On Tuesday, the leaders of North and South Korea agreed to sit down next month for historic talks, which may include the denuclearization of the divided peninsular, marking a distinct thaw after years of deteriorating relations amid Pyongyang’s accelerating nuclear and missile tests.
“If military threats to the North Korea decrease and regime safety is guaranteed, the North showed that it has no reason to retain nukes,” South Korea’s president’s office said Tuesday following a meeting between Seoul officials and Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang, where the group were pictured grinning together during a four-hour dinner.
Much credit for the breakthrough must go to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the son of refugees from the North, who has pushed for dialogue with the Kim regime since his May election, spearheading symbolic cooperation such as marching under a unified flag at the recent Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.
But it would be churlish not to also recognize the contribution of the “bad cop”: U.S. President Donald Trump, who has turned up the heat on North Korea with ever tighter rounds of sanctions, and badgered historic ally China to isolate the 25 million-strong Stalinist state.
“The Trump administration deserves credit for increasing the pressure and deepening even further the alienation between China and North Korea,” says Professor John Delury, an East Asia expert at Yonsei Univeristy in Seoul. “And globally, there have been a lot of bilateral relationships where Trump has put North Korea at the top of the agenda.”
Like in Egypt, whose pilots were trained by North Korea during the 1973 war with Israel, and whose obstinate backing of the Kim regime reportedly contributed to the recent suspension of $290 million of American aid. Or nations like Spain, Italy, Mexico, Peru and Kuwait, which in the last year expelled their North Korean ambassadors following pressure from the White House.
This is important as North Korean embassies abroad operate as revenue-generating hubs for myriad illicit activities. In October, thousands of bottles of bootlegged whisky, beer and wine were stolen from a North Korean diplomat’s home in the Pakistani capital Islamabad. Several African nations with military links to North Korea have also been pressured to cut off ties, which experts say could trim 3-5% off Pyongyang’s foreign currency reserves.