Washington’s acknowledgment this week that Pyongyang is ready to discuss the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” may sound like a step toward ridding North Korea of its hard-won nuclear weapons, but experts and observers say such a move is extremely unlikely in the near-term and highlights a potentially dangerous perception gap between the two countries.
The United States on Sunday said that it had directly confirmed for the first time since a thaw in relations began that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is willing to discuss denuclearization during a highly anticipated summit with U.S. President Donald Trump set for sometime in the next two months.
What remains unclear, however, is whether the two sides, as well as South Korea and Japan, are on the same page in regards to what “denuclearizing the peninsula” would entail.
“North Korea has long said it would consider giving up its nuclear weapons program if the United States ended the ‘hostile policy’ toward it,” said Vipin Narang, a professor of international relations at MIT.
But what this means exactly is ambiguous. Narang and others have noted that the “denuclearization” phrasing can be traced back to at least 1992, when the two Koreas signed the Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula — a legally binding commitment to ridding the peninsula of nuclear weapons.
“The phrase ‘denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula’ is interesting,” Narang said. “Note it is not North Korean ‘rollback’ or ‘disarmament’ or ‘relinquishing’ its nuclear weapons, which imply unilateral action like in South Africa or Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. It explicitly puts a demand on the United States, too.”
At a minimum, Narang said, this demand would see Kim commit to scrapping his nuclear weapons only if the United States agreed to end its military alliance with South Korea. Kim would also likely insist that the U.S. pull back the “nuclear umbrella” it has extended over allies South Korea and Japan, and end its commitment to “extended deterrence” — its threat of nuclear retaliation if they are attacked by the North.
Experts say such a deal would be almost unthinkable for the United States. But in the era of Trump — who has long voiced skepticism of U.S. alliances — many remain cautious that anything could be a possibility under the mercurial leader.
“I reckon Pyongyang will push for this, but I’m highly doubtful the U.S. will touch it, even despite Trump’s fixation on deal-making,” said Andrew O’Neil, an expert on North Korea and a professor at Griffith University in Australia.
O’Neil said that any indication of Washington “messing with extended nuclear deterrence would trigger a major strategic reassessment of the alliance in Tokyo, major anxiety in Seoul — not to mention Canberra and in NATO capitals — and almost certainly result in the resignation of (U.S. defense chief Jim) Mattis and possibly a revolt in the Pentagon.”
O’Neil said that “denuclearizing the peninsula” could also be interpreted differently depending on the party.
“Essentially, it means different things to different constituencies,” he said. “For the Trump administration, at least for the hard-liners like (Secretary of State-designate Mike) Pompeo and (national security adviser John) Bolton, it connotes complete, verifiable and irreversible disarmament (CVID).”
Pompeo and Bolton are known hawks on North Korea, with both claiming that regime change there remains an option for ridding the country of its nukes.
For Kim, the concept of denuclearization is essentially a return to the 1990s, when Pyongyang agreed to visits by U.N. inspectors as well as limits on its nuclear and missile programs, O’Neil said.
“Denuclearization almost certainly means capping the program through commitments around a nuclear and missile testing moratorium,” as well as possibly allowing a handful of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors back into the country to verify fissile material accounting commitments, he said.
Kim has vowed never to part with his country’s “treasured nuclear sword,” which he views as the only thing that prevents regime change and keeps his family dynasty in power.
“Put another way, Pyongyang will conceive denuclearization as arms control, as distinct from disarmament,” O’Neil added.
South Korea, especially President Moon Jae-in, “will want something in between these two extremes,” while the Japanese position “will reflect the hard-line CVID posture.”
It’s these widely varied assumptions that could spell doom for hopes that a Kim-Trump summit might yield progress toward resolving the nuclear crisis.
“The danger is entering into negotiations with unrealistic expectations that Kim is just going to hand over the keys to his nuclear kingdom,” said MIT’s Narang. “He won’t.”
But Trump, who has surrounded himself with North Korea hawks in his Cabinet and who prides himself on his negotiating skills as a businessman, may be under the assumption that he can do what none of his predecessors could.
“Who else could do it, I mean honestly when you think,” Trump said last month. “They’re not going to send missiles up and I believe that, I really do. I think they want to do something. I think they want to make peace.”
The president said Monday that the summit would be held sometime in May or early June, and that “hopefully we’ll be able to make a deal on the de-nuking of North Korea.”
It’s unclear what kind of a deal Trump has in mind, but he and his surrogates have suggested that they will “leave fast” if progress in talks doesn’t seem possible.
The question is, if he fails, will his business acumen kick in? And will he seek some kind of face-saving agreement that sells the U.S. and its allies far short of its goals, or might Trump take another look at his military options?
“The surest way for the summit to end in disaster is if President Trump enters with the false belief that denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula means Kim Jong Un unilaterally surrendering his nuclear weapons,” said Narang. “When he doesn’t do that, will Trump feel betrayed by Kim and set up by Moon?”
Will he be “convinced that a long term negotiation that leads nowhere is a nonstarter … and believe that North Korea can only be rolled back by force? That’s one very real possibility.”
The other, said Narang, is that the summit ends with “some grandiose statements but we just muddle along,” while the North’s nuclear weapons program advances, and maintaining Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign “becomes difficult and unsustainable as China and Russia defect further.”
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