North Korea: The Perilous Path to Denuclearization

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After months of jingoistic rhetoric and back channel diplomacy, the historic summit between President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un finally happened on 12th June 2018 in Singapore. The historic summit is probably one of the defining moments of the Trump Presidency showing how it lead the world away from a potential nuclear flashpoint. The Singapore summit was preceded by Panmunjom Declaration between North Korea and South Korea and a secret visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang to discuss the contours of the Singapore summit. The summit was a calendar day in geopolitics as the first high level state head meeting between the United States and North Korea in history. The expectations of a deal on Denuclearization and the summit optics dominated the narrative. Unfortunately, the summit yielded much less for America than what it achieved for North Korea. The Americans had to be content with a vague four point declaration with North Korea asking for the complete denuclearization of Korean Peninsula, sending back the remains of American POWs of Korean War and a common aim to achieve lasting and stable peace in Korean Peninsula.

The Singapore Summit was a great propaganda for North Korea and the Kim regime used it effectively to claim international legitimization in seeking to open new avenues for trade and commerce with neighbours like China and Russia.

A careful reading of the events post Singapore Summit in the context of North Korea’s past conduct gives a different perspective on how the denuclearization negotiations are progressing. For starters, the Singapore Declaration mentions the “Complete Denuclearization of Korean Peninsula” which is a vague term and can have many interpretations; and is different from the US proposal of CVID i.e. Complete Verifiable Irreversible Denuclearization. Another ambiguity is what does Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula mean; does it include the withdrawal of American forces from South Korea and its nuclear umbrella? Further, what does Denuclearization actually mean? There was no clear definition in Singapore Summit which showed any intent of North Korea’s willingness to give up its nuclear deterrence and missile capabilities for an American promise. Thus, in absence of any specifics, the Singapore Summit was a great propaganda for North Korea and the Kim regime used it effectively to claim international legitimization in seeking to open new avenues for trade and commerce with neighbours like China and Russia.

With the escalation of Trade War with China, the United States could further lose leverage over Beijing regarding any co-operation on the US maximum pressure campaign on North Korea.

While the Trump administration has defended the Singapore Declaration’s “progress” the fact remains that it simply was a get to know each other meeting between two countries for kick starting a long process towards Denuclearization and a probable peace treaty to end the Korean War. A subsequent visit by Kim Jong-un to China and a meeting with President Xi (his third in the last few months) has caused unease in Washington DC who remains sceptical of China’s intentions on the North Korean negotiations. Chairman Kim Jong-un taking perfect advantage of the situation has also asked China to press for the removal on UN Sanction and speed up trade in lieu of the peace summit in Panmunjom and Singapore. Russia is equally interested and invested in the Far East region and has also invited Kim Jong Un to visit Russia and attend Vladivostok forum in September 2018. Kim Jong-un has invited President Xi for North Korea’s National Day celebrations on September 9 to mark the 70 years of its foundation. These indications and warming trade ties between North Korea and its neighbours have raised alarm bells as the US attempts to maintain maximum pressure on North Korea seem to be facing a setback. With the escalation of Trade War with China, the United States could further lose leverage over Beijing regarding any co-operation on the US maximum pressure campaign on North Korea.

North Korea might allow the opening of a western burger joint franchise as goodwill but is unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons.

A CIA assessment report in May 2018 had already thrown caution to the winds stating that North Korea might allow the opening of a western burger joint franchise as goodwill but is unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons. Similar reports by 38 North, a website devoted to providing informed policy and technical analysis of North Korea, suggest that instead of winding down its nuclear programme, North Korea is making fast upgrades to its 5 MWE Nuclear Reactor at Yongbyong Research as per satellite imagery with a new cooling system and two new non-industrial buildings whose purpose is unknown. A South Korean lawmaker from the Liberal Party also recently asserted that contrary to popular beliefs, North Korea is building a submarine capable of firing ballistic missiles at its Sinpo Shipyard on the East Coast. Further, US Intelligence agency reports also state that North Korea has increased its fuel production for nuclear weapons at multiple secret sites in recent months which it could easily leverage with the Trump Administration to seek more concessions. The above clearly shows that North Korea is far from dismantling its nuclear facilities, forget making any tangible progress on Denuclearization.

“The U.S. side came up only with its unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization just calling for CVID, declaration and verification all of which run contrary to Singapore Summit meetings and talks”

Just concluded visit US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang failed to cover the divergence between the two countries on the definition of Denuclearization and the timelines of any such process. Secretary of State Pompeo was not even accorded an audience with Kim Jong-un despite strenuous efforts who was away visiting “the potato fields”. Further, the North Korean administration ensured the dominance of the entire visit from the choice of hotel, the long lunches in front of the media to show that North Korea could not be rolled over and the United States would have to meet it at least halfway. While the US claimed some progress on Denuclearization talks, North Korea lambasted US post the visit stating, “The U.S. side came up only with its unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization just calling for CVID, declaration and verification all of which run contrary to Singapore Summit meetings and talks”.

