Jan. 9 (UPI) -- News broke in early January that North Korea's acting ambassador to Italy, Jo Song-gil, is in hiding and reportedly is seeking asylum in an "unidentified Western country". The possible high-level defection came as a surprise, especially as U.S. President Donald Trump recently confirmed his desire to have a second U.S.-North Korea summit, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in is soon expecting a visit from the North's leader, Kim Jong Un. The North Korean leader was in China this week on an unannounced visit to see President Xi Jinping.
When Kim sent handwritten letters to Moon and Trump on New Year's Eve, he seemed to be promising that the three countries could continue their dialogue over the Korean Peninsula's peace process. But why is Jo seeking asylum if Kim really is open to change in North Korea? Is he making his escape for personal reasons -- or is it an indication that things are as bad as ever in Pyongyang?
Whatever the reason, Jo's defection could impact the ongoing negotiations. He could, for example, share sensitive information with the United States and South Korea about the real denuclearization situation in North Korea -- and this could make Kim less willing to engage.
And the negotiations are fragile. Over the past 12 months, there have been repeated promises -- and cancellations -- made by all sides. It certainly remains to be seen whether the three countries will meet as suggested -- and whether it will amount to any more than "gesture politics" if they do.
On one level, things do look different than in the past, when little tangible progress was made. South Korea's Moon is a proactive leader, and Kim is young, ambitious and eager to make his own mark. Kim and Trump are also deeply unpredictable, however.
But there are other factors to consider, too, not least North Korea's sharp economic downturn. This has, in fact, given many North Koreans wider access to information from outside the country, partially thanks to a growing number of defectors communicating with those who remain and the outside world. Kim's "equal emphasis" (Byungjin) policy, which focuses on both military and economic development, has also given impetus to his willingness to talk with Moon and Trump.
But even if the willingness is there, North Korea's regime cannot upend nearly 70 years of history in a day. It will be a long process.
Although Kim's current performance on this issue is occasionally more promising than that of his father or grandfather, the truth is that he cannot abandon his nuclear program until he can see an alternative way of guaranteeing the security of his regime.
After all, North Korea's nuclear program has so far worked well as a bargaining chip in international negotiations -- although the current U.N. sanctions are an exception. Indeed, North Korea's nuclear threats and long-range missiles have strengthened the county's hand against the United States, while without them, North Korea has almost nothing to offer as a concession.
Nor should we forget the role the North Korean media plays. By showing images of Kim shaking hands with world leaders, it has become part of his survival strategy, bolstering his strongman image among both ordinary North Koreans and his government. Any meeting Kim agrees to should, at least partly, be seen in this light.
Ultimately, there have been no significant changes in North Korea's nuclear program (besides demolishing some old or disused facilities). Nor will it be possible to achieve completely irreversible denuclearization as long as North Korea retains its theoretical nuclear know-how. At the same time, while North Korea tends to highlight its will to halt rather than dismantle its nuclear capability, the United States wants more before it invests economically.
So how to move forward? And how can negotiators overcome the current chicken-or-egg dilemma: denuclearization first or economic support first?
The answer is twofold. First, we need something truly imaginative. Perhaps the United States can find a solution by transforming the nuclear sites in North Korea into special industrial clusters and providing some of its military capability in exchange for nuclear disarmament. In this way, North Korea can attract private investment from the United States, while easing its security concerns.
In the end, however, foreign policy objectives on the peninsula will need to be realistic. As mentioned before, a truly denuclearized North Korea will never happen as it will retain its theoretical nuclear knowledge. It will be far more practical, then, to find a common ground of mutual interests.
Second, there needs to be a sense of "mutual accountability." The traditional definition of accountability has three stages: responsibility, answerability and enforceability.
The "responsibility" stage can take the form of policy dialogue and trust building. Plenty of dialogue occurred during the six-party talks held intermittently since 2003 between North Korea, China, the United States, South Korea, Japan and Russia -- but they appeared to fail to build any meaningful trust. The latest rounds of dialogue between the United States and the two Koreas will also fall at this hurdle unless they find a novel way forward.
Consequently, the dialogue must be based on mutual understanding and openness. The rest of the world must understand that North Korea is a fragile state, which cannot overcome the denuclearization problem on its own -- especially given its vulnerable financial situation. After all, it's not just the United States that doesn't trust North Korea; North Korea doesn't trust the United States either, especially following the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.
But that is just the first step. The "answerability" stage will require much greater information sharing and transparency. The international community is so suspicious of the sincerity of Kim's denuclearization process because of that country's poor level of openness and the limited access to solid information from within North Korea. Once North Korea opens its borders, there will be simultaneous achievements in terms of both denuclearization and economic development.
All parties need measurable and transparent indicators of progress. But if agreements aren't kept, a move can be made toward "enforceability, " including convening inspection panels or enforcing a compliance review process. Kim's father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il, for example, faced international sanctions along with the removal of food aid even during a famine period when he left the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003.
2019 may yet bring a way forward. But unless there is a foundation of mutual understanding, defectors such as Jo may offer the only tangible insight into what's really going on in North Korea.