World News

Korean Accord Draws Praise and Caution From North’s Neighbors

Posted April 28, 2018 4:07 p.m. EDT

SEOUL, South Korea — China, Japan and Russia — North Korea’s neighbors — while offering praise for the summit meeting with South Korea that riveted the world this past week, appeared to acknowledge one thing: Now comes the hard part.

In the accord struck Friday, the two sides confirmed a “common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula,” a commitment North Korea has made before but then flouted by conducting six nuclear tests. The two Korean leaders also pledged to work toward a peace treaty.

Some analysts and media commentators expressed skepticism about the lack of specifics in the accord and warned it would not amount to much unless the United States gives its approval at the coming meeting between President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. Others were more encouraging, suggesting that the agreement could be achieved in time.

The North’s neighbors all have stakes in holding Pyongyang to any commitment that may come out of future talks.

China, which has been enforcing U.N. economic sanctions against its longtime but wayward ally North Korea, welcomed the agreement and urged the two Koreas and other countries to maintain the momentum for dialogue and work together to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.

The Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, described the commitment as a “positive move toward the comprehensive settlement of various issues surrounding North Korea.”

In Russia, the Kremlin hailed the agreement as “very positive.” Dmitri S. Peskov, the spokesman for President Vladimir Putin, said the Russian president “has stressed many times that sustainable conflict resolution on the Korean Peninsula can only be based on direct dialogue of both sides.”

In gushing coverage, North Korea’s main newspaper devoted four of its six pages on Saturday to the summit and brightened its usually drab pages with 62 color photographs from the historic event. It even printed the leaders’ joint declaration.

But, like other state-run North Korean news media, the newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, gave no hint on whether Kim would genuinely consider giving up his nuclear weapons or what he might demand in return. Rather, it focused on the leader’s new diplomatic turn.

However positive the goals described in the three-page agreement, the critical question remained: Does Kim intend to bargain away his nuclear weapons, or are his diplomatic overtures aimed only at softening his image and easing sanctions against his impoverished country?

The accord set no timetable for denuclearization but said the two sides planned to achieve a permanent peace within the year. Talks to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War would require negotiations involving the main combatants: North and South Korea, China and the United States.

In Japan, there was caution about the lack of specifics in the accord. The document fell far short of the Trump administration’s demands for the dismantlement of the North’s arsenal and of the need for inspections to verify that the weapons no longer existed, officials and commentators said.

The Japanese foreign minister, Taro Kono, called for North Korea to take “concrete actions for the dismantlement of all weapons of mass destruction, including biological and chemical weapons, and ballistic missiles of all ranges in a complete and irreversible manner.”

Abe, who has strained relations with South Korea, implied that the new accord may not be too different from a similar commitment in 2007 between a previous South Korean president, Roh Moo-hyun, and Kim Jong Il, the father of the current North Korean leader. That accord fell apart soon after it was signed.

“We would like to think about how we respond to the current statement, analyzing and comparing it with the past statement,” Abe said.

Of all the North’s neighbors, Japan is perhaps the most uneasy about the process that began at the inter-Korean summit meeting. It fears Washington could agree to trade away the North’s long-range intercontinental missiles that can hit the United States, but allow Pyongyang to keep its medium-range missiles, leaving Japan vulnerable.

Abe went out of his way to remind reporters that he had spent 11 hours with Trump this month, insisting his proximity to the American president meant he had not been left out of the negotiations over North Korea.

In China, the state-run news media stressed the need for the United States to quickly enter the picture and seal the deal.

Cheng Xiaohe, a professor of international relations at Renmin University, said it was too much to expect the two Korean leaders to come up with a definitive prescription for ending the North’s nuclear program in just one day.

“Kim Jong Un has to leave some gifts for Trump,” Cheng said. “This summit got a lot of results for an inter-Korean meeting.”

But there was no question that China remained sidelined in the rapprochement between North and South, and it was nowhere to be seen in the prelude to the meeting between Trump and Kim, said Shen Zhihua, a prominent Chinese historian who has written extensively on North Korea.

North Korea’s goal was to keep its nuclear weapons and to be recognized as a nuclear power, Shen said in an interview broadcast by Voice of America.

In the end, the North could persuade other countries to let it keep its nuclear arsenal, or at least part of it. And in the process, Shen said, China could be left permanently on the outside — with North Korea leaning toward the United States.

“Many Chinese people are very optimistic now,” he said, but added: “It does not seem that simple. If North Korea holds a nuclear weapon, it will not hit South Korea. Will it hit Japan? It does not dare. It also will not dare to fight the United States. If you look at history, North Korea is not sure about China and has a mind of revenge toward China.” Families of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean spies four decades ago had hoped that South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, would raise the issue in his meeting with Kim. That seemed a distant hope. Human rights activists who asked Moon to get commitments from Kim on reforming the North’s vicious prison system were also disappointed.

Speaking to reporters in front of his home in Saitama, a suburb of Tokyo, Shigeo Iizuka, a brother of Yaeko Taguchi, one of the kidnapped, said that he was “disappointed” the abductions were not mentioned in the joint statement.

The North Korean news media listed denuclearization as the last of three major agenda items from the summit meeting at the border village of Panmunjom — unlike the South Korean government, which cited it first. The North’s coverage described extensively how Kim was spearheading efforts to open “an era of national reconciliation and solidarity, and peace and prosperity” on the divided peninsula.

Still, its coverage of the summit meeting reconfirmed North Korea’s dramatic shift from raising tensions through weapons tests to creating a reconciliatory mood through high-profile meetings that would have been unthinkable just several months ago.

Skeptics say Kim’s goal remains to be accepted as a nuclear power. He is merely trying to improve ties with South Korea to steer it further from the United States and to escape sanctions that are increasingly hurting the North’s economy, they say.

But if Kim intends to win diplomatic recognition, a peace treaty and economic aid from Washington and its allies, as South Korean officials hope he does, trading away his nuclear arsenal is his only bargaining chip. He cannot reveal his hand too soon, they say.

Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to Seoul, expressed some caution: “It remains to be seen what Kim Jong Un’s commitment to denuclearization means in concrete terms: whether it foreshadows agreement to President Trump’s demand for the rapid and verifiable elimination of the North’s nuclear weapons, delivery systems and infrastructure, or whether the North envisages a drawn-out process tied to potentially unacceptable demands that the United States withdraw its forces from the South or provide immediate sanctions relief, while the North’s nuclear threat remains in place.”