If North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is truly committed to the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, then there is much to look forward to as Kim begins a series of summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump. Skepticism is in order, however. It is not clear if Kim’s definition of denuclearization matches that of the rest of the world, nor can we be certain that he will honor promises made in those meetings. Jaw-jaw is always preferable to war-war, but diplomacy can only succeed if it is realistic and hard-nosed.
We have come a long way in nine months. In August, Trump was dismissing Kim as “little rocket man,” and warning that a miscalculation would prompt “a fire and fury like the world had never seen.” Kim responded by calling Trump “a mentally deranged U.S. dotard.” Yet since the beginning of the year, Kim has engaged in a diplomatic charm offensive that produced North Korean participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, a summit this week with Moon and a scheduled first meeting between a sitting president of the United States and his North Korean counterpart.
To show his good faith, Kim has promised to suspend nuclear and missile tests, to close his country’s nuclear test site, and according to South Korean sources, he is no longer demanding the removal of U.S. forces from South Korea as a condition of denuclearization. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has called this “a step forward and we welcome it as a positive move.” While he is right, there is less to those promises than meets the eye.
Last November, Pyongyang declared that its new intercontinental ballistic missile “with super-large heavy warhead” marked “the completion of the rocket weaponry system development.” In other words, as Kim said last weekend, “under the proven condition of complete nuclear weapons, we no longer need any nuclear tests.” Its Punggye-ri nuclear test site has so weakened Mount Montap that the geological structure has been compromised and threatens to collapse, which would create a radioactive catastrophe. In other words, neither promise entails much of a sacrifice.
Just as significant is the history of the six-party talks. In September 2005, those negotiations yielded a joint statement that called for the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and North Korea agreed to abandon all nuclear weapons and nuclear programs and return to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as soon as possible. That historic agreement soon fell apart and North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon in October 2006, adding that it would only give up its nuclear capabilities when there was worldwide nuclear disarmament.
Japan’s position is like that of much of the rest of the world. As Suga explained, “Our policy is to seek the abolishment of all of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles in a complete, verifiable, and irreversible manner.” Critical to any deal is verification. Pyongyang’s history is not encouraging. It has cheated on every previous denuclearization agreement it has signed. A mere promise to comply will not suffice.
There is a danger that Trump will be so blinded by his fixation on doing the unprecedented, showing up his predecessors and striking a deal, that he will focus on the words that Kim uses and not on their meaning. When successive North Korean leaders have said they want to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, they did not mean the mere removal of nuclear weapons from that territory — after all, the only nuclear weapons on the peninsula are theirs. Rather, they have sought the withdrawal of the 28,000 U.S. forces currently stationed in South Korea, along with the removal of the U.S. nuclear extended deterrent from its ally South Korea, and in some cases, Japan as well. This should be a nonstarter for any U.S. president, but Trump’s skepticism about the value of U.S. alliances has planted a seed of doubt about what he might accept.
The immediate danger is that South Korea will be seduced by Kim’s approach and Moon will leave his meeting convinced of the need to resume economic ties to build on the diplomatic momentum. If Seoul defects from the maximum pressure approach that has helped bring Kim to the negotiating table, then China and Russia will quickly follow. After a meeting with the U.S. president — the long-sought goal of every North Korean leader — that is likely Kim’s greatest ambition.
Trump has tweeted of “Possible progress being made in talks with North Korea,” concluding that “May be false hope, but the U.S. is ready to go hard in either direction!” The key word here is “possible.” Trump, like Moon and all other interlocutors, must be clear-eyed about talks, both open to compromise and skeptical about promises.