Building trust is vital, former negotiators say

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Building trust is vital, former negotiators say

As Seoul and Washington prepare to sit down with Pyongyang in the coming weeks to talk about some process of denuclearization, South Korean diplomats who were involved in the six-party talks from 2003 to 2009 say the allies needed to build trust with the regime as a starting point.

The JoongAng Ilbo asked how the administrations of Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump can reach a breakthrough with Kim Jong-un - and avoid the mistakes of their predecessors. The following are edited excerpts from interviews with Chun Yung-woo, chairman and founder of the Korean Peninsula Future Forum; Kim Sook, former South Korean ambassador to the United Nations; and Wi Sung-lac, visiting professor of political science and international relations at Seoul National University.

Chun led South Korea’s delegation for the six-party talks from 2006 to 2008, participating in discussions that led to the Feb. 13, 2007, and Oct. 3, 2007, agreements. The six-party talks, aimed at finding a peaceful resolution to the North Korean nuclear crisis, involved China, Japan, Russia, the United States and the two Koreas. Pyongyang walked out in 2009.

The Feb. 13 agreement called on North Korea to shut down and seal its Yongbyon nuclear facilities over the next 60 days, while all parties would work to provide 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil to North Korea within 60 days. Washington and Tokyo also committed to start talks to normalize relations with the regime.

In the Oct. 3 agreement, the North vowed to provide a complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear programs by the end of that year.

Kim led South Korea’s delegation to the six-party talks from 2008 to 2009 and was involved in Seoul’s handling of the nuclear crisis from 2004 to 2007 when he served as director general of the North American Affairs Bureau at the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Wi joined South Korea’s delegation for the six-party talks in the first and second rounds from 2003 and 2004 as deputy chief negotiator, and in the third round in 2004 as an adviser. From 2009 to 2011, he served as special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs at the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Q. What was the most crucial principle of the six-party talks?

: We created this sort of mileage system that was meant to prevent North Korea from postponing its implementation of the agreements. We set goals and gave out early rewards to the regime if it quickly fulfilled them - and delayed the rewards if it followed through slowly. There was a lack of trust between [North Korea and the rest of the group] so our key principle was that we’d go from commitment to commitment, action to action.

And the trickiest part of trying to denuclearize North Korea was inspection?

Chun: It all shattered in the end due to that. North Korea was confident it could hide its highly enriched uranium program from us, but they underestimated our ability to track it down. The North eventually refused inspections, leading the six-party talks to fall apart.

How can we overcome that obstacle?

: It will take a long time to perfectly verify [North Korea’s denuclearization]. That itself could elongate the time North Korea holds onto nuclear weapons. There’s no other way than to go step by step [in checking the North’s dismantlement of its nuclear stockpile], but there shouldn’t be any step that takes too long to achieve.

It’s also dangerous to compensate the North for each fulfillment it makes because if one side decides to halt its course of action, everything will be forced to stop right there.

During your term as Seoul’s chief negotiator for the six-party talks, North Korea walked out.

: Our principle was that we’d inspect the North scientifically, which required sampling. North Korea did not allow this, so the six-party talks foundered. As chair, China worked hard to convince the North and managed to lead the country to the water, but the regime refused to drink.

What lesson on denuclearization negotiations can be learned from past failures?

: Everything has to be done quickly. If we break the process leading to North Korea’s denuclearization into little steps like the last time, it’ll be hard to expect any different result.

What’s a good starter for the talks?

: International society has no trust in North Korea, so the regime has to earn it by first dismantling an imperative nuclear facility or [allowing inspectors to] take out nuclear materials. There needs to be an early show of commitment from the North that professes its sincerity.

Why did the Sept. 19 joint statement fail to bear fruit?

: It encompassed everything but was too abstract. We additionally signed the Feb. 13 and Oct. 3 agreements in 2007 to implement the Sept. 19 joint statement, laying out several steps for the North to take [toward denuclearization], but it kept refusing to do anything to its nuclear weapons.

How should South Korea and the United States approach the nuclear crisis this time?

: In the upcoming summits, Kim Jong-un should clearly promise to scrap his nuclear weapons instead of falling short at agreeing to engage in talks for that. Early on, the North should reveal its entire nuclear weapons program, cease all nuclear development activity and allow inspections. Once all these significant steps are secured, then the South Korean and U.S. allies can flexibly consider military options like [reduction] of their joint exercises.

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