However talks go, shackles off North Korea

| Brenda Goh and Josh Smith 12 Jun 2018

North Korean officials have toured China to discuss economic development. Speculators are snapping up property along their border. And South Korea is studying ways to boost engagement with its neighbor to the north.

Across the region there are signs US President Donald Trump's campaign of "maximum pressure" on Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons is weakening ahead of his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore today.

Trump, along with leaders like South Korea's President Moon Jae In, say Kim has gone to the negotiating table through a combination of international sanctions, political isolation, and threats of military action. But unless there is a major provocation or resumption of nuclear testing or missile launches by North Korea, no one sees it is likely maximum pressure will return.

Trump has himself said he doesn't want to use the term "maximum pressure" any more because of improving relations with North Korea.

Preparations are already under way in China, South Korea and Russia, which share land borders with North Korea, for better ties with the isolated nation.

Officials from South Korea visited a shuttered joint economic project at Kaesong, North Korea, on Friday, part of a government effort to prepare for an easing of sanctions.

Along China's border with North Korea, speculators are buying land and traders are stockpiling North Korean coal amid hopes restrictions will soon be lifted.

"It'll be good if North Korea opens up," said a hat seller in the border city of Dandong. "The people there are so poor, it's like China in the 1980s."

Other locals in Dandong say North Korean workers are returning, prompting the opening of some restaurants and hotels.

On June 5, state carrier Air China announced it would resume regular flights between Beijing and Pyongyang, which officials suspended indefinitely in November, And tour operators say busloads of Chinese tourists are in Pyongyang, their numbers surging in recent weeks.

United States lawmakers have raised concerns traders in China are already skirting sanctions, but Beijing-based diplomats say that's no evidence that China is abandoning its UN Security Council commitments.

Russia has long been skeptical of the sanctions regime, and South Korea's Moon has proposed a three-way study on joint projects, including railways, gas and power linking Siberia to the Korean peninsula.

"Even if the summit fails and US-North Korea tensions resurface, Russia is unlikely to support new rounds of sanctions on North Korea," says Artyom Lukin, a professor at Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok.

Kim has met President Xi Jinping two times in recent months and analysts say Beijing's willingness to maintain last year's level of pressure on North Korea is waning.

REUTERS

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