Challenges for denuclearization
The author formerly served as the special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs and as the South Korean ambassador to Russia.
A year has passed since the first North Korea-U.S. summit, yet diplomacy between the two countries’ leaders is on the verge of collapse. We can’t let that happen because if it does, negotiations will be replaced by confrontation, which would be a retreat to the past.
So what went wrong? Pyongyang had its hopes too high after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un signed a four-point agreement with U.S. President Donald Trump on June 12 last year in Singapore. The regime thought it successfully convinced the Trump administration to adopt its denuclearization approach — denuclearizing the entire Korean Peninsula, not just the North, and moving step-by-step to remove nuclear weapons as Pyongyang and Washington build trust. As Kim signed the agreement, Pyongyang has been steadfastly clinging to the Singapore deal.
When Trump signed the deal, he put more weight into building trust with Kim than on the agreement itself. That’s why Trump tried to win Kim's heart by making a few concessions. That reflects Trump’s lack of understanding of the recalcitrant regime. It seems that he still does not know what the agreement means to North Korea. Trump’s close aides were aware of the problems with the agreement. Therefore, they tried to push through the third point of the deal, demanding North Korea work toward “the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Yet Pyongyang declined, citing the first point of the deal reading that the two countries would commit to “establish new relations.”
When the following denuclearization talks hit a logjam, North Korea tried to resolve it through a second summit with Trump, which took place in Hanoi, Vietnam, last February. Yet against Pyongyang’s expectations, Trump urged North Korea to give up its nuclear and missile development programs all at once, following the advice of his aides. Trump refused Pyongyang’s counter-proposal of sanctions relief in return for the demolition of its Yongbyon nuclear facilities.
While North Korea resorted to the phased resolution of its nuclear weapons development — as agreed in Singapore — the United States this time took a different approach — a complete denuclearization of North Korea at a stroke. The summit collapsed. Since then, North Korea has proposed to have another summit — hopefully by the end of this year — under the condition that Washington changes its attitude. At the same time, North Korea lambasted hawkish U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, while casting all its hope on Trump. Trump speaks highly of Kim, but shows no sign of changing his position. In the meantime, Pyongyang is reinforcing its negotiating power by reaching out to allies Russia and China.
So what lies ahead? As neither the United States nor North Korea is budging from its position in Hanoi — and the clock is ticking — both sides will ratchet up their criticisms of each other. Yet neither has given up on dialogue. The two countries can resume working-level discussions, and if they manage to find some middle ground, that may lead to a third summit. If both sides fail to make any progress before the year’s end, North Korea may attempt to figure out Washington’s position next year while once again considering military provocation. If Pyongyang fails to get what it wants even then, it will likely resort to provocation. But that will completely end the denuclearization talks followed by disastrous fallout.
What is left for the two countries now? First, North Korea and the United States must focus on preventing the talks between their leaders from collapsing. Some people may argue that Washington should stop negotiating with Pyongyang and, instead, add more sanctions on the regime. But that’s not a realistic plan. As long as China has North Korea’s back, there is no way sanctions alone can pressure the regime to throw in the towel. Negotiations and sanctions are also compatible. They’re simply the means to achieve a diplomatic goal. The question is how to strike a balance between the two options to denuclearize North Korea.
Second, to renew the momentum for dialogue, Washington and Pyongyang must moderate their demands. Pyongyang must stop clinging to the Singapore agreement and Washington must think flexibly about the proposal Pyongyang made in Hanoi. For its part, Seoul must suggest a creative idea as a mediator. If working-level denuclearization talks can resume, all parties must not make them go waste.
Third, Washington must not inflate North Korea’s expectations. It’s time to keep Pyongyang from expecting too much. At a time when the leaders of the United States and North Korea are exchanging letters, miscommunication could occur regardless of anyone’s intentions. If Trump hastily expresses an intention to carry out the Singapore agreement, Pyongyang might misjudge that Washington has changed its stance, and might respond to working-level discussions. But the truth will be revealed in the working-level talks — or worse, in a third North Korea-U.S. summit. We have all seen what high expectations lead to.
Fourth, the two countries must not rush toward another summit. Meticulous planning and thorough working-level discussions must come before to guarantee a successful leaders’ meeting. It won’t be easy to reach a deal in the next summit, but it’s still possible if Kim and Trump manage to find common ground: That’s what a summit is all about.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.