Pundits agree talks will happen. But what comes next?

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Pundits agree talks will happen. But what comes next?


In a series of dramatic twists and turns, rapprochement between North Korea and the United States remains both tenuous and unremittingly hopeful. After abruptly canceling his summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un last Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump raised the possibility on Saturday that talks would proceed as planned on June 12 in Singapore.

In the meantime, an unexpected summit meeting occurred on the same day between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim. The two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the agreement from their first meeting on April 27. Rarely before have events on the Korean Peninsula unfolded at such a fast and unexpected pace, and the entire world is watching with anticipation as the parties involved continue to maneuver ahead of a historic meeting.

The Korea Peace Foundation hosted a roundtable discussion on recent developments on the Korean Peninsula with a panel of academics specializing in North Korean issues at the JoongAng Ilbo’s headquarters in central Seoul on Sunday. The panel comprised Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korean studies professor at Dongguk University; Kwon Man-hak, a political science professor at Kyung Hee University; Kim Byung-yeon, an economics professor at Seoul National University; Park Myeong-rim, a regional studies professor at Yonsei University; Park Young-ho, an international relations professor at Kangwon National University; Park Ihn-hwi, an international studies professor at Ewha Womans University; Han Yong-sup, a military strategy professor at Korea National Defense University; Hong Hyun-ik, a researcher at the Sejong Institute; and Hwang Ji-hwan, an international relations professor at the University of Seoul. The discussions were moderated by Oh Young-hwan, a JoongAng Ilbo columnist and vice chairman of the Military Security Research Institute. Below are edited excerpts from the event.

Q. Let’s discuss the events that led up to the second inter-Korean summit on Saturday and its results.

Koh Yu-hwan:
After Trump abruptly canceled the North-U.S. summit, the two Koreas’ leaders appear to have felt a sense of risk as the momentum of engagement was suddenly interrupted. The current situation stands unfavorably for North Korea. If the Trump-Kim summit fails, talks about a military option are likely to resurface in the United States. Kim seems strongly committed to economic development, but it will be impossible to pursue this without a policy shift. The latest inter-Korean summit verified that North Korea’s fundamental intentions have not changed despite the string of misunderstandings that has ensued in recent weeks.

Park Young-ho: The second inter-Korean summit was held at the request of Kim, who wanted South Korea’s help in approaching the United States. In the past, Pyongyang used to pursue a policy of Tongmibongnam, which refers to a strategy of shunning the South and trying to deal with the United States directly, but now their strategy seems to be one of Tongnamjeonmi, or communicating with the South to relay their messages to the United States.

In cases like this when North Korea was affronted in the past, Kim Jong-il, the current leader’s father, would protest strongly and issue verbal threats against the United States. Kim Jong-un, however, has shown a very different type of leadership compared to his father.

Park Ihn-hwi: The recent inter-Korean summit is a clear display of Moon’s strategy of embracing both the North and United States as a mediator. In order to allay American concerns, he also underscored Pyongyang’s commitment to denuclearization at his news conference on Sunday announcing the meeting’s results. We could also observe hints of his sustained efforts to realize the Trump-Kim summit by leaving the meaningful role of negotiating denuclearization to the United States.

What do you think was the fundamental reason behind the series of flip-flops that has ensued on the North-U.S. summit?

Han Yong-sup:
The underlying reason appears to be lack of a unified stance in terms of denuclearization on North Korea’s part. Despite having taken positive steps toward denuclearization by freezing their program and demolishing the Punggye-ri test site, North Korea’s military establishment has decided to focus on criticizing the United States without properly using its diplomatic channels. Trump turned the tables on North Korea when he canceled the summit on the day North Korea closed Punggye-ri. Although the summit between Kim and Moon revived the possibility of a meeting between Kim and Trump, it is up to Kim to demonstrate his commitment to complete denuclearization through a phone conversation or in writing, as Trump indicated in his letter.

Hwang Ji-hwan: The threat of cancellation seems to be the result of conflict between Trump’s negotiation strategy based on unpredictability and Kim’s strategy of brinkmanship. North Korea appears to have been dissatisfied with U.S. officials persistently mentioning the Libya model of denuclearization. Pyongyang made several significant gestures such as the release of three American hostages and the shutdown of a test site, but in their eyes, the United States did not reciprocate properly. Therefore, their response was to renew a strategy of brinkmanship as in the past, but they were shocked when Trump reacted even more strongly by simply canceling the summit.

Trump brought up the role of Chinese President Xi Jinping in changing North Korea’s posture. What do you think about that?

Kim Byung-yeon:
Trump is sending a message of pressure to North and South Korea as well as China by canceling the North Korea-U.S. summit. Trump may be thinking that Xi promised to open up a back door to sanctions against North Korea when he met with Kim for a second time on May 8. However, the China factor is not a critical element in the negotiating game between Pyongyang and Washington. Some are concerned that sanctions against the North will be weakened, but in reality, the most important element in the sanctions is the ban on North Korea’s mineral exports. This is something that China, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, cannot simply revoke.

Park Myeong-rim: In the face of tightening relations between Pyongyang and Beijing, Trump’s withdrawal from the summit relays a strong message to North Korea warning them that they themselves are the principal agent in negotiations with the United States and not China.

