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Ahead of Singapore Summit, a look at trajectory of Kim Jong-un's North Korea's return from international isolation

Describing it as his "mission of peace," US president Donald Trump has embarked on the toughest journey, as far as his nation's foreign policy is concerned, of his tenure so far. Trump will personally attempt to broker an end to North Korea's nuclear program in talks with Kim Jong-un in Singapore on Tuesday.

What media reports have described as "technically-still-warring-nations", Trump, during this historical first meeting, is prioritising instinct over planning. Unlike traditional summits between heads of state, where most of the work is completed in advance, US officials say the only thing certain ahead of these talks will be their unpredictability.

Singapore meet fulfills North Korean ruling family's long-unrequited yearing for international legitimacy given the fact that the country thought that it was a substantial concession after more than a generation of America's efforts to isolate it on the global stage.

As we await this consequential meet in Singapore between the two leaders, we attempt to track the trajectory that the North Korea followed which marked its re-entry (of sorts) in geopolitical dialogue as an aggressor.

A war that began 30 years ago

Howard, an Australian-Chinese impersonating North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and Dennis Alan, impersonating U.S. President Donald Trump, meet at Merlion Park in Singapore ahead of the 12 June summit. Reuters

Howard, an Australian-Chinese impersonating North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and Dennis Alan, impersonating US president Donald Trump, meet at Merlion Park in Singapore ahead of the 12 June summit. Reuters

To understand why North Korea "suddenly" started building its nuclear warheads and test a series of successful missile and nuclear tests in 2017, one must go rewind 30 years back. An original member of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons since 1985, North Korea denied investigators and auditors from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to the nuclear sites in 1992. The inspectors discovered illegal activities and inconsistencies in the amount of nuclear waste North Korea said it had produced. Pyongyang withdrew from the treaty in the summer of 1993.

Requesting for talks to resolve "all issues dividing them," North Korea met with the Clinton administration, which in 1994 gave birth to the "Agreed Framework" (PDF). According to the framework these were the four most important provisions. Under an agreement signed in October 1994 with the Clinton administration and dubbed the Agreed Framework, the North agreed to freeze and eventually dismantle existing nuclear plants, which could easily produce plutonium but which Pyongyang said were intended to produce electricity.

The US in return pledged alternative energy in the form of 500,000 tonnes of fuel oil a year, plus the construction by 2003 of two proliferation-resistant light-water reactors. Several oil shipments were delivered late due to hostility to the deal among Republicans in Congress and work on the reactors was delayed for years. The pact finally broke down in 2002 when the US accused the North of running a secret uranium enrichment programme.

The last straw was when the US government failed to deliver on the phasing out of economic sanctions placed on North Korea since the end of the Korean War. As this article on The Diplomat said, "This eventually precipitated the secret resumption of North Korean nuclear activity in 1998..." The consequetive American governments only made matters worse. The Bush government gave matters ugly impetus when it called the North Korea axis of evil, wiping out any goodwill attempts made by his predecessors.

North's trajectory 

Never before has a sitting US president held talks with the leader of North Korea, which has technically been at war with the United States longer than any other country in American history — the 1950-53 Korean War ended in what was intended to be a temporary armistice.

However, after an unusually provocative 2017 during which North Korea tested a purported thermonuclear warhead and three intercontinental ballistic missiles, Kim tried to initiate diplomacy in his annual New Year's address at the start of 2018. He called for improved relations and engagement with South Korea, though added that he has a nuclear button on his desk. Trump responded on Twitter that he had a bigger and more powerful nuclear button, adding "and my Button works!"

However, North Korea, as mentioned earlier in this piece, started testing their long-range missiles and ICBMs way before 2017. Here is a timeline which will attempt tracking the trajectory of the North returning from the so-called wilderness.

The beginnings, 1970s

North Korea started working in the late 1970s on a version of the Soviet Scud-B missile with a range of around 300 kilometres (around 200 miles), carrying out a first test in 1984. Between 1987 and 1992, it began developing longer-range missiles, including the Taepodong-1 (2,500 km) and Taepodong-2 (6,700 km).

The Taepodong-1 wastest-fired over Japan in 1998 but the following year, Pyongyang declared a moratorium on such tests as ties with the United States improve.

First nuclear test in 2006

It ended the moratorium in 2005, blaming the Bush administration's "hostile" policy, and carried out its first nuclear test on 9 October, 2006. In May 2009, there was a second underground nuclear test, several times more powerful than the first. Kim Jong-un succeeded his father Kim Jong-il — who died in December 2011 — and oversees a third nuclear test in 2013.

2016, Japanese waters reached

There was a fourth underground nuclear test in January 2016, which Pyongyang claimed was a hydrogen bomb. The announcement was swiftly criticised by world leaders with South Korea calling it "a grave provocation to our national security". In March, Kim Jong-un claimed the North has successfully miniaturised a thermonuclear warhead, and in April it test-fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile. On 3 August, it fired, for the first time, a ballistic missile directly into Japanese-controlled waters. Later that month, it successfully test-fired another submarine–launched ballistic missile.

