By Song Sang-ho
SEOUL, Feb. 19 (Yonhap) -- U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are bracing for another showdown in Vietnam next week over Pyongyang's nuclear programs amid hopes and doubts about a possible breakthrough.
Past negotiations, including the long-stalled six-party talks, have failed to eliminate Pyongyang's nuclear and missile threats due to deep-seated distrust, a security dilemma, domestic political obstacles and geopolitical dynamics.
The Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi on Feb. 27-28 is expected to be a crucial test for whether the leaders can surmount such past hurdles and nail down a deal that many hope will help establish lasting peace on the divided peninsula.
N. Korea's nuclear ambitions
North Korea's ambitions for nuclear armament began in the late 1950s, when the U.S. military deployed nuclear arms to the South, which Pyongyang thought upset the security balance on the peninsula.
The North laid the groundwork for nuclear research in 1956 with an accord with the then Soviet Union for the "peaceful use" of atomic energy. That year, the North started to nurture nuclear scientists by sending them to a research institute in Dubna, Moscow Oblast.
With assistance from Moscow, the North constructed an atomic research center in Yongbyon, some 90 kilometers north of Pyongyang, in 1962.
From the early 1960s through 1965, Moscow helped Pyongyang construct a 2-megawatt research reactor, called the IRT-2000. Since the facility was part of a research project, the North agreed to sign a partial safeguard agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1977, which subjected it to a regular inspection regime.
The North embarked on a more serious nuclear project in 1979, when it started to secretly construct a 5-megawatt graphite-moderated reactor capable of producing spent fuel rods, which if reprocessed, can yield weapons-grade plutonium. The reactor began operating in 1986.
In the mid- and late-1980s, the North also planned to build 50-megawatt and 200-megawatt reactors. But the project fell apart amid nonproliferation cooperation between Washington and Moscow.
In December 1985, the North joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) after Moscow's pledge to construct three light-water reactors for electricity.
But the North's nuclear program became a global issue as Pyongyang refused to sign a full-scope safeguard agreement with the IAEA. A signatory to the treaty should ink the agreement within the first 18 months after its entry into the NPT.
The winding down of the Cold War from 1989-1991 did not make Pyongyang feel any safer, as it faced severe isolation amid Seoul's "Northern Policy" initiative to establish diplomatic ties with China, the Soviet Union and other members of the then communist bloc.
As part of efforts to address isolation and the security imbalance caused by the military superiority of the South Korea-U.S. alliance, the North stepped up its program to develop nuclear warheads, as well as ballistic missiles.
First nuclear crisis and Geneva accord
The North's first nuclear crisis erupted in March 1993, when it announced its intention to withdraw from the NPT.
During its earlier inspections, the IAEA found discrepancies between the North's initial declaration of nuclear sites and its findings. To address them, the agency demanded access to additional information, including about the undeclared sites.
The North rejected the demand and declared its intention to exit the NPT. The following month, the IAEA referred the issue to the U.N. Security Council.
Further angering Pyongyang was the resumption of the annual South Korea-U.S. Team Spirit military exercise, which it decried as a rehearsal for an invasion.
In 1992, the allies skipped the drills after the North's agreement to accept an IAEA safeguard agreement. But the exercise resumed on March 9, 1993, due to Pyongyang's refusal to embrace a more rigorous inter-Korean inspection program.
Three days after the start of the exercise, the North declared its pullout from the NPT.
To get the North back in the NPT, Washington held three rounds of talks with Pyongyang -- the first round in New York and the remainder in Geneva, Switzerland -- between June 1993 and October 1994.
After the New York meeting in 1993, the two sides issued a joint statement that included Pyongyang's decision to "unilaterally" suspend its NPT withdrawal as long as it considered the measure necessary, and Washington's assurance against the threat and use of force, including nuclear weapons.
In May 1994, tensions spiked as the North began to remove some 8,000 spent fuel rods from its graphite-moderated reactor, which could be reprocessed for plutonium production. It was a response to a U.N. Security Council statement that called for the North's cooperation with the IAEA inspection and warned of potential punitive measures.
The U.S. on its part considered military options, including a surgical strike, to end the nuclear standoff.
To de-escalate tensions, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter flew to Pyongyang on a "private" mission in June. He met then North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, who expressed his will to freeze the nuclear program.
Kim died suddenly of a heart attack the following month, but Washington and Pyongyang held another round of talks between August and October. At the talks, they concluded the Agreed Framework, better known as the Geneva accord.
Under the framework, the North agreed to freeze all graphite-moderated reactors and remain in the NPT, while the U.S. agreed to provide heavy oil, make arrangements to build two 1,000-megawatt light-water reactors, and move toward the normalization of political and economic ties.
Soon after the agreement, it faced a political hurdle in Washington. Political conservatives lambasted the Geneva accord as a "reward for nuclear blackmail."
Pyongyang's distrust toward Washington deepened after then President George W. Bush called the North part of the "axis of evil," along with Iran and Iraq, during his State of the Union address in 2002.
The Geneva accord virtually collapsed after the U.S. Department of State claimed in October 2002 that the North had admitted during a visit to Pyongyang by James Kelly, then assistant secretary of state, that it had a covert uranium enrichment program.
