The devil is in the detail

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The devil is in the detail

Senior negotiators from Seoul, Washington and Pyongyang entered working-level talks in Stockholm Saturday to discuss the agenda for the second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in late February. Kim Yong-chol, the vice chairman of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee, set the date upon meeting the U.S. president in the White House. Hopes are raised again for a breakthrough in denuclearization talks that have gone nowhere since the first summit between Trump and Kim in June last year.

In order for the second summit to bring about real action, more detail is necessary. The working-level talks could set the tone for the upcoming summit meeting. Since the devil is in the detail, actions may not follow through if there are loopholes in the agreement and roadmap. North Korea has been notorious for walking out of deals — both verbal and written.

There are more worries than hopes. Trump may compromise on complete denuclearization by ensuring the removal of the North Korean nuclear threat to U.S. territory. He can agree to easing sanctions or even normalization of ties if North Korea dismantles long-range missile systems that pose a threat to the U.S. mainland. Trump may want to take home results with North Korea from Vietnam for his own political breakthrough. North Korea would then gain recognition as a nuclear state.

Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, is inexperienced in dealing with North Koreans. Seoul must be ready to share its know-how and dialogue skills.

Seoul officials have flown into Stockholm to mediate the talks between Washington and Pyongyang. They must refrain from putting forward their own agenda. The Moon Jae-in administration believes it can achieve North Korea’s denuclearization through opening, exchanges and eased sanctions. A declaration of the war status is also sought to justify exchanges and the lifting of sanctions.

But the trajectory of past inter-Korean exchanges has taught us that we cannot fully trust the words of North Korean leaders alone. Sanctions must stay intact until North Korea dismantles not just its nuclear and missile engine facilities, but also presents details on its nuclear and missile arms and a roadmap on denuclearization. Seoul must watch itself so as not to give Washington the impression that it is siding with Pyongyang during the working-level talks.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 21, Page 30
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