Asia Politics

From missile tests to peace talks: North Korea's sudden shift explained

Key Points
  • North Korea's offer to hold talks on denuclearization is just another ploy to gain concessions, experts warned.
  • The rogue state has a long history of promising disarmament in exchange for loosened sanctions, aid or other assistance.
Experts remain skeptical about North Korea’s intentions ahead of next week’s big summit
Experts are skeptical about North Korea’s intentions ahead of the big summit

North Korea's Kim Jong Un is likely hoping to gain certain concessions from the world's largest economy when he sits down with President Donald Trump on June 12.

While many in the international community praise the diplomatic breakthrough, which follows years of repeated missile launches and nuclear tests from the rogue state, a deep-rooted skepticism still surrounds Kim's intentions.

President Trump says North Korea must denuclearize
President Trump says North Korea must denuclearize

Peace efforts "represent the next step in North Korea's 2018 charm offensive," Miha Hribernik, senior Asia analyst at global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, said in a note.

"If past experiences are anything to go by, Kim Jong Un is hoping to extract a loosening of sanctions or other assistance by feigning a willingness to disarm," Hribernik explained. "The North Korean economy is straining under the weight of sanctions, forcing the country to resort to a well-worn playbook."

We believe a breakdown in dialogue is possible at any time, particularly if Pyongyang fails to obtain significant concessions
Miha Hribernik
senior Asia analyst, Verisk Maplecroft

Years of failed negotiations, most notably during the 2003-2009 Six-Party Talks, indicate the North's long-standing pattern of offering talks in exchange for fuel oil, aid or a release of frozen funds.

A breakdown in dialogue is possible "at any time, particularly if Pyongyang fails to obtain significant concessions," according to Hribernik.

President Bill Clinton's administration provided a security guarantee to Pyongyang in 1994 as part of a deal to halt the country's nuclear program but both parties didn't keep to their side of the bargain.

Seems to be a case of 'we've seen this movie before' with North Korea
Seems to be a case of 'we've seen this movie before' with North Korea

The Clinton administration promised Pyongyang heavy fuel oil shipments and construction of light-water reactors, but these were delivered only partially or not at all, noted Leonid Petrov, a Korean studies researcher at the Australian National University.

As a result, "North Korea suspended its nuclear and missile programs partially and resumed it when it became clear that the George W. Bush administration was not going to honor the promises," Petrov added.

So, what does Pyongyang want now?

This time around, Kim could "ask for something much larger" than aid, said Kyle Ferrier, director of academic affairs and research at the Korea Economic Institute of America.

The removal of U.S. troops from South Korea has long been a North Korean perquisite for peace but that issue will not come up in the June 12 summit, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said earlier this month.

"It is possible [Kim Jong Un] is trying to have his cake and eat it too — By saying he is willing to talk about the nuclear program, Kim looks like he's entering the negotiations in good faith, while knowing that he'll ask for an impossible concession in return," Ferrier noted.

The White House and Seoul must be cautious about any concessions put on the table, "knowing that North Korea has reneged on multiple negotiated agreements in the past," he continued.