With apologies to T.S. Eliot, August was the cruelest month. US-DPRK working-level talks did not begin, as most observers expected, after US-ROK joint military exercises ended on August 20. For a variety of reasons, the diplomatic window seems to be narrowing. Washington continues to profess an interest in returning to the negotiating table but has not adopted a new approach with potential for progress, while Pyongyang appears increasingly uninterested in even sitting down at the table. If by some quirk of fate the talks do manage to resume, the North’s hardening line over the last few months has not set the stage for progress but rather soured the atmosphere further.
February’s summit in Hanoi was a major setback: US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walked away empty-handed, the North Korean delegation seemingly bruised and angry. The dialogue survived, in part because Kim and Trump held a quickly arranged meeting at the border between North and South Korea in late June and continued correspondence afterward. But the process is now on life support, with time and circumstances working against it. Since late July, the North has engaged in a flurry of tests of new weapons systems, including solid fuel, short-range ballistic missiles. Some of this was in response to the US-ROK exercises but also signaled a tougher DPRK position on the need for improvements in its conventional capabilities to counter what it claims are enhanced US and South Korean capabilities.
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