Any remaining illusions about North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization should have been shattered by a recent statement from the country’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). Pyongyang bluntly declared Dec. 20 that it will never unilaterally give up its nuclear weapons unless the United States first removes what it calls “the nuclear threat.” That threat, argues the North, emanates not just from nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula — of which the only ones are North Korean, by the way — but includes neighboring areas. In other words, North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons unless the U.S. withdraws its defense guarantees from all of Northeast Asia. That claim is untenable and reveals how empty Pyongyang’s commitment to denuclearization truly is.
After the Singapore summit in June between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the two men claimed that they had put their two countries’ relationship on a new track. Trump even proclaimed that “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.” That optimism proved unfounded.
Subsequent negotiations foundered. The immediate question was North Korea’s readiness to declare its nuclear inventory. Pyongyang refused to provide one, arguing it had already done enough and that the U.S. should first demonstrate its commitment to peace by removing economic sanctions. Believing that those measures had forced Kim to the negotiating table, Washington refused, creating an impasse.
Behind this sequencing issue was a second, even more important, conceptual problem. While the U.S., like the rest of the world, sought North Korea’s denuclearization, Pyongyang seeks the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, a sweeping proposition that involves the removal of all nuclear capabilities. Worryingly, the declaration issued at the end of the Singapore summit referred to “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
The KCNA statement could not be clearer about North Korea’s intent. “The U.S.,” it said, must “recognize the accurate meaning of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and especially, must study geography.” Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula demands “removal of all sources of nuclear threat, not only from the South and North but also from areas neighboring the Korean Peninsula.” That includes Japan, and that is unacceptable.
There may come a day when relations between all countries in the region are so peaceful that there is no need for defense or deterrence, but that blissful situation does not yet exist. Pyongyang’s insistence on the elimination of all regional nuclear threats — which by definition includes those of China and Russia — means the world must accept its possession of a nuclear capability until all nuclear weapons are dismantled. In other words, North Korea is demanding that it be accepted as a legitimate nuclear power. This is the grim reality of North Korea’s logic.
This gap raises critical questions for Japan. When will the Trump administration acknowledge the different perspectives on the most central question to the nuclear negotiations and what will it do when that moment of clarity arrives? Will Washington put its nuclear extended deterrent on the table? Will it double down on the economic pressure? Those answers have profound implications for Japan’s security and the future of the Japan-U.S. alliance. While official declarations of the U.S. commitment to the defense of Japan are reassuring, the speed with which the White House can reverse course — made painfully clear in recent decisions to pull out of Syria and reduce the presence in Afghanistan — suggests such assurances may not be ironclad.
Tokyo and Washington are also increasingly concerned by Seoul’s position in these negotiations. The government of President Moon Jae-in is proceeding with inter-Korean talks, discussions that are far outpacing nuclear negotiations with Washington. There is mounting anxiety that Seoul and Washington are working at cross purposes, with the two sets of talks undermining each other, as progress in inter-Korean relations removes leverage that would force Pyongyang to negotiate more seriously about its nuclear arsenal.
All the while, Japan has watched this process unfold from a distance. While Kim reportedly told Moon he was ready for dialogue with Japan at the appropriate time, there have been no official talks. At least two rounds of secret discussions have been held, but no progress has been made. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to resolve the issue of Japanese abducted by North Korea decades ago while he is in office, but prospects are dim.
After the fears of a conflict between the U.S. and North Korea in 2017, the dampening of tensions over the past year is welcome. It is important to distinguish between real progress and political spin, however. Profound differences continue to separate Washington and Pyongyang, and a return to confrontation is a growing possibility.