The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
In October 2018, not long after the North Korea-U.S. summit in Singapore, the Xiangshan Forum was held in Beijing. International media interested in how the Singapore meeting would play out, paid close attention to the international military conference. North Korean delegates would be attending and make public remarks. Song Il-hyok, deputy director of the Joseon Disarmament Peace Institute under the foreign ministry, “interpreted” the mention of Korean Peninsula denuclearization written in the Singapore agreement. “Denuclearization of the Joseon Peninsula means denuclearization of the entire peninsula. In other words, both South and North Korea must realize denuclearization together.” When I heard that, I had a feeling that the moment of truth would come earlier than expected.
In December 2018, the Korean Central News Agency of North Korea came up with a more detailed comment. “The Joseon-U.S. joint statement clearly states ‘denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,’ and the phrase ‘North Korea’s denuclearization’ cannot be found. Therefore, the correct definition of the phrase is a complete removal of the U.S. nuclear threat to Joseon before removing our nuclear deterrence capability.” Here, removing the U.S. nuclear threat directly refers to scrapping of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. This is linked to a ban on U.S. strategic assets such as the strategic bombers that fly to the Korean Peninsula whenever the North makes missile provocations and a suspension of Korea-U.S. joint military exercises. Ultimately, the phrase is extended to a demand for the withdrawal of the U.S. Forces Korea. Unless these demands are met, North Korea would not denuclearize.
The phrase “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” can be used as a justification to sabotage the denuclearization agreement whenever Pyongyang wishes. In fact, in 2007, when the six-party framework for talks was still alive, North Korea demanded a “simultaneous inspection in South and North Korea” as the United States pressed Pyongyang to accept inspection of its nuclear facilities and agree on verification. It was a de facto refusal of international inspections. In the end, the agreement that went as far as freezing and disabling the Yongbyon nuclear reactor was scrapped before inspection and verification. North Korea bought time and took the opportunity to advance its nuclear armaments.
The Biden administration started to officially use the term “complete denuclearization of North Korea” because it has seen through this in the course of reviewing America’s North Korea policy. Despite North Korea’s strong resistance, Washington wants to clarify the objectives of its new North Korea policy from the start and share it among its allies. The problem lies with us. “Denuclearization of North Korea,” which was stipulated in the joint statements of the Quad summit among the U.S., Japan, Australia and India and the U.S.-Japan 2+2 meeting, is not a phrase used by South Korea.
Foreign Minister Chung Ui-yong said that the expression “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” is more convincing since South Korea can demand it from the international community more confidently. He seemed to be reminding us that existing international agreements such as the September 19 joint statement and the Singapore statement include the phrase “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” But I cannot understand why one term lends confidence and the other does not. It is common sense in the international community that the core issue in denuclearization is North Korea’s denuclearization. Then, why is he rejecting the phrase “denuclearization of North Korea”? Isn’t it more honest to say that North Korea and China are not pleased with the nuclear umbrella of the United States and it is hard to openly advocate “denuclearization of North Korea”?
In diplomatic negotiations, ambiguous terms are intentionally used to leave room for interpretations in order to get beyond small obstacles. But essential terms need to be clarified. Strategic ambiguity cannot last forever. The concept of denuclearization that can no longer be delayed has reached that moment. In the Analects of Confucius, the “Reflection of Names” teaches that if the name is not correct, words go against reasons, and when the words go against reasons, things cannot be done.