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(News Focus) (US-NK summit) U.S., North Korea still long way before normalizing ties

All Headlines 19:39 June 12, 2018

SEOUL, June 12 (Yonhap) -- The historic summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Tuesday might be promising to give what the North has really wanted for decades: getting recognized by the world's most powerful country and normalizing bilateral ties with it.

The North's two long sought-after objectives appear to be one step closer as Kim held the unprecedented summit with Trump in Singapore, although all the relevant promises might be shy of detailed steps. Also, the ultimate realization of the goals will hinge on progress in keeping the promise to give up its nukes.

Following their face-to-face summit at the Capella Hotel on the Singaporean resort island of Sentosa, the two announced a joint statement in which the leaders committed to establishing "new" bilateral relations and making joint efforts to build a "lasting and stable" peace regime on the peninsula.

"President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK, and Chairman Kim Jong-un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," it said. DPRK stands for the North's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

In the agreement, the two sides also committed to establishing "new" bilateral relations and making joint efforts to build a "lasting and stable" peace regime on the peninsula.

The North has demanded the U.S. drop its decadeslong hostile policy toward its regime since they fought against each other during the 1950-53 Korean War. It has claimed that its pursuit of its nuclear weapons program is to defend itself from threats from Washington.

The North has wanted to have bilateral talks with the U.S. to discuss the nuclear stalemate, while seeking to normalize its ties with Washington and receive security assurances in case it abandons its nuclear ambitions.

The U.S has dangled improving bilateral ties with the North as a carrot that would help induce Pyongyang to give up its nuclear and missile ambitions, but serious efforts to do that have apparently been hampered, ironically, by the North's ever-enhancing weapons capabilities and hawkish internal voices in the U.S. opposing any deal with what they call part of an axis of evil.

It was unthinkable to imagine the leaders of the longtime foes standing side by side and shaking hands up through late last year, when they exchanged insults and war threats, calling the other "little Rocket Man" and "dotard."

The mood, however, changed in a dramatic manner and at a breathtaking pace after Kim emerged from yearslong isolation in January and launched a charm offensive by expressing a desire to send his athletes to the Winter Olympics scheduled to take place in South Korea.

Ever since, two inter-Korean summits were held, in April and May, and North Korean leader Kim met Chinese leader Xi Jinping twice. He also invited Trump in March to meet him, which resulted in a flurry of diplomacy leading up to the Tuesday summit in Singapore.

In an about-face from last year's frozen ties and the apparently changed nature of relations, Trump praised Kim in a signing ceremony for the summit agreement, calling him "smart" and "talented." Trump said that he knows how much Kim loves his country and added that he has developed a "very special bond" with him.

No matter who has eventually won more from the Trump-Kim summit, experts say that it must be Kim who scored a meaningful point in making a strong impression that he is a leader to be reckoned with by such powerful countries as the U.S.

"The summit is sure to help Kim Jong-un make a strong impression about his status in the world. Taking pictures and shaking hands with the U.S. president in front of its national flags, standing next to the U.S., is tantamount to getting his status as well as his country's status well recognized," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies.

"It will also help implant the image of him as a normal state's leader in the minds of many people around the world via global media," he added.

Woo Jung-yeop, a researcher at the Sejong Institute, a private think tank, agreed that it was Kim who got more from the summit in terms of image-making, which he said would be a boon for strengthening Kim's position not just on the global stage but in his own country as well.

"It was a good chance for Kim to present himself as the leader of a country that has dealt with the U.S. on an equal footing," he said. "It would also be conducive in strengthening his authority back in his own country.

It still remains to be seen how fast the two countries move to normalize their ties given that it would closely hinge on progress in denuclearization of the North, about which the two have not provided concrete steps in their summit agreement.

The U.S. has urged North Korea to abandon its nuclear programs in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner, while the North has reportedly been in favor of a phased and synchronous denuclearization process.

It appears unlikely that the U.S. will allow sanctions to be lifted or take meaningful measures, which would remain a major drag on any efforts to improve bilateral ties. It is also hard to imagine that the U.S. will be active in normalizing its ties with North Korea until Pyongyang makes good on its denuclearization promise.

Given all the challenges, some say that the summit promise might be just the beginning of what could be a long and bumpy road lying ahead to see a marked improvement in bilateral ties.

Trump apparently signaled the existence of such challenges.

In a press conference held after the summit, he emphasized that sanctions will remain in place until denuclearization of the North and that it will take time to build diplomatic relations with North Korea. He also said it will take time to realize denuclearization, adding that the process will start "very quickly."

kokobj@yna.co.kr
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