From threats of war to brotherly hugs, Kim has emerged as a skilled diplomat with the unexpected assistance of a new player in the game: Trump. Reuters

Amid Howard and Dennis' bonhomie, the stage is set for the real deal on Tuesday. Reuters

There was a fifth nuclear test on 9 September.

2017, Japan and Guam under threat

Between February and May, the North tested a series of ballistic missiles that fell into the Sea of Japan. Pyongyang claimed these were exercises to hit US bases in Japan. A test on 14 May, 2017 was for a "newly developed mid/long-range strategic ballistic rocket, Hwasong-12", Pyongyang said. It flew 700 kilometres before landing in the Sea of Japan.

Two months later, North Korea announced it successfully tested on 4 July — the US independence day — an ICBM capable of reaching Alaska, a gift for the "American bastards". There was a second successful ICBM test on 28 July. Hours after Trump threatened Pyongyang on 8 August with "fire and fury" over its missile programme, the North said it is considering strikes near US strategic military installations in Guam.

Largest nuclear test yet

On 3 September, 2017, North Korea conducted its sixth and largest nuclear test. Monitoring groups estimated a yield of 250 kilotons, which is 16 times the size of the 15-kilotonne US bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945. On 15 September, less than a week after the UN adopted an eighth series of sanctions, North Korea fired an intermediate-range missile over Japan.

On 20 November, Washington declared North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism, a day before adding to pressure on the isolated state with fresh sanctions.  The designation came a week after Trump returned from a 12-day, five-nation trip to Asia in which he made containing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions a centerpiece of his discussions. On 29 November, North Korea launched a new Hwasong-15 ICBM, which it claimed could deliver a "super-large heavy warhead" anywhere on the US mainland.

Analysts agreed that the rocket is capable of reaching the US but voice scepticism that Pyongyang has mastered the advanced technology needed to allow the rocket to survive re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. Weeks later on 13 December, Kim vows to make North Korea the "world's strongest nuclear power".

Olympic detente triggers thaw, 2018

In his New Year speech, Kim stated that the development of North Korea's nuclear force had been completed. After weeks of negotiation, the US and South Korea agreed to halt joint military exercises in the region after North Korea aggreed to participate in the Winter Olympics held in Pyeongchang, South Korea.  Catalysed by the Winter Olympics in the South, a rapid diplomatic thaw began in February. Athletes from both sides marched together under a united flag at the opening ceremony — a sign of the "sunshine policy" of better relations advocated by South Korean president Moon Jae-in.

On 21 April, Pyongyang declared that nuclear blasts and ICBM launches will cease immediately and the atomic test site at Punggye-ri will be dismantled to "transparently guarantee" the end of testing. Kim also added that the possession of nuclear weapons was "the firm guarantee by which our descendants can enjoy the most dignified and happiest life in the world".

In May 2018, Kim lashed out at the "planned US-South Korea military exercises" calling them "provocation" and a slap in the face after signing an agreement with South Korea. The Pentagon said that the drills were merely "defensive". Pyongyang, however, reacted by cancelling scheduled follow-up peace negotiations with Moon. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Kim in order to kick-start negotiations to discuss the foundations for the 12 June summit in Singapore and possible denuclearisation. Following the meeting, Trump blamed North Korea's "hostility" for cancelling the summit.

From threats to hugs: Long way for Kim 

Last year Kim called Trump a "mentally deranged US dotard" but he now appears to have embraced a new diplomatic approach, coming across as polite and even charming in two meetings each with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Moon.

From threats of war to brotherly hugs, Kim has emerged as a skilled diplomat with the unexpected assistance of a new player in the game: Trump. Kim's sudden turn to statecraft at the height of tensions is straight out of a North Korean playbook that goes back decades, analysts say, but Trump's spontaneity has allowed it to have an unprecedented impact on the field of diplomacy.

After a year of multiple missile launches that brought the US mainland within range of his rockets, and the North's largest atomic test to date, Kim declared Pyongyang's nuclear quest complete and began his overtures for negotiations.

Kim reached out to Moon in time for the Winter Olympics and later made his international debut with a surprise trip to traditional ally China to finally pay his respects to President Xi Jinping, repairing a relationship that had frayed in recent years.

In meetings with the South Korean and Chinese leaders, including seaside strolls and al fresco woodland tea, Kim has appeared polite and pleasant, a stark contrast to Pyongyang's previous chest-thumping. The North Korean leader has also extended goodwill gestures to the US, releasing three American detainees and dismantling his nuclear test site, while halting missile launches for over six months.

"Kim's not just good at maximum pressure, he's also pretty good at maximum engagement," Jung Pak, a former North Korea expert at the CIA who is now a scholar at the Brookings Institution, told AFP. He has proved "quite skilled at playing the regional players against the other", she said, and "sees Beijing as a key counterweight (and probably an insurance policy) against the United States".

For a leader who had spent six years in isolation, it was a surprising transition, especially someone who never left the country or met with foreign heads of state since assuming power in 2011. Now, Kim's diplomacy is in full gear, exchanging envoys with Washington and holding repeated summits with his Chinese and South Korean counterparts. His approach to Beijing is a "classic example of balanced diplomacy", said Koo Kab-woo, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

With inputs from agencies

Updated Date: Jun 11, 2018 14:37 PM

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