The Koreas

North Korean Denuclearization: One Goal, Different Interpretations

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The Koreas

North Korean Denuclearization: One Goal, Different Interpretations

Can Seoul thread the needle between Washington’s demands and what Pyongyang is willing to accept?

North Korean Denuclearization: One Goal, Different Interpretations
Credit: Cheong Wa Dae

On March 29, a senior Blue House official denied that Kim Jong-un’s statement on denuclearization during last week’s summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping clashed with the U.S. and South Korean position. Kim allegedly stated that denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula could be resolved through progressive and synchronous (or gradual and simultaneous) steps taken by both sides. This has led to speculation about exactly what Kim has in mind. Nevertheless, Kim’s meaning aside, the Blue House official’s statement that Pyongyang’s position is not at odds with Seoul and Washington raises another issue: What exactly is Seoul and Washington’s position? Or, more pointedly, are the two indeed aligned?

Officially, both Seoul and Washington have consistently reiterated that their goal is the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) of North Korea. On Wednesday, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha offered the latest iteration of that stance, remarking that CVID is the allies’ shared objective and that they are closely coordinating their approach to the issue. In regard to Pyongyang’s lack of clarity, Kang told reporters that it would take time to verify its sincerity, which should become clearer in the run-up to the April 27 inter-Korean summit.

The acting U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Marc Knapper, made the same point at a forum in Seoul on Monday. Knapper stressed that the U.S. position has in no way shifted. Its main purpose for meeting with North Korea is to emphasize that CIVD is “necessary and nonnegotiable.” He also rejected the claim that Seoul and Washington held different positions. “The U.S. and the ROK [South Korea] are fully aligned when it comes to our approach to North Korea. We believe very strongly and agree strongly with President Moon’s approach, which is that there will be no progress in North-South relations without progress on denuclearization,” he said.

However, official rhetoric notwithstanding, there are clear indications of a potentially fractious divide between the Moon and Trump administrations, not in terms of CVID itself, but in terms of how it is to be achieved.

As recent commentary suggests, there are two competing approaches to dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs: either through incremental implementation or comprehensive denuclearization. The 1994 Agreed Framework as well as the Six Party Talks (2003-2009) essentially utilized an incremental approach whereby Pyongyang offered limited concessions (i.e. a freeze on nuclear facilities and missile tests) in return for limited benefits from the United States, South Korea, and other regional actors (i.e. immediate food and energy shipments, some sort of loosening of sanctions, with longer term plans for the development of a peaceful nuclear capability).

The process was meant to build trust as reciprocal measures were verified and affirmed over time, eventually reaching a more comprehensive settlement, including a peace treaty; normalization of relations between Pyongyang and Washington (and Tokyo); security guarantees; economic exchange; verifiable denuclearization of the peninsula; and the potential drawdown of U.S. peninsular forces. As is known, these efforts failed for a host of complex reasons, not the least of which was disagreement among the parties involved over how fast and in what order tradeoffs should be implemented.

During the 2016 presidential campaign and since entering office, U.S. President Donald Trump and his advisers have been outspoken that previous negotiations failed because they did not demand enough of Pyongyang. They merely allowed North Korea to gain concessions, while buying time and space to further develop its nuclear and missile capability. Instead, Trump favors the second, more comprehensive approach; referred to by some as a Libya-style solution. This follows the secret 2003 negotiations between the United States and Great Britain and then-Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, under which the latter dismantled his nuclear program before being rewarded with any concessions (or minor ones). All components of Libya’s nuclear program were shipped to the United States or destroyed.

The Moon administration is strenuously working to square the circle by offering what they call a third option to denuclearization. This third path, combining both seemingly antithetical approaches above, is artfully framed as incremental implementation for comprehensive denuclearization. One Blue House official remarked that a comprehensive and an incremental approach are “like two sides of the same coin… we start with a comprehensive agreement and implement it in a phased manner.”

Seoul’s efforts reflect the stark constraints within which it is working. It must adjudicate between Trump and his hardline demand for a rapid, comprehensive settlement, and Pyongyang, which will never countenance a Libya-style solution. In 2011, North Korea’s current vice foreign minister, Kim Kye-gwan, explicitly stated so in a conversation with Robert King, former special U.S. envoy for North Korea human rights. The Libyan option is a nonstarter, due to the one-sided nature of the deal, and the Libyan example itself bolsters Pyongyang’s insecurities: In 2011 Gaddafi was overthrown by U.S.-backed rebels, murdered, and dragged through the streets.

Seoul’s position also reflects awareness that an already very difficult issue has become even more complex. Unlike earlier negotiations in 1994 and the mid-2000s, Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile advancements have bolstered its relative bargaining position, any dismantling of which will require a well-thought-out and step-by-step approach. Moon signaled as much during a July 2017 speech in Berlin, and last week his special adviser for unification, Moon Chung-in, outlined the administration’s plan at Waseda University in Tokyo.

The Moon administration believes it can wed the two disparate approaches because, unlike earlier attempts, the current one is not a bottom-up but top-down effort, led by determined leaders on all sides. Consequently, an agreement can be “reached more quickly and clearly,” by incorporating a complicated, step-by-step implementation process into a “packaged phase,” where both sides make significant concessions right away. Referred to by some observers as “compressed implementation,” this goes beyond a nuclear freeze and reduced military exercises to bigger exchanges, such as concrete dismantling alongside normalization of relations or a peace treaty up front.

In a sense, Moon and his advisors are making virtue of necessity by attempting to channel Trump’s tendency to make impetuous, grand gestures within a well-orchestrated framework of multiple and ongoing summit meetings. Others, like former CIA director Leon Panetta, argue that Trump’s impetuousness (and ignorance) is the main reason not to go forward with the Kim-Trump summit. Either way, it is not at all clear how offering major concessions up front is going to work, when Trump and his newly minted and extremely hawkish advisers have yet to agree to such a plan and, in fact, see such concession as anathema.