Days ahead of a planned summit meeting between the leaders of long-time adversaries North and South Korea, observers are mixed on whether a commitment by the North to fully dismantling its nuclear weapons program should be a prerequisite to a negotiations on a formal end to the Korean War.
On Friday, Kim Jong Un will become the first leader of North Korea to cross the demilitarized zone separating his country from the South, when he meets with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in at the South-administered side of the Panmunjom truce village straddling the border.
The South has said that discussions are underway between the two Koreas and the U.S. to bring a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War, placing new importance on this week’s summit, which comes ahead of an expected meeting between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump at a time and place yet to be determined.
Kim recently announced that North Korea no longer needs to test nuclear weapons or long-range missiles and will close its main nuclear testing site, and would instead focus on rebuilding the country’s economy, which has stagnated under international sanctions leveled in response to the tests.
Kim has also said that he is willing to negotiate with the U.S. on giving up his country’s nuclear arms, and he and Moon are expected to focus Friday’s talks on denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
But questions have arisen over what the North might concede in exchange for an end to sanctions and guarantees of peace, particularly since Pyongyang has previously vowed to end its pursuit of nuclear weapons, only to renege on its promises despite receiving massive amounts of aid from the South.
Song Dae-sung, the former president of the Sejong Institute in Seoul, recently told RFA’s Korean Service that North Korea’s “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” (CVID) must be a prerequisite to any talks between the two sides about replacing the 1953 armistice that ended fighting in the Korean War with a formal peace treaty.
“[So far] there has been no talk about the removal of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, which is the main reason for the ongoing conflict,” Song said.
“A declaration [of the end of the war] can be done only after building a trustworthy relationship through a number of steps, and when we can confirm that there is no possible threat of war, based on the trust-building process. At this point, the conflict and the cause of war remain.”
Cho Seong-ryoul, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul, said however that a formal end to the war could be used as “method to build trust” between the North and the South.
“In the process of negotiating denuclearization, if North Korea shows concerns about the security of its system, it will be necessary to utilize a declaration of the end of the war,” he said.
“Such a declaration would help to smooth the road to North Korea’s complete denuclearization.”
Sue Mi Terry, senior fellow and Korea Chair at the Washington-based Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), said she expects the Moon-Kim summit to “go pretty well,” but acknowledged that little is likely to come from the meeting.
“I think they are going to discuss denuclearization and how they could achieve a peaceful settlement,” said Terry, who is also a former Korea analyst for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and former Korea director for the U.S. National Security Council (NSC).
“But I don’t expect too much out of it, honestly, unless Moon can get Kim to clarify that denuclearization means North Korea is truly willing to give up nuclear weapons.”
Other experts also looked ahead to the planned meeting between Kim and Trump, suggesting that an agreement to full disarmament by North Korea was essential if Pyongyang expects any concessions from Washington.
Dennis Wilder, former special assistant to the president and senior director for East Asian Affairs at the NSC, said that while both sides have made a “very serious effort,” the Trump administration “is not going to accept what previous administrations accepted” and would only settle on a “big agreement that has to involve the CVID of North Korea.”
“If there’s a serious agreement, then I think the Trump administration is going to be willing to go to some sort of peace treaty, and the discussion about a reduction in USFK (U.S. forces stationed in South Korea), sequenced with a reduction of both the conventional and nuclear threat from North Korea, and an end to that threat over time.”
Wilder noted that Trump has not committed to a summit yet, “because the U.S. wants to make sure that we’re not having the same kind of negotiations we’ve had too often with North Korea, which have been fruitless.”
“The goal is to make Kim understand that we’re not meeting unless he’s seriously going to negotiate complete denuclearization, and if he’s not serious about that, there won’t be a meeting,” he added.
Cheon Seong-hoon, the former president of the Seoul-based Korea Institute for National Unification, said that Trump’s decision to meet with Kim “is based on North Korea’s denuclearization and nuclear removal.”
“North Korea’s [definition of] denuclearization will be the ultimate deciding factor.”
Observers also said that Friday’s summit must include the issue of human rights violations in the North, where people regularly struggle to earn enough to feed their families, dissent is crushed, and authorities imprison vast numbers of people in concentration camps for minor transgressions.
Kim Young-ja, the director of the Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights in Seoul, told RFA that the summit presents an opportunity for the South to help alleviate the suffering of North Koreans.
“As North Koreans endure human rights violations, finding a way to help them is the true meaning of the North-South talks,” he said.
Kang Cheol-hwan, president of the Seoul-based North Korea Strategy Center, said the biggest issue at stake in dealing with the North is the “lives of its people, who exist in a dictatorship where they suffer from human rights abuses and lack of freedom.”
“North Korea’s nuclear issue is just a means to an end for the country’s oppressive government,” said Kang, who spent a decade as a child in a notorious prison camp in Yodok, North Korea.
“If [Moon and Kim] only talk about the nuclear issue at the summit, it means there are no concerns for the lives of North Korean residents.”
Reported by RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.