‘The summit is the final chance to handle the nuclear crisis’

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‘The summit is the final chance to handle the nuclear crisis’


Han Yong-sup, Professor at Korea National Defense University

With the fate of North Korea’s nukes on the table, all eyes are now focused on the upcoming summit between Pyongyang and Washington. The opportunity to end half a century of futile negotiations on the issue appears to be on the verge of becoming reality.

Han Yong-sup, a professor at Korea National Defense University, has a long resume related to North Korea’s denuclearization. In addition to serving as a former president at the Korea Nuclear Policy Society (2012-15), he was also director general of the Research Institute for National Security Affairs (2005-08), special assistant to the Korean minister of national defense (1993) and senior staff member to the South-North Joint Nuclear Control Commission.

His recent book, “The Fate of North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons,” uses North Korean source material to explore the process of nuclear weapons development through three generations of leadership in Pyongyang. We asked Han about his outlook on the upcoming U.S.-North Korea summit.

Q. Please give us your analysis of the inter-Korean summit and the joint commitment to complete denuclearization of the peninsula.

A. The agreement to move towards a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula is highly meaningful. The fact that a nuclear-armed North Korea has agreed to this is undoubtedly significant. Since it would have been highly unlikely that Pyongyang would have surrendered any more of its negotiating cards ahead of its summit with the United States, I believe the inter-Korean summit was as successful as it could have been.

Do you believe Kim Jong-un’s commitment to denuclearization is sincere?

Kim has proceeded with elementary steps, like freezing further nuclear tests, to establish trust and prove his willingness to denuclearize his country. However, we shouldn’t overlook the level of publicity and sheer amount of resources Pyongyang has devoted toward nuclear arms over these last seven years. It is extremely difficult to imagine they would get rid of something they achieved after turning their back to the entire world. It is up to them to continue to prove their sincerity, and it is up to us to continue to pressure them.

You’ve stressed in your book that dismantlement, rather than denuclearization, should be the verifiable goal of the U.S.-North Korea summit. Can you elaborate?

The North Korea-U.S. summit is the fourth and final opportunity to handle the nuclear crisis. None of the promises made in the 1992 Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula were kept. Discussions between Washington and Pyongyang arrived at freezing North Korea’s nuclear facilities at the time but did not address the nuclear materials and weapons Pyongyang had made before that.

Currently, North Korea possesses plutonium, uranium and hydrogen bombs. If we approach the negotiations with the vague language of “denuclearization,” then we will ultimately fail to solve the present crisis. At the U.S.-North Korea summit, a verifiable process must be devised through which denuclearization can be pursued.

How should inspections be staffed and organized?

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is bound to be limited in terms of inspection, since they can only look into the facilities reported by the North Koreans themselves. Nearly all of Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities have a military purpose, but the IAEA is barred from inspecting military installations. Moreover, North Korea has expelled IAEA inspectors before. For these reasons, the Americans should play the primary role in the verification process. In addition, there should be an international joint inspection team made up of six-party talks member states such as South Korea, Japan, China and Russia as well as the IAEA. The United States, which is experienced in matters of nuclear disarmament, must be the central organizer and overseer of the process.

After North Korea successfully developed nuclear weapons, the range of facilities and materials subject to verification became much wider. Give us your thoughts on this.

We can summarize this issue in a few points. First, nuclear materials and the facilities that produce them must be inspected. These include nuclear research centers, nuclear installations at Yongbyon, nuclear reactors and nuclear reprocessing enrichment centers. Next, we have nuclear weapons factories and weapons testing facilities. There must also be inspections of military bases where these weapons are installed. Lastly, an organization must be installed through which manpower devoted to nuclear development can be re-purposed toward civilian uses.

It may seem a long way off now, but how should nuclear materials left over from North Korea’s nuclear disarmament be dealt with?

They should be shipped to the United States. Fifty tons of plutonium and 500 tons of uranium were transported to the United States in the nuclear disarmament process following the fall of the Soviet Union.

What lessons can we take away from previous nuclear-related negotiations with North Korea?

In the past we failed to address North Korea’s motivations and actual nuclear policy during our negotiations with them. The agreements reached were largely superficial and dealt with only with short-term solutions. The first lesson we should take away is that negotiations failed to deal with the fundamental motives behind Pyongyang’s actions. Secondly, we must remember that the objectives and strategy between participating member states in the negotiations were not aligned. The other four members of the six-party talks other than the U.S. and North Korea did not regard denuclearization as their first priority. One advantage we have now is that North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are clear. A fundamental solution must be pursued with all cards on the table.

Is there anything you would like to suggest to our government based on your knowledge of past negotiations?

We must have a unified consensus nationally that transcends party lines in order to pursue the next steps following the U.S.-North Korea summit. There must also be intimate cooperation between the governments in Seoul and Washington as well as between its professionals. The government had advisers to prepare for the inter-Korean summit, but currently we lack an organization that can amass all our domestic expertise relevant to the denuclearization process. Without investing all our efforts, the entire process is at risk.

BY OH YOUNG-HWAN [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr ]
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