One month ago, no one could have predicted, let alone imagined, that a sitting American president would venture into North Korean territory via the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) in the absence of peace on the Korean Peninsula.
The unthinkable happened on Sunday, 30 June, when President Donald Trump stepped into North Korea for a few seconds, accompanied by Chairman Kim Jong-Un.
Afterwards, the two leaders held talks at Freedom House in the DMZ, in which they agreed to resume negotiations with the aim of achieving denuclearisation of North Korea from an American perspective, while the North Koreans think of denuclearising the Peninsula.
Despite the great symbolic gesture made by President Trump, the two sides have not agreed on a precise definition of what they mean by denuclearisation.
Those former American officials, experts and scholars who have studied and negotiated with the North Koreans on the question of denuclearisation during the last two decades have expressed doubts as to the long-term significance of the “historic” handshakes between the American president and the North Korean leader.
Some of them went as far as doubting the sincerity of Chairman Kim in getting rid of his nuclear arsenal. The doubters and the naysayers have based their predictions on the inconclusive second American-North Korean summit in Hanoi last February.
The surprise then was that despite high hopes that came out of the Sentosa summit on 12 June 2018 (the first between an American president in office and a North Korean leader), and the signing of a joint declaration on the way forward, the two sides failed to follow through on the promises of this declaration in its entirety.
The Americans accused North Korea of procrastination, thus laying the blame on Pyongyang for the failure of the Hanoi summit.
They claimed that the North Korean leader asked for the lifting of sanctions without committing his country to the complete dismantling of all facilities in the North involved in the production of nuclear bombs. The North Koreans later on refuted these claims.
If the upcoming negotiations between the American and North Korean delegations are to succeed and move forward towards achieving the larger and far-reaching goals of this diplomatic engagement, expectations should be realistic on both sides.
In addition, the two countries should clarify their definition of denuclearisation and how such a process would be tied to overall peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Furthermore— and assuming, hypothetically, that the North is willing to get rid of its nuclear arsenal, installations and facilities— the Americans should not expect the North Koreans would proceed on this road at the speed that the American side would hope for.
The aim of a complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation of North Korea, dear to American strategists, officials and experts, should be scaled down to more realistic goals plus recognising that it won’t happen without linkages to the gradual lifting of sanctions and achieving diplomatic progress on other questions that pertain to peace between the two Koreas and the future role and nature of the American military presence in South Korea.
After all, it is not realistic to expect the North Koreans to agree to complete denuclearisation in the absence of an agreement on the drawing down of American forces in the South and the withdrawal of American nuclear arms from South Korea.
The question is whether the new American team of negotiators who would take part in the next round of negotiations would adopt such an approach and have an open mind on how far and how fast Pyongyang is willing to go in the process of denuclearisation.
Sticking to the same frame of mind that has characterised the American position in this regard would prove to be a non-starter. Also, the belief that the American campaign of maximum pressure through sanctions would deliver desired results would be a fatal misreading of the state of mind not only of Chairman Kim but also the top brass in North Korea as well as the Workers Party, the two institutions that the North Korean leader reckons with. For them, a nuclear North Korea is an insurance policy against any attempt at regime change in Pyongyang.
A glimmer of hope in this context is the fact that Ambassador John Bolton, the national security adviser in the White House, was in Mongolia on Sunday, 30 June.
His absence was a signal to the North Koreans that his future role in the American-North Korean engagement would not be as determining as in the negotiations that took place after the Sentosa Summit of last year.
Commenting on the reasons behind the failure of the Hanoi Summit, the North Koreans accused what they called the “B team”of the US administration of sabotaging the summit with maximalist demands.
From their perspective, this team includes Ambassador Bolton. Rumors have it that he is on the way out and one of the candidates to succeed him in his present job is Stephen Biegun, the United States Special Representative for North Korea .
Biegun has already started laying the grounds for the new round of negotiations with the North. He was due to travel to Brussels and Berlin on July 8-9 for meetings with European officials and the Republic of Korea’s Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs Lee Do-hoon.
The purpose of the meetings, according to a statement by the American State Department on July 6 is, “to advance… shared efforts to achieve the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea.” Perhaps his talks in Europe would discuss a package of partial sanctions relief for North Korea in case the upcoming talks announced by President Trump on 30 June in Seoul would see tangible progress.
South Korean President Moon Jae-In gave had given a wide-ranging interview to Yonap, the South Korean news agency, and six other international news agencies on Wednesday, 26 June.
He said that, “During the three inter-Korean summits with me, Chairman Kim expressed his intent to finalise a denuclearisation process as soon as possible and to concentrate on economic development.” He added, some would say surprisingly, that “there has been considerable headway in the peace process and it is still making progress.”
While we definitely hope so, the next few months will prove if that “progress” can be translated into an agreement to turn the armistice of 1953 into a permanent peace treaty.
President Moon laid down a reasonable parameter for future negotiations on denuclearisation. He stressed that, “if all the nuclear facilities in [the Yongbyon complex], including plutonium reprocessing facilities and uranium enrichment facilities, are completely demolished and verified, it would be possible to say that the denuclearisation of North Korea has entered an irreversible stage.”
However, it remains to be seen whether President Moon succeeded in persuading President Trump during their talks in Seoul on Sunday, 30 June, to adopt his viable and realistic definition of the North Korean denuclearisation process.
Let us hope he did.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Elusive denuclearisation