The ambiguity of Singapore declaration and subsequent events in Pyongyang should make it clear to the US Administration that North Koreans are unlikely to yield to American agendas of unilateral CVID which has now become FFVD.

Korean Peninsula Book

The North Koreans even went on to doubt the much touted confidence building measure by the Trump Administration stating that suspension of US military exercises with South Korea is a reversible step unlike the US demands of North Korea and that talks with Secretary Pompeo were “regrettable” The North Koreans are thus playing a long protracted game of inducing the United States into a dialogue while leveraging the talks for gaining international legitimacy without committing anything concrete in return. The ambiguity of Singapore declaration and subsequent events in Pyongyang should make it clear to the US Administration that North Koreans are unlikely to yield to American agendas of unilateral CVID (Complete Verifiable Irreversible Denuclearization) which has now become FFVD (Full and Final verifiable Denuclearization ).

“Communist and capitalist countries share contrasting perspectives about the show of strength for negotiations. While capitalist countries and democracies tend to be straight shooters, communist countries thrive on deception.”

Communist and capitalist countries share contrasting perspectives about the show of strength for negotiations. While capitalist countries and democracies tend to be straight shooters, communist countries thrive on deception. They often play the game of appearing strong when weak and vice versa. This is an old tactic from USSR days. Communist countries are also highly dependent on image building and perception as the authoritarian regime they promote operates on unconditional unquestioned obedience where dissent finds no room. As such, an aggressive show of strength tantamount to bullying is par for the course and is often more for internal consumption than external. Thus, all of North Korea’s actions, its strong arming tactics and the increased pursuit of nuclear weapons to corner the US into a shorter timeframe for a deal should be viewed by the US as DPRK’s willingness for a deal; albeit on its terms.

America will have to be ready to offer and make concessions to North Korea and/or even China on Trade War if it wants a sustainable solution to the Korean conflict.

As stated in our book “Korean Peninsula: A Pawn On The Geopolitical Chessboard”, North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons for any deals offered by Washington DC and it is time the American foreign policy establishment recalibrates its strategy and objectives with realistic aims. We have already discussed the various scenarios that could unfold in the Korean Peninsula and its perilous path to Denuclearization. US Foreign Policy establishment must recalibrate its strategy towards Denuclearization to a trust and verify doctrine while engaging with the regional and global players instead of a unilateral approach of CVID or FFVD. America will have to be ready to offer and make concessions to North Korea and/or even China on Trade War if it wants a sustainable solution to the Korean conflict that could bring peace to Korean Peninsula and the region at large while protecting its strategic interests in Indo-Pacific as the world moves towards bipolarity.

Notes:

  • Trump-Kim meeting: Details of historic ‘denuclearisation’ agreement signed by US and North Korea leaders revealed https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/trump-kim-jongun-meeting-denuclearisation-disarmament-nuclear-weapons-north-korea-us-a8394551.html
  • Kim Jong-un seeks China’s help to end UN sanctions against Pyongyang, denuclearise Korean peninsula https://www.firstpost.com/world/kim-jong-un-seeks-chinas-help-to-end-un-sanctions-against-pyongyang-denuclearise-korean-peninsula-4641651.html
  • Putin invites Kim to Russia in September https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-Relations/Putin-invites-Kim-to-Russia-in-September
  • North Korea invites Chinese President Xi Jinping to national day celebrations in Pyongyang https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2154235/north-korea-invites-chinese-president-xi-jinping
  • CIA report says North Korea won’t denuclearize, but might open a burger joint https://www.nbcnews.com/news/north-korea/cia-report-says-north-korea-won-t-denuclearize-might-open-n878201
  • North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center: Testing of Reactor Cooling Systems; Construction of Two New Non-Industrial Buildings https://www.38north.org/2018/07/yongbyon070618/
  • North Korea building new submarine capable of launching ballistic missiles, South Korean lawmaker says https://globalnews.ca/news/4316790/north-korea-new-submarine-ballistic-missiles/
  • North Korea has increased nuclear production at secret sites, say U.S. officials https://www.nbcnews.com/news/north-korea/north-korea-has-increased-nuclear-production-secret-sites-say-u-n887926
  • Inside Pompeo’s Fraught North Korea Trip https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-07-08/one-night-in-pyongyang-inside-pompeo-s-fraught-north-korea-trip
  • North Korea Slams U.S. ‘Gangster-Like’ Demands at Nuclear Talks http://fortune.com/2018/07/07/mike-pompeo-north-korea/

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