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[2018 Inter-Korean summit] US, North Korea not on same page on denuclearization

Since North Korea announced it was willing to negotiate over its nuclear weapons program and offered to sit down for talks with the US, there has been lingering skepticism that it is a typical ploy from the North to weaken sanctions or buy time to perfect its nuclear and missile technology.

Now, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is to hold a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Friday, as well as with US President Donald Trump by early June, with the North’s “denuclearization” expected to top the agenda at the meetings. 

US President Donald Trump (left), North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (Yonhap)
US President Donald Trump (left), North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (Yonhap)

Ahead of the meetings, Kim, in a surprise announcement, announced Saturday that his country was suspending nuclear and missile tests and shutting down its nuclear test site, which some experts have hailed as the first, proactive step by Pyongyang toward denuclearization.

But the North has stopped short of saying it has any intention of abandoning nuclear programs already in its possession, further inviting skepticism it only shows how far apart Washington and Pyongyang remain in understanding what denuclearization entails.

Seoul and Washington welcomed North Korea‘s announcement, though Trump struck a more cautious tone Sunday, tweeting that the North Korea’s nuclear crisis was still a long way from being resolved.

The Trump administration has been clear that it wants North Korea’s “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization,” and any rewards -- such as the easing of sanctions against the North -- could be given after it substantially dismantles its nuclear weapons programs.

Asked what denuclearization means to both sides, White House Legislative Director Marc Short said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that there needs to be a sit-down meeting to make sure everyone is on the same page.

“But I think from our perspective, it means full denuclearization,” he said. “No longer having nuclear weapons that can be used in warfare against any of our allies.”

It is unclear, however, whether the North is willing to denuclearize in a way demanded by the US and South Korea. Kim said during his trip to China last month he would give up the nuclear arsenal step-by-step corresponding to the US and South Korea’s “progressive and synchronous” measures.

“North Korea agreed on a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests, a proactive action taken by the North, but when it enters negotiations on denuclearization, it is unclear whether the North would be that generous,” said Koh Yu-hwan, professor at Dongguk University.

“As the North has said, it will take concrete steps to denuclearize when the US and South Korea take actions to guarantee the regime’s security and defuse military threats toward the regime,” he said. “The North seems determined that it will not unilaterally denuclearize. It will likely take time and see whether the action could be binding.”

What the North wants most, he pointed out, is a declaration of the end of the Korean War and a peace treaty that can be legally binding and assured in a multi-party system.

South Korea has been on the same side as the US, but it has been more positive about the North’s recent steps and strived to find the middle ground between the US and North Korea to resolve the decadesold nuclear standoff.

“North Korea’s decision to freeze its nuclear program is a significant decision for the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Moon said Monday. “It is a green light that raises the chances of positive outcomes at the North’s summits with South Korea and the US.”

Skepticism about North Korea’s intentions persist, as Pyongyang had agreed in the past to give up its nuclear weapons program in exchange for aid and security guarantees, only to break the agreements. Washington is adamant that it not repeat past mistakes.

Most recently, in February 2012, Kim reached a deal with the Obama administration to suspend nuclear weapons and missile tests, as well as uranium enrichment, and to allow inspectors inside his country in return for aid from the US. The deal collapsed in April that year when the North launched a long-range rocket it claimed was for sending satellites into orbit.

“There is still a long way to go till the US and North Korea reach an agreement on denuclearization,” said Woo Jung-yeop, fellow researcher at the Sejong Institute. “Suspension of the nuclear and missile tests is a very low level of progress and would not be enough for the US.”

“What the US demands would be a full inspection and verification of nuclear facilities, including those not reported, inside the North,” Woo said. “If North Korea doesn’t agree to it, I think they won’t be able to get the negotiations going.”

Putting aside differing views on denuclearization, analysts cautiously voice optimism that such differences could be reconciled and a grand bargain could be struck during the upcoming summits as Kim seems willing to abandon his nuclear arsenal for the right price.

Boosting the economy hit hard by multilayered sanctions from the international community over its nuclear weapons programs, and improving the livelihoods of North Koreans would have to be Kim‘s new priority in securing regime survival, said Hong Min, director of the North Korean studies division at the Korea Institute for National Unification.

And Kim needs the international community’s help to do so, he said.

“North Korea seems to be willing to commit to complete denuclearization for the first time in history,” he said. “There is not much room for North Korean people’s lives to be improved under current circumstance.”

Cheong Seong-chang, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute, said the North “cannot help but make a decision to give up its nuclear weapons programs” to create a favorable environment for the development of its economy.

“If North Korea is not ready to accept complete denuclearization, there would be no need for Kim to hold a summit with Moon and Trump who demand it,” he said.