How to keep denuclearization on the table

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How to keep denuclearization on the table


Chairman of the Korea Peace Foundation and chairman of JoongAng Holdings, Hong Seok-hyun, left, and Park Myung-lim, a professor of political science at Yonsei University, right, share their views on North Korea-U.S. negotiations and the inter-Korean relationship. “Our mission is to map out a specific roadmap for North Korea denuclearization,” Hong said. [JANG JIN-YOUNG]

Inter-Korean relations can gain traction when the denuclearization of North Korea tops the agenda in upcoming talks between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, said Hong Seok-hyun, chairman of the Korea Peace Foundation. In an interview with Park Myung-lim, one of the directors of the foundation and a political science professor at Yonsei University, Chairman Hong stressed that the Seoul government should work to put denuclearization on the summit agenda with “determination even if it has to get red-faced” because the issue concerns the South Korean people utmost.

The two-way talk was arranged to examine the process so far this year on denuclearization and peace and the outlook ahead of the third inter-Korean summit of the year in September in Pyongyang. The two underscored that unity among the South Korea people is essential along with the roles of the Seoul and Washington governments for progress in denuclearization and the inter-Korean relationship.

For a breakthrough in the stalemate in denuclearization negotiations, they proposed that Washington offer to back a formal declaration of an end to the Korean War, which ended in an armistice in 1953, on condition that North Korea hand over a list of its nuclear materials. The two experts also emphasized that peaceful co-existence is more important than unification.

The following is a transcript of their discussion.


From left: Chairman Hong Seok-hyun, Prof. Park Myung-lim

Park: The denuclearization and peace process on the Korean Peninsula that picked up after the April 27 inter-Korean summit and June 12 North Korea-U.S. summit is in a deadlock. There are both hopes and concerns.

Hong: The back-to-back summits have been stunning events. But we cannot but worry about the future. There are concerns that involved parties might have taken the wrong actions from the beginning with regard to denuclearization. As a result, we are all facing the challenge of drawing up a specific action plan to denuclearize North Korea over a relatively short period of time.

Park: I agree. The leaders of South and North Korea and the United States have separately met to open a nuclear-free and peaceful path. What should come now is a specific agreement on how to make the journey. The North Korean nuclear issue was a grave matter when the Moon Jae-in administration took over in May of last year.

As a special envoy for Moon, you (Hong) met U.S. President Donald Trump and helped set a path for a peaceful and diplomatic means to solve the matter.

Hong: I still vividly remember the conversation I had with President Trump. He was fundamentally convinced of the force of power-backed peace and said he was willing to solve the problem with dialogue if the North was ready. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un must not take this lightly. Never has the issue of the Korean Peninsula preoccupied a U.S. president and his foreign affairs agenda so much.

Over the last 30 years, North Korean affairs mainly had been placed under the responsibility of an assistant secretary level in Washington. Now, the president has taken charge. But whether it will remain high on Trump’s agenda after the midterm elections in November is uncertain. Kim should read the currents well to make bold strides unimaginable or unachievable during the times of his grandfather and father.

Park: Kim’s utmost preoccupation is regime security and economic development. Those goals cannot be achieved without surrendering nuclear weapons. South Korea should persuade and influence North Korea so that Kim does not pass up opportunities while they are there. President Trump is a curious leader. Typically, he has been upsetting and destroying the global order, but at the same time challenged all-talk-no-action practices of international leaders in the face of predicaments. The way Trump has been approaching the denuclearizaton is sort of double-faced.

Hong: I would like to beseech President Trump to stay on his path with patience. I also wish he could be more trusting towards the Seoul government. It could be hard on Washington if it wants to act all the parts and reserve a supporting role for Seoul. Kim, on the other hand, should closely watch the Iran situation. President Trump has walked out of an international deal and reimposed sanctions for non-compliance even when Iran’s nuclear program poses far less of a risk than North Korea’s. The message was loud and clear: Without progress in denuclearization, sanctions won’t be lifted. Regardless of the chemistry between Trump and Kim, international society won’t agree to ease sanctions unless it sees incremental improvement. Kim must take face-saving moves for Seoul and Washington if it wants any development.

Park: President Moon has played a pivotal mediating role to bring forth dialogue momentum for Pyongyang and Washington. But once the process moved onto the action stage, Seoul’s role became peripheral. If Seoul does not move beyond a mediating role as a central stakeholder in a deal on the Korean Peninsula, any developments in the inter-Korean relationship won’t draw domestic or international support as they lag behind the denuclearization pace.

Hong: If the first summit between the two Koreas on April 27 had made progress in denuclearization, the talks between Kim and Trump might have gone better. The Seoul government might not have had a choice if Pyongyang insisted denuclearization talks be kept between it and Washington. But nuclear issues concern us most. The inter-Korean relationship would be restricted unless there is evident progress in denuclearization in the North. We must make it clear that we are a stakeholder in the issue of nuclear weapons.

Denuclearization, therefore, must be included on the agenda in the upcoming third inter-Korea summit in Pyongyang to provide traction to inter-Korean ties. Even if it has to make its face red, Seoul must insist on the agenda. To Washington, denuclearization makes up 99 percent of Korean affairs. President Moon must tell Washington that Seoul will play a certain part to solve the denuclearization conundrum, but at the same time must remind the United States of the fact that inter-Korean affairs are not entirely about nuclear issues so that we can have more maneuvering room.

