SEOUL (Reuters) – Successful avoidance of sanctions, economic bailouts by China and imprisonment for impeachment by US President Donald Trump may be among the factors that boosted North Korea's nuclear talks, analysts and officials say.
Both Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un continue to keep their personal report, which they say has evolved during three face-to-face meetings. But North Korea has said in recent days that it is losing patience, giving the United States a chance to change its negotiating position by the end of the year.
North Korea has tested firing limits with a series of missile launches, including two launched Thursday, and experts warn that the lack of a specific arms control agreement has allowed the country to continue producing nuclear weapons.
Missile tests are of practical value to the North Korean military's efforts to modernize its arsenal. But they also highlight Pyongyang's increasingly belligerent position in the face of what he sees as the inflexible and hostile US.
At best, Thursday's launch was an attempt to make the December deadline feel more immediate to the United States, said Andrey Abrahamyan, a visiting scholar at George Mason University in Korea.
"Still, I think Pyongyang has concluded that they can do without a deal if they need to," he said. "The sad thing is that I think they will remain in the current state of affairs, with its shortcomings for all stakeholders, for years to come."
"NO SUCH MANUFACTURING"
The battle for re-election of Trump and the impeachment investigation against him may have led Kim to overestimate the impact of North Korea, said a Seoul diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.
"It seems Kim has a grave misconception that he is able to help or ruin Trump's re-election, but no one in Pyongyang can face the infallible leader and say he is wrong ̵
Meanwhile, Americans entered into a working-level negotiation on October 5 in Stockholm with the position that North Korea should completely and irreversibly dismantle its nuclear program and demanded a moratorium on weapons tests as part of the first step, the diplomat said.
Although some media reports say that the United States plans to propose the suspension of penalties on coal and textile exports, the diplomat said that the Stockholm negotiations did not go into detail.
"They take the risk of easing the sanctions first, as they have already given Kim many gifts without significant progress on denuclearization, including summits," the diplomat said. "Sanctions are essentially all they have to put pressure on North Korea."
When US negotiators tried to set time for a new round of talks, North Korean officials did not cooperate, the diplomat said.
"The prospects are not as promising," the diplomat added.
Although United Nations sanctions continue to apply, trade with China appears to have intensified and political relations between Beijing and Pyongyang have improved dramatically.
Kim and China President Xi Jinping met several times and both sides exchanged delegations of government officials.
A huge influx of Chinese tourists over the past year has proven to be a major source of money for the North Korean government, according to research by the Korea Risk Group, which monitors North Korea.
Korean Risk Group CEO Chad O'Carroll estimates that 350,000 Chinese tourists have visited this year, potentially netted by North Korean authorities up to $ 175 million.
This is more than North Korea producing from the Kaesong Industrial Complex – jointly operated with South Korea before it closed in 2016 – and it is almost certainly part of the reason Kim has less interest in US proposals. stated O & # 39; Carroll.
The United States and South Korea have proposed tourism, not the resumption of Operation Kaesong, as a potential rebate for the North after the failed second summit between Trump and Kim in Hanoi in February, a Seoul-based diplomat said.
"This is based on the consensus that any sanctions relief should be immediately reversible, but once the 120-plus factories return, it is difficult to close and remove it again," the diplomat said.
Meanwhile, the United Nations has reported that North Korea has successfully evaded many sanctions and that the government could have stolen up to $ 2 billion through cyberattacks.
"Stockholm suggests that Pyongyang is also fine with their 'Chinese backstop,' that is, any agreement to apply penalties for delay," Abrahamian said. "I'm worried that instead of trying to strike a deal, they think Trump will be more desperate for victory than he really is and will miss the window."
Trump and Kim's Second Meeting it collapsed sharply when both sides refused to move, with North Korea demanding broad relief on sanctions and Americans demanding concrete steps for disarmament.
"It is very clear that the failure of Hanoi has sparked a debate in North Korea about whether Kim's path – which is moving down the path to denuclearization – is the right path," says Joel Witt, a senior aide at the Stimson Center in Washington .
For now, North Korea seems inclined to avoid further involvement with the US or South Korea until they make more concessions, Whit said.
Other analysts are skeptical that Kim will ever give up hard-earned nuclear weapons, but they say the possibility of even a limited deal on gun control may slip away.
"It seems North Korea is only interested in a deal in the terms of its exact letter," says Duon Kim of the Washington-based Center for New American Security.
"Pyongyang is able to demand more, be more rigorous and raise the bar, as its confidence comes from qualitative and quantitative advances in its nuclear weapons," Kim said.
Report by Josh Smith. Editing by Gary Doyle