By Song Sang-ho
SEOUL, Feb. 26 (Yonhap) -- Nuclear talks between the United States and North Korea remain in limbo a year after their no-deal summit in Hanoi, with their engagement hamstrung by mutual distrust, domestic politics and, most recently, Pyongyang's focus on fending off an epidemic.
The second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Feb. 27-28 was a much-anticipated event to spur their budding detente, but collapsed due to gaps over the scope of Pyongyang's denuclearization and Washington's compensation.
In the post-Hanoi year, the North carried out unsettling yet calibrated saber-rattling, refocused on its self-reliance mantra and upped the ante with calls for "rights to life and development," while the South faced the unpalatable reality -- limited maneuvering space for its role as a facilitator.
Hopes for the peace efforts have yet to fade out as Washington and Pyongyang leave the door open for dialogue. But uncertainties riddle their dialogue process likely to be affected by Kim's preoccupation with warding off the COVID-19 virus and Trump's reelection campaign.
"After all, their dialogue process has been affected by the absence of mutual trust over each other's commitment -- the U.S.' proposal for a bright future for the North and the North's pledge toward denuclearization -- and their different denuclearization approaches," Koh Yoo-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University, said.
"The North is now bracing for a protracted struggle and is determined to make what it calls a frontal breakthrough as it believes the U.S. would not change course and may keep sanctions in place considering that Trump may not take a step that can be perceived as a concession during the election season," he added.
A deal breaker in the Hanoi summit was the two countries' divergent emphases.
Kim focused on major sanctions relief -- the lifting of five key U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions adopted from 2016-2017 -- in return for the dismantlement of the North's mainstay nuclear complex in Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang.
But Trump demanded more sweeping concessions in addition to the shutdown of the Yongbyon complex in line with his pursuit of a comprehensive deal that calls for the North to agree to the clearly defined end goal of its denuclearization.
Washington has doubled down on the big-picture approach to hold Pyongyang to its stated commitment to "complete denuclearization," as it fears the rehash of past failures that critics attributed to the communist regime's piecemeal formula seen as a scheme to string out the negotiations and wring out more concessions.
The two countries remain far apart as they have failed to resume an earnest give-and-take process since their working-level talks in Sweden in October ended without progress.
Since the Sweden gathering, the North has sharpened its rhetoric against Washington and raised the stakes with demands for the removal of "all obstacles that threaten the security of our country and hamper our development."
"Things seem to have retrogressed since the Hanoi summit where the two sides at least engaged in a give-and-take process," Park Won-gon, professor of international politics at Handong Global University, said.
"After the Sweden talks, the North is talking about the rights to life and development in a show of a hardened stance, with little progress in both inter-Korean relations and ties between the U.S. and the North," he added.
Analysts pointed to domestic political considerations as a factor that could affect the resumption of nuclear talks.
Kim's empty-handed return from the Hanoi summit was a humiliating setback to the third-generation hereditary ruler intent on burnishing his image as unflinching in the face of the American president and further cementing his political legitimacy as a leader, observers said.
In the wake of the diplomatic mishap, Kim imposed a year-end deadline for the U.S. to show flexibility in the negotiations, renewed the threat to take a "new path" and resumed short-range missile and rocket launches -- in an apparent display of his resolve against American pressure.
In Washington, politics has become an even greater factor in the resumption of the negotiations as the outcome of renewed dialogue with Pyongyang could mar or add to Trump's foreign policy scorecard ahead of the November presidential election.
Analysts said that Trump could focus on preventing Pyongyang from launching major provocations, such as an intercontinental ballistic missile launch, which could discredit his diplomatic profile, and maintaining the "status quo."
In an apparent sign of Trump's dwindling interest in negotiations with the North during the election season, Trump has made a set of changes in his negotiation team, most recently the nomination of Alex Wong, the deputy U.S. special representative for the North, as a representative to the United Nations.
The North's preoccupation with the aggressive campaign to insulate its people from the fast-spreading new coronavirus has recently emerged as a potential hurdle to the resumption of the nuclear talks.
Pyongyang has strengthened border controls and containment efforts, apparently with a sense that infections, particularly among its military personnel -- often mobilized for state development projects -- could deal a body blow to both its security and economic development.
It has so far reported no confirmed cases of the COVID-19, though speculation persists that it may have difficulty testing or diagnosing virus patients due to a dearth of test kits or other medical equipment.
True to its professed role as a facilitator, South Korea has explored ways to help the resumption of the nuclear talks, but the efforts have faltered due in large part to international sanctions restricting exchanges with the North.
In particular, Seoul has been pushing for individual trips to the North as tourism itself does not violate the global sanctions regime despite concerns that tourists' belongings, such as cameras and laptop computers, could be subject to sanctions.
"The possibility still remains that the North could accept Seoul's push for individual trips as it may have the potential to loosen the sanctions regime," Park of Handong Global University, said.
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