How do you foresee the outcome of the North-U.S. summit now that it appears likely to happen after all?

Park Ihn-hwi:
Mistrust about the North’s willingness to denuclearize lingers in American minds, while the North Koreans are concerned that the United States will not guarantee regime security. The two sides are likely to arrive at a compromise between the United States’ position of immediate denuclearization and the North’s desire for a gradual process by agreeing to a speedy but phased approach.

Kim Byung-yeon: Kim is talking about economic development as compensation for denuclearization. Economic growth will be vital to strengthening the legitimacy of his rule and prolonging it, but the United States’ promises in this regard have proven insufficient. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo brought up private capital investment following reform in North Korea, but his words lack detail. Pyongyang is trying to sell its weapons, but the buyer, Washington, is not acknowledging their proper value. At this point, the United States needs to reduce the disparity between expectations and reality regarding compensation for denuclearization.

Hong Hyun-ik: Two more obstacles to the summit remain intact. The United States says North Korea will prosper once it gives up its nukes, but it has not yet discussed specific measures such as easing sanctions, opening up official communication channels or signing a peace treaty. As Moon has said, working-level dialogue between the two countries will be necessary to alleviate Pyongyang’s concerns.

Koh Yu-hwan: North Korean First Vice Minister Kim Kye-gwan’s conciliatory statement on Friday demonstrates that North Korea indeed possesses a willingness to accept Trump’s version of denuclearization. They have shown they are capable of pursuing complete and immediate denuclearization. In the press conference after his second summit with Kim, Moon mentioned that Kim said, “We are not completely convinced that the United States will guarantee regime security in the event of our denuclearization.” In the end, the most important variable will be whether Washington will deliver guarantees on regime security and the speed of such delivery.

Park Myeong-rim: The key is the trade between complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) and complete, verifiable and irreversible guarantees [of regime security]. It is important to clarify at which point a peace treaty and normalization of North-U.S. relations fits into the denuclearization process.

Another issue is the follow-up to a potential agreement. The United States has eroded its credibility by unilaterally withdrawing from international agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Paris climate accords and Iran nuclear deal. Personally, I am concerned that any agreement struck between Pyongyang and Washington will lack credibility.

Koh Yu-hwan: I agree. The negotiations are bound to involve a trade in security elements. As of now North Korea remains unconvinced, since Libya’s precedent shows that a peace treaty and normalization of relations does not guarantee regime security. As a result, there needs to be a multilateral security regime that involves China and Russia once denuclearization is enforced.

Kim Byung-yeon: The primary concerns of dictators are always domestic. Kim values economic affairs and has a practical disposition. One possible way to persuade North Korea into giving up its nukes could be including a massive, internationally funded economic aid package in the deal.

Kwon Man-hak: The realization of the Trump-Kim summit will be determined by the results of working-level negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang. Personally, I believe negotiations will produce a deal with substantial results. This is because North Korea is more desperate compared to the past. Both the North-U.S. summit and recent inter-Korean summit happened on Pyongyang’s initiative. They are unable to further withstand the pressure of international sanctions. The United States is therefore at an advantage in any negotiations that follow.

On the other hand, if North Korea’s intentions on key issues cannot be verified at a working-level meeting, there is little likelihood of a summit even happening. Before engaging in a summit, the United States will certainly attempt to confirm whether North Korea will indeed agree to complete denuclearization and whether the United States’ military presence in South Korea remains is up for negotiation. The United States is a democracy. If these factors are not verified before moving onto a summit, it is likely to incite the wrath of the public.

Han Yong-sup: As in the case of the Geneva accords, high-level talks will inevitably follow the summit. Because they engaged with the United States under President Clinton, North Korea already possesses various negotiators experienced in dealing with Washington. By contrast, the Trump administration lacks experts with deep knowledge of North Korea or nuclear nonproliferation. If this isn’t rectified soon, Washington is bound to weaken its position in future talks.

Park Young-ho: I believe a maximum-level deal can be realized if the summit goes through. Kim understands that a foundation needs to be laid in order to pursue economic development. Therefore, he is demonstrating positive signals toward denuclearization in order to satisfy Trump, at least on a superficial level. A deal approximating CVID is indeed possible because North Korea already possesses a substantial nuclear capacity and extensive data concerning nuclear arms.

There was a point of difference between the North and South’s announcements after their second summit. North Korea said the two leaders discussed “regional peace and security, and issues that must be resolved to realize prosperity.” This indicates that Pyongyang could bring up U.S. forces in South Korea in future negotiations.

Any suggestions for the South Korean and American governments?

Hong Hyun-ik:
It is important to measure expectations on the North-U.S. summit. The United States should think about following up with a second summit. Not everything can be realized at once, and building mutual trust requires agreement on goals and pursuing them faithfully. The United States needs to provide specific details on how it can compensate the North after receiving a promise on CVID.