Second nuclear crisis and six-party talks
The North's uranium enrichment program and its decision on the NPT pullout in January 2003 sparked the second nuclear crisis.
With the Iraq War topping its foreign policy agenda in 2003, Washington sought strategic cooperation with Beijing in tackling the nuclear quandary, which led to the creation of the six-party talks, involving the Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia.
The six-party talks were launched in Beijing in August 2003. Little progress was made as Washington demanded a "complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement" (CVID) of the North's nuclear program, while Pyongyang stuck to an incremental denuclearization process with rewards given for each step it takes.
At the following talks in 2004, the U.S. and the North continued to clash over the CVID, which the North blasted as a move to encroach upon its right to "peaceful" nuclear activities.
The mood grew more acrimonious in January 2005, when then new Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice lambasted Pyongyang as an "outpost of tyranny." The North later spewed out invectives against both Bush and Rice.
Later that year, Seoul made a diplomatic push to reduce the tensions between the U.S. and the North, and revive the multilateral dialogue. Washington and Pyongyang then struck a compromise at the six-party talks that resulted in the Sept. 19 joint statement.
The statement entailed Pyongyang's commitment to abandoning "all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs," and other parties' agreement to discuss the provision of a light-water reactor at an "appropriate time." It also mentioned the principle of "commitment for commitment, action for action."
The enforcement of the joint statement, however, faltered before the ink dried.
Washington's financial sanction, which was issued shortly after the joint statement, infuriated Pyongyang. The U.S. designated the Macao-based Banco Delta Asia (BDA) bank as a primary money laundering concern, a decision that froze North Korean money in the bank.
Amid heightened tensions, Pyongyang test-fired a barrage of ballistic missiles in July 2006. Two months later ahead of the U.S. midterm elections, the reclusive state carried out its first underground nuclear test.
After the nuclear test, the U.S. was seen resuming dialogue with the North, which led the six-party talks to produce another key agreement on Feb. 13, 2007.
The agreement -- the "initial" action to implement the 2005 joint statement -- was meant to carry out the first part of a broad denuclearization process comprised of the shutdown, the disablement, the declaration of all nuclear programs and the dismantlement.
On Oct. 3, the six-party talks produced another agreement as the "second-phase" action to enforce the 2005 joint statement. It was about the disablement and the "complete and correct" declaration of all nuclear programs.
As a show of its disablement gesture, the North detonated a cooling tower attached to its 5-megawatt reactor in June 2008. In October, Washington took Pyongyang off the list of terror sponsor states.
But the last round of the multilateral talks in December 2008 broke up amid an intense conflict over the process of verifying the North's denuclearization steps.
Strategic patience and maximum pressure
When the Barack Obama administration took office in 2009, hopes emerged that the U.S. might take a softer stance on the North. However, Washington, along with the conservative government in Seoul, maintained a tough stance, vowing not to reward "bad behavior."
Against this backdrop, Pyongyang fired off a long-range ballistic missile in April, which triggered a U.N. Security Council condemnation. It then said it would not join the six-party talks and that it would not be bound by any previous agreements from the talks.
In May, the North conducted its second nuclear test, calling it a success.
The Obama government, however, renewed engagement with the North, which resulted in the so-called Leap Day deal in 2012. Under the deal, the North agreed to put a moratorium on nuclear and ballistic missile tests in exchange for "nutritional" assistance.
But the North fired off a long-range rocket in December 2012 under the disguise of a "peaceful satellite launch." Washington took the provocation as a breach of the Feb. 29 deal and later turned to a policy of what commentators called "strategic patience."
The North conducted the third nuke test in February 2013, the fourth in January 2016, the fifth in September 2016 and the sixth in September 2017.
After the Donald Trump administration was launched in 2017, it got tougher on the North with its "maximum pressure" campaign, featuring tough economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation and threats of military action.
Trump's pressure policy, coupled with Seoul's mediation efforts, has led Pyongyang to come out for the ongoing dialogue.
First-ever U.S.-N.K. summit
South Korean President Moon Jae-in capitalized on the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics to advance his peace agenda and facilitate dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang.
Amid crippling sanctions that have weighed heavily on its threadbare economy, Pyongyang has also shifted its strategic policy focus to economic development and sought outside aid.
On June 12, 2018, Trump and Kim held their first historic summit in Singapore and agreed to work toward the "complete denuclearization" of the peninsula but with little clarity on how to achieve the goal.
Following the summit, the two countries have struggled to flesh out their leaders' agreement on the "complete denuclearization."
Washington has insisted that Pyongyang first take concrete, substantive denuclearization steps, such as a full declaration of its nuclear weapons, missiles, fissile material and related facilities, before substantial compensation is given.
But Pyongyang demands Washington's corresponding measures for its additional denuclearization steps, which may include a declaration of a formal end to the Korean War, increased humanitarian aid, partial sanctions relief and the establishment of a U.S. liaison office in Pyongyang.
The intense tug-of-war has triggered skepticism over whether the North is willing to fully abandon its nuclear programs with U.S. intelligence officials casting doubts and media raising speculation over Pyongyang's continued nuclear activities.
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