By Mark Fitzpatrick, Executive Director, IISS–Americas
Headlines proclaiming the outcome of the 27 April meeting in Panmunjom between the leaders of North and South Korea could hardly have been more effusive. ‘Koreas Set Bold Goals: Peace by Year’s End and No Nuclear Arms’, declared the New York Times. Yet meeting that promise depends very much on interactions with another player, starting with the upcoming summit tentatively scheduled for May or June between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump.
Can the Kim–Trump summit succeed? Scepticism is the default mode for analysts, and certainly a great deal could go wrong when the over-confident, under-schooled president of the United States goes mano-a-mano with dictator Kim Jong-un. There is ample reason to distrust Kim’s adherence to the ‘complete denuclearisation’ pledge of the North–South summit or of the year-end goal. Short of that goal, however, there is clear potential for a breakthrough.
The reason for optimism is that something new is afoot in Pyongyang. In the past two months, Kim has surprised the world repeatedly. The surprises started on 5 March when for the first time he met with South Korean officials, and overrode what they had heard from his underlings earlier in the day. Other firsts were to follow, including agreeing to a North–South summit in South Korean territory and establishing a hot line with South Korean president Moon Jae-in. Kim’s willingness to discuss with Moon a peace process to end the Korean War is also unusual. North Korea has usually insisted that such a peace accord is a matter between itself and the US, not concerning the ‘puppet’ regime in Seoul.
Kim’s disposition to discuss denuclearisation both with Moon and the US is not totally new, but it is noteworthy that he did not demand an end to South Korea–US combined military exercises as a precondition to taking tension-reducing steps himself. He also dropped the demand for the withdrawal of US troops.
Most significantly, North Korea announced the discontinuation of intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear tests and, as a ‘guarantee’ of the latter, ‘dismantling’ of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. The test moratorium needs to be extended to all ballistic missiles, although there has been a de facto pause in all missile testing since the end of November. Kim also pledged not to transfer nuclear weapons or technology to other parties. This promise needs to extend to chemical weapons-related goods of the sort that North Korea has repeatedly been caught shipping to Syria.
Speaking at a 20 April meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers Party of Korea, Kim explained the testing suspension on grounds that the nation had already reached its goal of developing nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. This context would seem to confirm that North Korea has no intention of giving up its nuclear force – although Kim’s argument is the only realistic way he could justify halting those efforts to his domestic audience. The policy of simultaneous advancement of nuclear forces and the economy (the Byungjin line) was thus finished and a ‘new strategic line’ of concentrating on the economy has begun, he said. Putting it this way does signal at least a lower priority attached to nuclear weapons. A statement that North Korea ‘will join the international desire and efforts for the total halt to the nuclear test’ seems to imply a willingness to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
Because previous underground nuclear blasts have collapsed part of the mountain at Punggye-ri, as confirmed by Chinese scientists, some sceptics contend that North Korea would have to close the test site anyway. Yet two of its tunnels remain operational and North Korea can use other mountains for nuclear explosions, as well as carrying out above-ground tests. Last August, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho threatened his nation could conduct an atmospheric test over the Pacific Ocean, an incautious act that would likely have sparked a kinetic US response.
The promise of denuclearisation must now be backed up by tangible actions. Among the early steps, North Korea must end fissile material production and dismantle the facilities involved at Yongbyon and (presumably) elsewhere. This will be a hard sell. Harder still will be the arrangements for confirming discontinuation and dismantlement. Disagreement over verification in 2008 ended the last effort to dismantle the country’s nuclear facilities.
Meanwhile, Kim will have his own demands. North Korea strongly hinted at what these would be when on 5 March it told the South that it would have no reason to possess nuclear weapons ‘if military threats against the North are resolved and the security of its system guaranteed.’ ‘Resolving military threats’ does not necessarily mean the removal of US forces. At the first North–South summit in June 2000, then-DPRK leader Kim Jong-il said keeping US forces in Korea would be acceptable if their role was changed to that of regional peacekeeping.
Kim Jong-un’s second condition for denuclearisation implies guaranteed preservation of the Kim family regime. Of course, the US cannot guarantee that the Kim family will be protected against a rising up of the North Korean people, à la Ceausescu. What the US can offer is normalisation of relations and a peace treaty to end the state of war that has prevailed under an armistice since 1953. These and other positive outcomes were on tap in 2005, as outlined in the Joint Statement of the Six Party Talks. Both remain feasible, especially if North Korea again accepts a continued presence of US forces. The fact that North and South Korea are themselves talking about a peace process to end the war is a promising indicator.
When Kim Jong-il mused about US forces playing a regional peacekeeping role, he apparently had in mind contingencies concerning China. It is not inconceivable that his son Kim Jong-un would similarly see the utility of the US acting as a counter-balance to the overwhelming weight of North Korea's Chinese neighbour. Fantastical though the notion may seem today regarding US–DPRK relations, it would not be the first time a former Asian enemy sought US ties as insurance against Chinese pressure. This is why I hope that when a venue for the Kim–Trump summit is set, it will be Vietnam. The symbolism would be striking.