Sanctions against North Korea should be pursued with some flexibility. Some restrictions can be lifted in the denuclearization process and a snap-back clause — that is, renewing sanctions if Pyongyang reneges on its commitments — should be implemented. Washington also needs to ease sanctions through measures it can pursue without congressional approval, such as establishing an official communication channel. An announcement to formally end the Korean War should also be made before signing a peace treaty.

Han Yong-sup: When it shut down the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, North Korea invited foreign journalists, but not the International Atomic Energy Agency, to witness the event. Rather than focusing on propaganda, they must take measures to enhance their international credibility. For example, some are suggesting that after the summit with the United States, North Korea can perform “front loading” [taking preliminary steps] by taking apart three to five of its nuclear weapons and shipping them to France.

If China is involved in the process, negotiations are bound to become more complicated. Before addressing issues like the U.S. military in South Korea or a peace arrangement on the Korean Peninsula, the two countries should concentrate their efforts on verifying whether a post-nuclear North will abide to the internationally ratified nonproliferation treaty.

Park Ihn-hwi: If we look back at the comments made by Kim Kye-gwan or Vice Foreign Affairs Minister Choe Son-hui, we can see North Korea was not trying to cut off its dialogue with the United States. Kim Kye-gwan’s statement following Trump’s cancellation of the summit reflects Pyongyang’s commitment to the summit. Nevertheless, a degree of rational suspicion must be held toward their intentions, given the multiple times they have reneged on past agreements.

I also want to address the variables regarding China. Moon’s mediating role has proven to be effective between Pyongyang and Washington, but not between Beijing and Washington. If China becomes involved in these negotiations, the rules of the game are bound to become more complicated, but on the other hand the international scope of the North’s nuclear issues widens and therefore expands each party’s stakes. The South Korean government should try to further its role as a mediator with regard to China as well.

Finally, we have the “normal nation” issue of the North. That is, North Korea wants to normalize its status in the international arena. We must try to understand these concerns given that denuclearization and economic development will inevitably change North Korea’s status as a nation. This change may be precipitated domestically, but South Korea can actively accelerate it by introducing foreign influences.

Park Myeong-rim: China’s recent activity proves somewhat disconcerting. Since the “blood ties” between the North and China have been restored recently, rapprochement with North Korea may prove to be a tumultuous path if we are unable to control the China factor and bring them in as a partner in the process. Any future deals between Pyongyang and Washington may result in only a nominal agreement and actual negotiations will drag on.

The key to working-level talks is verifiability. International attempts to verify results may collide with temptations by the North to conceal some of its weapons. When the United States was negotiating arms reduction with the Soviet Union, the motto was “trust, but verify.” Now, it appears to be “do not trust, and verify, verify, verify.”

The time has come for South Korea to change its strategy and paradigm. As much as we are a principal agent in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, we, too, must concentrate our efforts on the objective of denuclearization. If we are divided domestically over a peace arrangement before North Korea completes its denuclearization, we may repeat our past mistake of lacking a unified stance toward the North. Therefore, we need to participate in the negotiations not only as a mediator, but also as a principal party.

Park Young-ho: Kim Jong-un has proven to be quite a different type of leader than his father. As a young leader, he wants to build a new North Korea, but finds it difficult to move past its old habits. While he has completed the weapons program initiated by his father, it has proven to be an obstacle in his goal of modernizing his country. Therefore, he has taken the opposite stance of approaching the United States on the denuclearization of his country. Since this has become a central issue, South Korea must participate in talks as a principal agent.

I want to reiterate Prof. Park Ihn-hwi’s point about North Korea’s status as a normal nation. In order to ally Kim’s fears and convince him to pursue denuclearization and economic development, South Korea must be prepared to acknowledge North Korea’s status as a normal nation and demonstrate that the two Koreas can coexist peacefully. In that regard, I want to underscore the importance of the words that Moon used to sign the guest book during his recent summit with Kim: “with Chairman Kim of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” In the future, we must send signals demonstrating that we effectively regard the North as a real country in terms of our policy toward them and toward denuclearization.

Hwang Ji-hwan: South Korea is very prone to wishful thinking. We must respect the fact that both the United States and North Korea each have their own agenda and strategy. This is a fight against time. The leaders of all parties must reserve sufficient time to consistently pursue negotiations. The United States must avoid appearing unpredictable in its stance toward the North. Canceling the summit or flip-flopping are actions that should not be repeated. If such behavior continues, North Korea’s foreign policy is bound to shift accordingly.

Kwon Man-hak: Working-level talks between Pyongyang and Washington will continue. An uphill battle is expected to clear a minefield of issues that litter the North Korea problem. In the process, we will see if negotiations yield complete denuclearization or merely a reduction of arms. Both sides are concerned about the possibility of betrayal from each other. A compromise is necessary to resolve these suspicions, and a clear timeline must be agreed on beforehand.

Effective negotiations must begin to address denuclearization and a peace arrangement. Once the North decommissions its nukes, they must be transported out of the country. This will probably take around three to six months, but when it is complete, economic sanctions should be lifted and followed by investment and aid. Concerns about the concealment of any nuclear arms can be put off until later. Once North Korea is properly integrated into the international economy, concealment of any nukes may become meaningless anyway.

BY CHA SE-HYEON, CHUNG YEONG-KYO [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]
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