How to tell when N Korea starts to denuclearise

13-Oct-2018 Intellasia | Brookings | 6:00 AM Print This Post

On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo returned from what he described as “productive” conversations with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un. Although details are still emerging from the meeting, which took place in Pyongyang, one outcome is clear: Both sides are eager to push forward with a second summit between President Donald Trump and Kim as soon as possible.

But the question of denuclearisation still hangs over these negotiations. Despite North Korea’s consistent assertion that it will not disarm “unilaterally” and that Washington must remove sanctions against the country, the leaders of the United States and South Korea seem convinced that it is finally serious about giving up its nuclear arsenal. President Trump has repeatedly defended Kim as an “honorable” man committed to denuclearisation. After three meetings with Kim, South Korean President Moon Jae In seems even more convinced that Kimunlike his father and grandfatheris serious.

Most North Korea and nuclear expertsthe authors of this article, includeddoubt that Kim has decided to abandon his nuclear-weapons programme. North Korea has an established pattern of dragging out negotiations and breaking its commitments. In addition, the baseline conditions necessary for Kim to make such a strategic change appear to be absent.

For example, Kim would need assurances that whatever concessions the Trump administration providessuch as a peace declaration leading to a peace treaty or the reduction or removal of US troops on the Korean peninsulaare permanent and legally binding. He also likely needs to believe that Seoul is committed to a foreign policy untethered to US preferences, and that North Korea’s nuclear-weapons programmeupon which he has staked his legitimacy and power, and his country’s security and prosperityis a greater threat to these goals than an asset. On top of all this, he would almost certainly have to be convinced that he would not suffer the fate of Muammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein, key examples the regime brings up to assert its nuclear-weapons status.

Even the steps North Korea has taken to date, which include reportedly destroying a nuclear-weapons test site and dismantling a missile-test facility, are either reversible or have little to no technical impact, given the advanced state of its nuclear and missile programmes. In essence, they are low-to-no-cost moves for Pyongyang.

But leaders can always surprise us. Libya abandoned a struggling nuclear-weapons effort in exchange for sanctions relief and a fundamentally different relationship with the West. The government of South Africa decided to chart a different course, free of nuclear weapons. After the Iraq War, it was discovered that Saddam did not have an active nuclear-weapons programme, but that he was unable to come completely clean, in part because he had to keep his adversaries guessing. These situations do not offer a perfect parallel to that of North Korea, which has an advanced nuclear-weapons programme. But they do suggest that change is possible, and that it can be hard, in the moment, to distinguish between a toughor perhaps insecurenegotiator and an honest one.

Although it’s quite unlikely that Kim is willing to fully denuclearise, his reluctance so far to make meaningful concessions does not necessarily indicate that he hasn’t made the shift that Trump and Moon claim. Even if he is willing to denuclearise, it would be logical for him to approach the United Statesa longtime adversaryand South Korea with caution. He would want to do as little as possible at the outset in order to retain his negotiating leverage.


Category: Korea

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