YESTERDAY was a big day in North Korea – and not only because of US President Donald Trump’s abrupt cancellation of the June summit.
While the cancellation has dominated headlines, just hours earlier, North Korea’s wheels of diplomacy were very much in motion.
It was supposed to be a sign of good will; a move that Trump described as a “very smart and gracious gesture” just days earlier when the Kim Jong Un backslapping was still in vogue. On Thursday, the dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear site at Punggye-ri took place under the watchful eye of a select group of journalists from around the world – including the United States.
SEE ALSO: Trump cancels meeting with Kim Jong Un
Explosives were detonated, collapsing the tunnels at the test site where Pyongyang has conducted all six of its nuclear tests, including the most recent in September 2017.
According to a press release from North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the demolition also removed “all observation facilities, research institutes and structures of guard units on the ground.”
Guards and researchers were withdrawn from the site and the surrounding area of the test ground was completely closed.
The moment was meant as a diplomatic gesture in advance of the summit; a sign of willing offered before to any discussion of denuclearisation began. And the access provided to journalists – an olive branch of transparency from Pyongyang.
That transparency doesn’t appear to have been repaid by the White House, whose public cancellation of talks came as a surprise to both their allies and North Korea.
In a statement on Friday, North Korea’s vice-minister of foreign affairs, Kim Kye Gwan, said the “unilateral announcement of the cancellation of the summit” makes the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) reconsider if they “were truly right to have made efforts for it and to have opted for a new path.”
N. Korea has just published the English-language version of its statement on Trump's pullout from the Singapore summit. pic.twitter.com/wjri8Q0I3X
— Jonathan Cheng (@JChengWSJ) May 25, 2018
According to a report from the New York Times, Trump’s move so blindsided the North Koreans that the invited foreign journalists learned about the cancellation on their smartphones – even before some of their hosts did.
As Will Ripley from CNN read Trump’s withdrawal letter aloud to the North Korean officials, the thought that they were sitting in a now-hostile country known for using American citizens as bargaining chips, likely crossed the journalists’ minds.
While it could be viewed as a potential embarrassment – extending a hand only to have it slapped away hours later – the move itself will likely not have any practical lasting damage on North Korea’s nuclear programme.
No experts were invited to the closure of the site so it’s difficult to know just how conclusive the damage is and if it will prevent the site from being used again.
There has also been speculation from experts in the lead up to the closure that, after six previous tests, the site was already damaged beyond repair and could not have been used again regardless of Thursday’s explosions. Seeing an opportunity for a show of diplomacy with no cost to itself, North Korea capitalised on this.
And, as Kim Jong Un himself has said, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal has already been tried and tested. The need for further tests was removed once the world became aware what they are capable of.
The regime also admitted conducting “subcritical” nuclear tests last month, which allow scientists to test weapons without causing an atomic chain reaction or explosion.
As Jenny Town, the managing editor of 38 North, told the Guardian:
“Simply put, they can stop testing because they have finished development and don’t need to test anymore. Ultimately, it’s still just a first step down a long and difficult road if true denuclearisation of the peninsula is to be achieved.”
For many experts, Thursday will seem like Groundhog Day. Pyongyang carried out a similar spectacle in 2008 when it blew up a cooling tower at its Yangbyon nuclear reactor.
While the move was met with initial praise, an easing of sanctions and commencement of negotiations; once the talks faltered, as they did yesterday, Yongbyon was back up and running, manufacturing nuclear material.
So what does that mean for this round? The gesture has been made and avenues of dialogue opened up only to be shutdown once again. Should we expect history to repeat itself?
Trump’s move was abrupt and decisive, but it was far from final. The US president has left the door open for future talks, telling Pyongyang, “If you change your mind having to do with this most important summit, please do not hesitate to call me or write.”
Despite a little baiting of Trump, speculating that he “might not have felt confident” or he “lacked the will” for the summit, the North Koreans are also championing the diplomatic route.
“We remain unchanged in our goal and will do everything we can for peace and stability of the Korean peninsula,” Kim Kye Gwan said in a statement.
He said, while the first meeting would not solve all problems between the two nations, solving one problem at a time in a “phased way” will better relations, rather than making them worse.
“We would like to make known to the US side once again that we have the intent to sit with the US side to solve problems, regardless of ways, at any time,” the statement unequivocally said.
While Thursday’s announcement is certainly a major stumbling block, and one that needed to happen to give both sides more time to prepare, it doesn’t appear to be the end of the road. Just the latest chapter in a fraught and complicated relationship.