Prospects for denuclearization
The author is former special representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs and former ambassador to Russia.
Dismantling a reclusive and secretive system like North Korea is a difficult challenge. But there is a small consolation for the people who have to face the challenge. For them, public documents released by the North serve as a useful source of information. The North’s documents are the product of reasonable, consistent and meticulous planning. Whether they are true or disguise the truth, they show the North’s intentions. Analyzing the documents allows us to understand its intentions up to a certain point. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address is a good example as it contains some meaningful points.
First, on North-U.S. relations, Kim expressed the position that relations had made little progress because the United States failed to keep promises despite the historic Singapore summit. He demanded the United States take reciprocal measures, as agreed in Singapore, to form a new relationship, establish a peace regime and completely denuclearize.
Furthermore, Kim said the North-U.S. relations can make a new breakthrough, just like the grand transformation of inter-Korean relations, and expressed his intention to have a second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump. At the same time, Kim said that North Korea cannot but find a new path if the United States fails to keep the promises it made in the Singapore summit and continues sanctions and pressures.
Kim’s remarks on North-U.S. relations are lengthier and more specific than in the past. The speech shows that North Korea will put the focus of its foreign policy on relations with the United States this year. The message is that he will meet with Trump again because he believes that problems will be solved if the United States follows through with the Singapore agreement.
On inter-Korean relations, Kim said he is extremely satisfied with the accomplishments made last year and compared them to the shortcomings in North-U.S. relations. He stressed that as the two Koreas struck a great deal, the important point now is implementing it. He underscored the importance of cooperation between the two Koreas, warning against the possibility of South Korea not implementing the inter-Korean agreements due to outside pressure. Specifically, Kim mentioned the need for Seoul and Washington to stop their joint drills and suspend the deployment of U.S. strategic assets in South Korea. He also talked about the possibility of resuming the operation of the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mount Kumgang tours.
And yet, Kim did not mention a plan to visit South Korea as agreed in the previous inter-Korean agreement. That’s a sharp contrast to his willingness to have another summit with Trump. Kim also did not mention declaring an end to the Korean War. Instead, he proposed a negotiation to replace the current truce agreement with a peace treaty. Based on his remarks, we can make some predictions.
First, the second North-U.S. summit will likely be pushed forward aggressively. As Kim expressed his intention to meet with Trump — and as Trump did so earlier this week — the two countries will soon have talks. Kim Yong-chol, the vice chairman of the Central Committee of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo may contact one another again. There is a high possibility that the two sides will resume negotiations to prepare for a second summit.
Next, the second North-U.S. summit’s outcome remains unclear. Kim’s New Year’s address offers an indication that the outlook is not optimistic, because the North’s leader has already defined the current problems and solutions within the framework of implementation of the Singapore agreement.
As the actual reason for the deadlock between Pyongyang and Washington was the implementation of the Singapore agreement, there can hardly be room for negotiations, particularly since Kim made that a public guideline. North Korea will stick to the Singapore agreement, but the United States cannot respond positively. Actually, the United States planned to change the North’s perspectives through the second summit. If the North does not budge, the United States may want to delay the summit. Then, new aspects will have to be factored in. Trump prefers summits and short-term wins. Though a second summit will likely take place, the Trump factor will affect the outcome of the summit.
If Trump persuades Kim and creates a larger principle of denuclearization, negotiations will gain momentum. If the summit breaks down, there will be a catastrophic ending. But if the two leaders agree on a small package deal of some denuclearization and some rewards, the summit will be packaged as a success and difficult tasks will be handed over to working-level negotiations. Then a deadlock will most likely emerge again.
Third, Kim’s visit to South Korea can be delayed. The speech did not mention the visit at all. It is understandable why Kim sent a letter to President Moon at the end of last year and talked about the trip. At the time, North Korea already decided that it would not mention the trip in Kim’s New Year’s address and instead discussed the issue in the letter to Moon. Before Kim visits South Korea, there could be another summit at Panmunjom.
Fourth, there is a possibility that declaring the end of the Korean War will not be on the agenda. The North is turning to a negotiation on establishing a peace regime on the peninsula. Therefore, South Korea is facing a difficult situation. It must find its place and role in the structure centered on North Korea and the United States, and contribute to improving the situation. It must make efforts to ensure that a second North-U.S. summit does not fail. It must handle North Korea adroitly as Pyongyang will demand closer inter-Korean cooperation.
The New Year has begun. The outcome of the historic summits last year is expected to bear fruit this year. I hope that involved parties produce a great turning point toward the goal of denuclearization and peace despite the tough challenges ahead.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Sunday, Jan. 5-6, Page 31