Worries are growing that international sanctions against North Korea might crumble before the regime even starts denuclearization.
U.S. President Donald Trump was not helping last Friday, when he said after receiving a letter from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, "I don't even want to use the term 'maximum pressure' anymore because I don't want to use that term because we're getting along."
There are fears that his remarks could send the wrong signal. China is already helping the regime on its feet by opening back doors since Kim visited China twice in the last couple of months, with fresh indentured workers streaming across the border.
North Korea's open-air market prices are stabilizing as daily necessities arrive from China, Radio Free Asia reported on Sunday.
A senior official with the North Hamgyong provincial trade bureau openly said in a meeting that China is the only country the North can trust, a source in North Hamgyong Province told RFA. The official quoted Chinese President Xi Jinping's promise to Kim to give the regime his full support, the source added.
Russia also seems ready to jump on the bandwagon. Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a personal letter to Kim Jong-un through Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who visited Pyongyang last week, stressing future economic cooperation and inviting him to visit.
In a telephone conversation two days after the inter-Korean summit on April 27, Putin told President Moon Jae-in, "The result of the inter-Korean summit needs to lead to three-way cooperative projects of South and North Korea and Russia. If Russia's railway, gas and electricity are connected to Siberia via the Korean Peninsula, they will help bring peace and stability on the peninsula."
Seoul is also itching to resume economic cooperation with Pyongyang, planning cross-border talks soon to discuss connecting and modernizing railways and roads between the two sides on the east and west coasts.
There is also speculation that an agreement reached in cross-border high-level talks last Friday on opening a cross-border liaison office in Kaesong is a first step to reopening a joint industrial park there.
Only Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last Saturday stressed the need to maintain pressure. "A nuclear-armed North Korea is unacceptable to Japan," he said and pledged to "ramp up" pressure.
Trump is unpredictable, and may only for the moment have been filled with the warmth of fellow feeling without actually intending to reduce pressure.
Larry Kudlow, the director of the White House National Economic Council, on Sunday tried to dispel fears, saying, "I think the sanctions [that] are in place are very tough, very strong. I think over time… it may be relaxed, but right now I don't think so."
U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis also said, "North Korea will receive relief only when it demonstrates verifiable and irreversible steps to denuclearization."
President Donald Trump (right) talks with Kim Yong-chol, former North Korean military intelligence chief and one of leader Kim Jong-un's closest aides, as they walk from their meeting at the White House in Washington on Friday. /AP-Yonhap