Updated: Mar 28, 2019
The past week has seen a series of unexpected events which may or may not have concluded. The first story to permeate through the expert community was the DPRK staff leaving the joint liaison office in Kaesong. This signalled a major shift in policy by Pyongyang after the Hanoi summit and suggested they were preparing to cancel negotiations with Seoul and Washington on the nuclear issue as well as the various ongoing economic projects between North and South Korea. The liaison office was established in 2018 during the thawing of tensions as a place to facilitate communication between the two sides; prior to the office being established Pyongyang and Seoul communicated through telephones across the DMZ and Panmunjom. Pyongyang reportedly informed the government in Seoul that the staff would not be returning to the office on Monday the 25th thus throwing the entire peace process, and Moon Jae-in's crowning political achievement, into doubt.
The next major piece of news was a confusing tweet by US President Trump which suggested that the US would be cancelling a recently implemented round of sanctions which targeted Chinese companies still dealing with the DPRK. That was later clarified by the White House who made it clear that the recently implemented sanctions would remain; however, an unseen set of sanctions that were planned would not to be put in place due to objections from the President.
By the weekend it seemed all but certain that the DPRK was beginning to grow weary of diplomacy with the US and the ROK. Many attributed the decision to pull staff from the office to the recent sanctions and the failure at Hanoi with some analysts expecting a turn towards China and/or Russia for economic assistance rather than the US. To be clear, we may still see something like this in the near future. However, on Monday the officials from the northern side turned up to work at the office leaving many confused about the 'why and how' of the situation. The removal of officials may have been in response to the new sanctions and then the U-turn may have been a result of the cancelled sanctions planned by the US but intercepted by President Trump. Overall nobody can be sure what prompted the decision, as is usual with the DPRK, however it signals a much larger problem with the status quo. The DPRK is at risk of abandoning nuclear talks and has hinted that it is prepared to end its voluntary moratorium on testing after the US failed to meet its demands for partial sanctions relief at the summit in Vietnam. Whether Pyongyang sticks it out or abandons the peace process, in its current form or all together, remains to be seen.