Park: The fact that South Korea is one of biggest concerned parties on denuclearization is irrefutable. President Moon might have wished to reduce the war-like tensions and set the mood for dialogue to incrementally work towards denuclearization and a peace process the time he met Kim in April.

Hong: That would be true. He would not have had other options.

Park: Seoul and Washington must play their respective roles wisely. But we cannot forget Beijing. Seoul and Washington believe they have brought Pyongyang to their dialogue path, but then Kim went on to include China by meeting President Xi Jinping three times and fully restored the relationship between the two allies.

Hong: A head-on clash between China and the United States raises concerns about the two falling into Thucydides’s Trap, a Greek metaphor on the dangers of a rising power rivaling a ruling power as Athens challenged Sparta in ancient Greece or Germany did a century ago, as previously warned by Harvard scholar Graham Allison. It would bode badly for Pyongyang to befriend Beijing too closely.

Kim will have to walk a tightrope between the rival superpowers of the United States and China as his grandfather Kim Il Sung did between China and the Soviet Union. A game-changing move would be for Kim to give Trump the steering wheel to solve the nuclear issue. Then North Korea’s denuclearization will top Washington’s agenda even after the November election. I advise Kim to place the weight of about 70 percent on the United States in directing economic and diplomatic policies. He cannot bring about fundamental changes to the North if he chooses to live on Chinese aid.

Park: Chairman Kim will be tempted to get both the United States and China involved in the peninsula issues. But I would recommend him to make a strategic decision to take a path leaning more on the United States than on China.

Hong: You are right. Prioritizing the United States over China while maintaining ties with China is the right direction.

Park: What can be exchanged to ensure complete dismantlement of nuclear weapons would be the key to the denuclearization process. A sure exchange would be complete denuclearization for regime security, and one gambit could be the declaration of the end of the war in return for the list of nuclear materials in the North.

Hong: Given North Korea’s fear about threats to its regime, we must demonstrate goodwill and do our utmost to earn trust. The process should pan out incrementally and simultaneously. The pressure for denuclearization and a timetable on an action plan must take place at the same time. Achievement of complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) and the equally complete, verifiable and irreversible guarantee (CVIG) from the regime involves mutual trust. North Korea should register its nuclear materials and then proclaim an end to the war status quo. But the declaration should be a beginning to trust-building. If the two Koreas formally end the war and North Korea registers its nuclear materials, other processes such as opening a liaison office could pick up easier.

Park: What could be a determinant in the following stage would be the pace of easing sanctions in sync with nuclear dismantlement. North Korea’s yearning for economic opening and development is bigger than its will to denuclearize. Progress can be made on denuclearization by capitalizing on North Korea’s aspirations for economic development.

Hong: It will all come down to a wise balance of easing sanctions for denuclearization. Kim must be able to visualize North Korea a decade or two later and question why he should cling to nuclear weapons. North Korea has immeasurable growth potential. It could grow at a faster pace than Vietnam and China after opening. But it must make convincing dismantlement moves.

The North Korean leadership should make no mistake about it. Seoul’s role is also clear cut. Washington cannot be patient with Pyongyang forever. Our government must persuade North Korea not to waste the window of opportunity while it is open. Seoul should also watch its pace in economic cooperation with the North so that the developments do not worry or irk Washington.

Park: Won’t opening to the world bring a great leap to North Korea in terms of economic development?

Hong: North Korea is in a very favorable situation. If Pyongyang joins the international economic order, all the global lenders such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development will be willing to help. If international lenders chip in,

North Korea’s economy could quickly advance without much capital from the South. North Korea is like a blank sheet and Kim has the power to write whatever he wants. North Korea’s economic fate hinges on his will.

Park: It seems that the United States is entirely preoccupied with denuclearization and the South in the inter-Korean relationship. Some progressives envision unification out of nationalistic zeal.

But unification with a lingering nuclear danger is highly dangerous. Denuclearization and improvement in inter-Korean ties must go hand in hand, and peace instead of unification should be pursued. Our ultimate goal should be changed from unification to lasting peace.

Hong: I agree entirely. The two Germanys never mentioned unification in the process of integration. In fact, a government ministry handling domestic affairs took charge of all issues related to reunification.

We also need to unite amongst ourselves first. The liberals and conservatives must form a united front and propose to create a community first with the North. Dialogue channels must be set permanently to build lasting policies to work towards an integrated government.

Park: I fully agree. We should learn from the wisdom of West Germany’s approach to solve internal problems before addressing unification issues. The South must be united first for lasting peace. Without integration of the liberal and conservative fronts, we cannot imagine a union of the South and North.

Hong: In order not to waste momentum, the Moon administration must continue dialogue with the conservatives in drawing up policies. Germany held a coalition and pursued policies towards the East with consistency. Peace cannot be achieved on one wing.

Park: It may not be easy for the Moon government, which gained power through the removal of an impeached conservative president, to gain faith from the conservative front. But liberals and conservatives must become one in the common goal of peace. Integration is essential also for reforms.

Hong: The Moon administration has been running at a maximum pace since it was inaugurated. It needs to find a moment for a breather. The future path could be bumpier. It must accelerate the pace in denuclearization and keep Washington focused. It could be more problematic if no progress is made in denuclearization even after the two Koreas have opened up.

It must make stronger efforts to win favor with the public as sentiment can turn more negative amid worsening economic conditions.

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