By Yonho Kim
As the partial government shutdown in the United States enters its fourth week, preparations for the second summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is underway. After President Trump said the location of the summit will be announced “in the not-too-distant future,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the details are being worked out in preparation for the upcoming summit. Indeed, Kim’s special envoy, Kim Yong-chul is reportedly visiting Washington this week to try to finalize the summit. These are remarkable developments considering that up until the end of last year Pyongyang did not show any interest in sincere communication with the United States on the second summit. However, the ‘complete denuclearization’ — the main goal of the summit — has not been clearly defined yet, which led to the impasse in the follow-up U.S.-North Korea negotiations after the first summit in June of last year. Moreover, Kim’s New Year’s address sparked heated debates in South Korea on whether the task of defining denuclearization should be the entrance to the denuclearization talks or not.
In his New Year’s address Kim Jong-un stressed that “it is [the invariable position] of our Party and the government of our Republic and my firm will” to proceed towards the ‘complete denuclearization’ of the Korean Peninsula. Based on this principle, North Korea has declared not to produce, test, use or proliferate nuclear weapons and followed up with practical measures, he said. Kim indicated that the corresponding measures by the United States would accelerate the denuclearization process. Given the fact that the New Year’s address is an absolute guideline of Pyongyang’s state and foreign affairs for the year, the progressive Kyunghyang Sinmun in South Korea interpreted Kim’s remarks as a clear statement of putting normalization of U.S.-North Korea relations as his top priority. The newspaper also noted in its editorial that it is the first time that Kim personally mentioned ‘complete denuclearization’ to the domestic audience since he came to power in 2011. The progressive Hankyoreh highlighted Kim’s ‘four nos’ (the testing, production, use, and proliferation of nuclear weapons), paying special attention to the fact that North Korea had never announced halting the production of nuclear weapons until Kim’s 2019 New Year’s address. The Korea Institute for National Unification interpreted this critical political statement as North Korea fleshing out a preemptive nuclear freeze.
However, the conservative Chosun Ilbo saw no intention to disarm in Kim’s speech. The only thing clear was North Korea’s de facto declaration that it already has enough nuclear warheads, which sounds like other newly nuclear-armed countries, including Pakistan. Moreover, Chosun Ilbo underscored that Kim suggested his own definition of the ‘denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula’ by demanding that Seoul should suspend its joint military exercises with the United States and decline U.S. nuclear umbrella over South Korea. Indeed, last month North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) had clarified Pyongyang’s position on the ‘complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula’ agreed on by Trump and Kim at the Singapore summit last year. KCNA demanded that ‘the U.S. nuclear threat’ should be completely eliminated before North Korea reciprocates by removing its ‘nuclear deterrent.’
The controversy over Kim Jong-un’s own definition of denuclearization spilled over to the National Assembly. When asked by an opposition lawmaker on the issue at a meeting of the special parliamentary panel on inter-Korean economic cooperation, Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said that the ‘denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,’ as defined by Pyongyang, differs from the ‘denuclearization of North Korea’ envisioned by Seoul. He stressed that removal of U.S. nuclear umbrella over South Korea is something that should be decided on after achieving the goal of denuclearizing North Korea. In his New Year’s press conference, President Moon Jae-in also said that the U.S. strategic assets deployed in Guam and Japan are not likely to be discussed as part of corresponding measures in denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang.
Seemingly contradictory to Minister Cho’s remarks, Moon said that Kim agrees with the definition of the ‘complete denuclearization’ demanded by the international community. The conservative Chosun Ilbo considered this as a proof that Moon cherrypicked what he heard from Kim. Understanding Pyongyang’s negotiation position, Moon might have tried to emphasize the common ground between the United States and North Korea without mentioning the controversial parts.
Concerns are raised over the potential impacts of embracing North Korea’s definition of the denuclearization in the nuclear talks. At the heart is the Trump risk: After the second summit with Kim, Trump would start to float the idea of partial or full withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea in return for North Korea’s denuclearization. If this is the case, the ‘complete denuclearization’ of North Korea will become virtually impossible because Pyongyang is basically demanding a condition not acceptable to the U.S-ROK alliance. Chosun Ilbo even suggested that Seoul should be prepared for the worst-case scenario for its national security.
However, the Moon government seems to be worried that full-fledged nuclear talks won’t even be launched if the initial negotiations are focused on the definition of denuclearization. After all, the agreement on the definition would be an outcome of political compromises which require lengthy and arduous negotiations. Considering the tight political schedules in Washington, the foremost task this year should be to induce North Korea to take irreversible measures towards denuclearization as much as possible, a leading South Korean progressive scholar argued. He said if Washington sticks to its fundamental goals without showing any flexibility, an abstract agreement without any substance is all we can get from a second Trump-Kim summit. In that sense, sanctions relief should be actively sought after in return for North Korea’s bold measures, he argued.
The Trump administration has been consistent and clear about what it wants from Pyongyang: achieving the final fully verified denuclearization of North Korea. Nevertheless, Kim decided to accelerate the preparations for a second summit with Trump after making clear in his New Year’s address that he has his own counterdemands. Likewise, Trump still looks forward to meeting Kim again despite the controversy over the definition of the denuclearization. Both Trump and Kim should understand that their second meeting will be judged as a failure if it does not entail any substantive deal, whether it is big or small, on denuclearization and peace process.
Yonho Kim is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Rodong Sinmun