What is a commitment?
The author is the international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
In his recent confirmation hearing, Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong said that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is “committed to denuclearization.” Earlier, Unification Minister Lee In-young said Pyongyang had a willingness to denuclearize. National Security Adviser Suh Hoon said the same thing on a visit to Tokyo two years ago as head of the National Intelligence Service. Why should they tell a lie? According to Andrew Kim, former head of the CIA’s Korea Mission Center, the North Korean leader said he does not want his children to bear the burden of nuclear weapons on their backs.
We have all heard of Kim’s commitment to denuclearization. In his New Year’s address in 2019, Kim announced it was his “firm will” and “the invariable position” of the Workers’ Party and republic to “advance towards complete denuclearization.” The leader’s New Year’s address is regarded with absolute importance in North Korea. Once the infallible leader has made an announcement, it is made into a textbook for policy at each organizational level.
But few things in the world happen just according to one’s wishes. A mere commitment can’t always become reality, nor can a “denuclearization commitment” equate with denuclearization. Commitment and reality are different fields altogether. To realize denuclearization, North Korea will demand reciprocity, but for this to happen, conditions should be met. Otherwise, commitments will turn into empty promises.
The second North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February — coming just one month after Kim’s New Year’s address — was such an example. As the North’s offer to dismantle a nuclear facility at Yongbyon failed to meet the expectations of the United States, the talks broke down. It was a real-life example of how it is more difficult to align conditions and priorities than just to have commitments.
And two of the key conditions meant to guarantee this are the removal of U.S. troops from South Korea and the dismantlement of the U.S. alliance with Seoul. The suspension of joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States is an early stepping stone in this direction. The North incessantly calls on the South to put the nation first, but this effectively means cutting its ties with the United States.
Can South Korea and the United States take the two steps North Korea wants? The North’s commitments often turned into a commitment to advance its nuclear armaments once their demands were not met. This happened with the 1992 Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the 1994 North Korea-U.S. Agreed Framework reached in Geneva, and the Sept. 19 inter-Korean joint statement from 2005. In 2019, we heard Kim declare his commitment to denuclearization in person, but we also heard him talk about a Plan B in the same speech to augment the regime’s nuclear arsenal as part of a new path. “If the United States […] attempts to unilaterally enforce something upon us and persists in imposing sanctions and pressure against our Republic, we may be compelled to find a new way to defend the sovereignty of the country,” Kim said. North Korea is already walking on that path.
In the mid-2000s, I visited Pyongyang along with a civic group seeking to send aid to North Korea. There were no people with horns in the country. At Sunan International Airport on the last day of our stay, as we were shaking hands with our North Korean guide, who became familiar to us in our short stay, I sensed an ineffable sadness in his eyes. But the fact that we are one nation does not hide the cold realities surrounding the two Koreas. Days before, this guide suddenly took the cameras of our press corps and deleted the photographs inside their memory chips to prevent unauthorized photos from leaking outside. While we may have connected for a second through our eyes, he lived in a grim reality where he was forced to keep a strict watch over South Korean people.
Before stressing the North’s desire to denuclearize, we must not forget it has conditions Kim can never back away from. This will help us predict more effectively what kinds of plans the country will come up with next. Impatience leads to failure.