Maximum pressure and no less
*The author, a former diplomat at the Korean Embassy in the United Kingdom, is a former visiting professor of media studies at Myongji University.
U.S. President Donald Trump rejoiced when he received a big white envelope containing a personal letter from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The letter was delivered by Kim Yong-chol, a special envoy of the North Korean leader. Without opening the letter, the president said the summit with Kim Jong-un on June 12 in Singapore would be on and added that the meeting could be held several times, if necessary. However, we worry that President Trump’s unpredictability makes him vulnerable to North Korea’s procedural delaying tactics.
Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave Kim Yong-chol, vice chairman of the Central Committee of North Korea’s Workers’ Party, a state reception. They escorted the North Korean envoy to the front yard of the White House to bid farewell. An old saying goes that it is impolite to be too modest.
President Trump said, to the journalists who covered the North Korean envoy’s visit, that relations with North Korea were progressing well and that he no longer wanted to use the phrase “maximum pressure.” This statement raises doubts that Trump’s stance on North Korea’s denuclearization has changed to a more conciliatory one.
President Trump said earlier that he would not repeat the error committed by his predecessors. However, if he does not maintain “maximum pressure” until North Korea’s denuclearization is complete, he will repeat the mistakes committed by his predecessors.
On April 27, the first phase of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula unfolded in Panmunjom. President Moon Jae-in, together with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, announced the Panmunjom Declaration. This heralded the advent of the era of peace on the Korean Peninsula.
However, even before the ink of the declaration dried up, North Korean officials called for the suspension of the annual South Korea-U.S. military drills and launched personal attacks on White House officials for pouring “great anger and hostility” on them. Then, on May 24, President Trump announced the cancellation of the summit with Kim Jong-un. This cast a dark cloud over the Kim-Trump summit in Singapore.
Now, the second phase will open in Singapore on June 12. President Trump and Chairman Kim will, in a historic gesture of reconciliation, exchange handshakes and make a “big deal” in which Washington gives assurances of the security of the North Korean regime, and the North, in return, agrees to a plan for the complete denuclearization of its nuclear programs.
The problem is that the drama has not dealt with the topic of denuclearization in earnest from the beginning, and it seems to be losing its purpose even further as time goes by. The Panmunjom Declaration was mostly about improving inter-Korean relations. There were only three lines related to denuclearization.
Analysts speculated that an in-depth discussion on the topic would be made during Kim Yong-chol’s visit to the United States, but it turned out to be wrong.
The meetings between Kim and Pompeo were nothing but a tour of New York’s skyscrapers and a briefing on the future of North Korea if Pyongyang agrees to complete denuclearization. And what Kim Yong-chol uttered were matters of common knowledge, such as how the final decision on denuclearization would be made by Kim Jong-un and how the North would complete 100 percent denuclearization.
Therefore, attention was focused on Kim Jong-un’s letter to President Trump that Kim Yong-chol carried with him. However, it did not meet expectations, either. It was in a big envelope, but the content was rather modest. It flattered President Trump, saying that he could achieve things that his predecessors couldn’t do, and the letter showed Kim’s keen desire to meet with President Trump and his desire to meet Trump often.
There was no mention of a clear plan for denuclearization. Incidentally, President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo believe in the verbal message Kim Yong-chol delivered to them: North Korea will complete 100 percent denuclearization.
Would Trump say, “It is good to have met this many times, but we must still ensure denuclearization,” to Kim Yong-chol?
As a way of ensuring the security of its regime, North Korea wants to eliminate military tension by declaring the end of the Korean War. Originally, the North had insisted on turning the armistice into a peace treaty.
However, considering that the conclusion of a peace treaty is not feasible as it includes the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Korea and the abolition of the Korea-U.S. alliance, declaring the end of the war comes with compromises.
If one pays attention to the spectacular success of the summit, one will miss the purpose of the talks and be dragged into North Korea’s negotiation tactics. He would think that reaching a political negotiation, including the declaration of the end of the Korean War and a peace treaty, will lead to the resolution of the problem. However, denuclearization is an issue that should be resolved before the declaration of the end of the Korean War and a peace treaty.
For the summit to be concluded, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program must be eliminated completely, and there are two conditions that should be met by North Korea to do so.
First, some 40 nuclear warheads and more than 1,000 short to medium-range ballistic missiles and intercontinental ballistic missiles held by the North should be removed. All nuclear facilities should be destroyed.
Second, special inspections must be allowed anytime and anywhere during the denuclearization verification process.
The goal of the summit is not to win the Nobel Peace Prize by declaring the end of the Korean War. It is to achieve the concrete and practical goal of removing nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles held by North Korea and removing their production facilities. If it is achieved, peace and prosperity will be guaranteed on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia.