Relations Thaw, But Questions Remain on Denuclearization Goals After Korea Summit

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nk-kim-and-moon-april-2018.jpg North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, listens to South Korean President Moon Jae-in while walking together at Panmunjom village in the Demilitarized Zone, April 27, 2018.
AP Photo

Analysts on Friday welcomed a joint agreement by the leaders of North and South Korea to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, but said the wording of the pledge remains vague and warned that achieving a result that satisfies both parties, and the U.S., will require a significant amount of political will.

Kim Jong Un became the first leader of North Korea to cross the demilitarized zone separating his country from the South on Friday, when he met for talks with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in at the South-administered side of the Panmunjom truce village straddling the border.

The two heads of long-time adversary nations exchanged pleasantries and ate an opulent meal together during the carefully choreographed day-long summit, which culminated in the signing of a joint statement declaring their “common goal” to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.

Kim had 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 said it would instead focus on rebuilding the country’s economy, which has stagnated under international sanctions leveled in response to the tests.

The North Korean dictator has also said that he is willing to negotiate with the U.S. on giving up his country’s nuclear arms, while South Korean officials say and he and Moon have been in discussions along with the U.S. to bring a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War.

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.

Experts told RFA’s Korean Service that Friday’s summit signified a breakthrough in relations between the two Koreas, which had been on edge amid Pyongyang’s rash of weapons tests that ended late last year, but they acknowledged that the talks provided little in the way of what concrete steps might be taken to deal with the nuclear issue.

Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, said that further negotiations and the “implementation of key steps” on a peace treaty and denuclearization are needed to ensure Friday’s talks result in substantive change.

“It will take a great deal of political will to follow through on these steps,” Kimball said, adding that North Korea should commit to fully ending its tests by signing and ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty—a multilateral treaty that bans all nuclear explosions, for both civilian and military purposes.

“There are difficult turns in the roads that will come up, and both sides need to continue forward and not drive off of the road and into the ditch,” he added.

Definition and time frame

David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) in Washington, agreed that “a firm foundation and plan” for the North’s complete verified irreversible nuclear disarmament should be agreed upon, adding that a timetable of two to three years should be in place.

“[Otherwise] most of the other commitments in the declaration are merely wishes,” he said.

Albright said that the summit appears to have laid the foundation for a summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump, which has been tentatively agreed to and could come as early as next month, though a time and place for the meeting is yet to be determined.

“We hope that summit will succeed in generating a detailed roadmap with a concrete plan and schedule on the way forward to North Korea's denuclearization and in creating a way forward to achieve lasting peace on the Korean peninsula,” he said.

Michael Mazarr, senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation in Virginia, echoed concerns over the “broad and vague” nature of Friday’s declaration, noting that “there’s no specific time frame.”

“The challenges will be figuring out the details,” he added.

Mazarr said that the expected summit between Kim and Trump will be key to the denuclearization issue, because “presumably North Korea is referring to the United States not bringing any nuclear-capable system to the Korean peninsula.”

Cheon Seong-hoon, the former president of the Seoul-based Korea Institute for National Unification, said the North, South and the U.S. need to come to a common definition of “denuclearization,” to avoid derailing talks.

“[At this point] the details of denuclearization are nothing better than past denuclearization agreements [with North Korea],” he said, noting that without more specific steps in place, the North could again backpedal from its commitments like it did in the aftermath of a deal with the U.S. in 1994.

“The term ‘denuclearization’ could cause misunderstanding between North Korea and South Korea, and North Korea and the US. The agreement uses an indirect approach to the fundamental issue of … the North’s nuclear disarmament, so there is likely to be some controversy.”

US expectations

Director of the program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations Scott Snyder said that the U.S. and South Korea hope to get a deal in place with the North that would de-escalate future crises and avert any potential for military confrontation.

“With continued economic pressure and sustained diplomatic resolve, such a process could eventually bind Kim to a different formula for preserving security, replacing nuclear weapons with diplomatic assurances as the basis for the regime’s survival, though this would come at a high cost if it also sacrifices opportunities for North Korea’s citizens, who would remain hostages to Kim’s rule,” he said.

But Snyder warned that Kim could possibly use this tactic to “buy time” and “wriggle his regime off the denuclearization hook once again, only to return in an even more costly and destabilizing form down the road.”

“Since Kim has staged his turn toward diplomacy, this could be the ending he has in mind, but both Moon and Trump have an ending in mind in which North Korea’s nuclear threat is ultimately defanged. The outcome will depend not only on how the well the game is played, but more importantly, on who is writing the script.”

Washington welcomed Friday’s agreement in a statement from U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who called it “a step to denuclearization,” but conceded it was “just one step.”

“Any talks, promises, and assurances from North Korea will be met with reservation, vigilance, and verification,” he said, adding that while planning for U.S.-North Korea Summit continues, “the pressure campaign will continue unabated.”

Reported by RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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