While the upcoming summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam will demonstrate the degree of the North Korean leader’s commitment to denuclearization, a more practical measure is needed to bring this process closer to reality.
Thus far, both Pyongyang and Washington have been unable to bridge their differences about the pace and even the scope of denuclearization, with the former repeatedly asking for a sanctions relief, and the latter pushing for more concrete actions that limit further development of North Korea’s nuclear program.
It is time to consider a multi-step process that facilitates denuclearization and brings much-needed peace to the Korean Peninsula. This approach would require the simultaneous consolidation of the peace system and the denuclearization process.
The first step would see the declaration of the end of the Korean War between the two Koreas and the United States. In exchange, North Korea would permanently dismantle and destroy plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities at Yongbyon based on a mutually-agreed time frame. This reciprocal step would help further reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula and also bind North Korea more firmly to the denuclearization process.
Pending progress in the dismantlement of these facilities, Washington would establish a liaison office in Pyongyang and permit the resumption of Kaesong industrial complex and Mount Kumgang tours.
These actions would signal to North Korea that only by fulfilling concrete denuclearization measures will the North Korean leader be able to achieve the dream of economic rejuvenation of his country.
Moreover, the United States could use its diplomatic presence in Pyongyang to monitor the pace of denuclearization and to obtain a better understanding of the North Korean leadership’s decision-making process by maintaining direct communication channels.
The second step will see the continued implementation of the denuclearization process, involving inspection rounds and dismantlement of remaining nuclear-related facilities in North Korea. Furthermore, to sustain the momentum for diplomacy and to prevent sudden escalation of security tensions on the Korean Peninsula, high-level talks between North Korea and the United States would be held periodically, with each meeting reviewing progress on the denuclearization front.
To ensure that relevant stakeholders’ conflicting geostrategies in Northeast Asia do not derail the denuclearization process and the establishment of a viable peace system, the two Koreas, China, and the United States would link up with Japan and Russia to convene a regional security forum.
This annual international platform would cover security issues that are related to denuclearization and the peace system. Already, such a multilateral mechanism has been floated by South Korea, suggesting convening such a diplomatic mechanism could be in demand among diplomatic circles.
At the final stage, North Korea will complete its denuclearization, and after UN weapons inspectors verify this, the United States will lift any remaining sanctions against North Korea. More importantly, China, the two Koreas, and the United States will sign the peace treaty, and North Korea and the U.S. will normalize their bilateral ties, upgrading the aforementioned liaison office to a full embassy.
Full diplomatic relations between Pyongyang and Washington will encompass other incentives such as North Korea’s accession to international organizations like as the World Bank and removal of any remaining barriers for foreign investment.
Skeptics may consider this three-step process as too idealistic, if not downright delusional. There’s some merit to that, but only by pursuing such a dual-track approach faithfully can we ever hope to brighten the prospects of denuclearization and establish a permanent peace system on the Korean Peninsula.
After all, as the normalization of the U.S.-Vietnam relations has attested, overcoming decades-long mistrust and hostilities between the former adversaries takes plenty of patience and step-by-step confidence-building measures. Indeed, recent comments from Trump suggest that the U.S. president has recognized that denuclearizing North Korea will be a long-term, complicated process, requiring delicate diplomacy.
Sangpil Jin is a historian who specializes in modern Korean history, imperial history and international history of modern and contemporary East Asia. His publications appeared in various journals and currently he is working on a book manuscript about the geopolitics of the Korean Peninsula and neutrality of Korea.