," he said.

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June 12, 2018: Smiles in Singapore

Trump and Kim met in Singapore as planned. They smiled, shook hands and praised how far they had come in overcoming their previous animosity. The summit ended with both leaders signing a short joint declaration that committed Pyongyang to denuclearize and the US to providing unspecified "security guarantees" to the North. Trump also said he would invite Kim to the White House.

Chemical, biological weapons

As well as the destruction of North Korea's nuclear program and intercontinental ballistic missile capability, Tokyo is calling for the regime to abolish its short-range missiles, which are capable of striking targets in Japan, and its stockpiles of weaponized chemical and biological agents.

And while Beijing and Seoul are on the same page on those issues, Japan is fighting a more lonely battle when it comes to demanding that North Korea account for the Japanese nationals it abducted in the 1970s and '80s to train future generations of its secret agents. The US, however, has agreed to include the fate of the abductees in its discussions with the North, with Trump giving Abe that commitment when the Japanese leader flew to Washington last month to state Japan's case.

Tokyo's inflexibility on the issue of the abductees and the commitment to the policy of maximum pressure have clearly angered Pyongyang, which has in recent days hit back through its state media.

An editorial in the Minju Joson newspaper on Tuesday declared that it is "disgusting for Japanese reactionaries to throw cold waters on the reunification fever on the Korean Peninsula, revealing their sinister nature."

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"Such anachronistic, reckless behavior of the Japanese reactionaries trying to … step up the hostile policy toward the DPRK, unaware of the changing world, deserves [the] ridicule and derision of the international community," it added.

Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor at Tokyo's Waseda University, said that Japan recognizes that it cannot be a major player on the Korean Peninsula directly because it has such little economic, political or military pressure to bring to bear against Pyongyang, but that it does have influence with the Trump administration.

Read more: Kim-Trump summit: is the world expecting too much from it?

Sanctions relief

"North Korea is desperate for the international sanctions to be lifted and they are trying to bring pressure to bear on Japan, which is strongly in favor of maximum economic pressure," Shigemura told DW. "Trump has listened to Abe on the issues that concern Japan and has been swayed by Japan's firm line, so it is clear why the North would want to drive a wedge between these two allies."

And Shimada is confident that Abe has no intentions of backing down in his confrontation with Kim.

"They are trying to isolate Japan, but there is no question that Trump trusts Abe and has been won over by his arguments on a number of issues that have only appeared on the agenda since they talked," he pointed out.

And instead of creating more hurdles, Shimada believes, North Korea would be better served by building bridges.

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