Why North Korea’s 70th year could be its most decisive

On Sunday, North Korea’s leadership will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the country’s founding — and the world will be watching. Will Pyongyang’s propaganda machine extol the state’s rise to a nuclear weapons power? Will long-range missiles be paraded though the streets accompanied by marching soldiers? Or perhaps Kim Jong Un will dispense with provocation and rather celebrate the numerous construction projects that have been started in recent months.  

The celebration comes at a difficult time for Kim. He wants to boost economic growth, but international sanctions continue to hamper any progress. Improved relations with the US could lead to some relief. However, three months after the historic summit in Singapore, there is no indication that Kim and US President Donald Trump are taking further steps toward rapprochement.

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On Wednesday, Kim told a South Korean special envoy that he was frustrated with the diplomatic stalemate, saying Pyongyang had taken the first necessary steps toward denuclearization. He was most likely referring to the closing of a nuclear test site and the dismantling of a rocket launch site earlier this year.

Kim was reported as saying that his “goodwill” measures should be reciprocated, alluding to potentially ending the official state of war between North Korea and the US.

US ignoring Kim’s ‘goodwill’?

Indeed, in the Singapore Declaration, both countries agreed to acknowledge a fresh start in relations. During the summit in June, Trump also purportedly promised to sign a declaration officially ending the Korean War. However, the US president only went as far as temporarily halting US military exercises with South Korea.

Then intelligence reports indicated that North Korea was continuing to produce fissile material and build rockets. In early August, the US government issued new sanctions against two high-ranking North Korean officials.

And at the end of August, Trump canceled a planned visit to Pyongyang by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In a Tweet, Trump said that he felt there wasn’t “sufficient progress” in denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea’s former spy chief also reportedly told US officials that Pompeo would need to “offer something” during his trip. In turn, the US demanded new and concrete disarmament measures.

China and South Korea bide their time

However, the stalemate could break in the coming weeks as China and South Korea are increasing pressure on Kim to make a compromise. As if sending a signal, Chinese President Xi Jinping declined Pyongyang’s invitation to attend Sunday’s anniversary celebrations and will instead send the chairman of the National People’s Congress Li Zhanshu.

Analysts point out that this is a sign from Beijing that North Korea should not hope for premature sanctions relief. As a result of the bitter trade dispute with the US, China wants to avoid giving the impression of being too close to North Korea. Trump has accused China of secretly watering down sanctions against North Korea to use as leverage in trade negotiations.

China has denied these allegations, but at the same time, it does not want to pour fuel on the fire. For 13 years, no Chinese head of state has visited North Korea and Xi will play this card after he has a clear advantage in doing so.

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South Korean President Moon Jae-in wants an improvement in relations between Washington and Pyongyang so that he can develop his ambitious inner-Korean economic plans. The construction of rail lines and increased economic aid will only be possible if the UN removes sanctions on the North.

When Moon meets Kim for a summit in Pyongyang on September 18, he could use these incentives to try and persuade Kim to take steps toward denuclearization.

On Wednesday, Kim offered positive remarks, saying he wanted to denuclearize during President Trump’s first term, which incidentally was the first time he mentioned a specific time frame. Trump’s answer on Twitter was optimistic — “We will get it done together.”

However, both sides are beset by hardline officials like US National Security Advisor John Bolton and North Korea’s cadre of longtime diplomats and officials that have little faith in the US. And even after the positive rhetoric at the Singapore Summit, there is little trust on either side.