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Assessing the 2018 Inter-Korean Summit and Prospecting North Korea’s ‘Complete Denuclearization’
2018.05.02  Wednesday
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Cheong Seong-Chang

Assessing the 2018 Inter-Korean Summit and Prospecting North Korea’s ‘Complete Denuclearization’


No. 2018-25 (May 2, 2018)

Cheong Seong-Chang (Director, Department of Unification Strategy Studies)


South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un adopted the ‘Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity, and Unification of the Korean Peninsula’ at the Peace House in Panmunjeom on April 27. Through the declaration, the leaders of the two Koreas manifested their intention to achieve the ‘complete denuclearization’ of the Korean Peninsula, pursue the ‘declaration to end the Korean War’ by the end of this year, establish a lasting and solid peace regime, defuse acute military tensions, and ‘facilitate comprehensive and groundbreaking advancement in inter-Korean relations.’

Since Cheong Wa Dae clarified that the denuclearization issue will be the key agenda prior to the summit, the agreement to formally bring an end to the Korean War and to facilitate comprehensive and groundbreaking advancement in inter-Korean relations’ were clearly above expectations. As the ‘swift agreement’ on ‘denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,’ establishment of a peace regime, and development of inter-Korean relations between the two leaders was impossible without the fundamental shift in Kim Jong-un’s stance of pursuing a nuclear and missile power, this shift must be analyzed.

Adhering to the hardline approach, never to renounce nuclear ambitions, North Korea continued to test its nuclear weapons and mid-to-long range missiles and Kim Jong-un threatened the U.S., mentioning that he has a ‘nuclear button’ on his desk in his New Year’s address this year. Hence, some within South Korea and the international community raise concerns whether we could trust Kim Jong-un’s pledges on ‘complete denuclearization.’

To understand Chairman Kim Jong-un’s 180-degree turn in his attitude toward the nuclear program, one should first analyze the situation that he faced last year after the nuclear test and ICBM launches. While North Korea succeeded in the hydrogen bomb test and the ICBM test that could strike the White House, this led to the serious economic blockade that has prohibited most of North Korea’s exports. Thus, Chairman Kim stood at the crossroad, whether to carry on with the nuclear development while bearing the cost of economic malaise or to exchange the nuclear and missile capabilities with the normalization of diplomatic ties with the U.S., transformation of the armistice agreement with a peace treaty, and international sanctions relief through negotiations with the U.S. In relation to this, it should be noted that State Secretary Pompeo (then nominee), who visited North Korea on March 31 to April 1 and met with Kim Jong-un in secret, said “Kim Jong Un is going to have to make a decision, … Does he want the pressure campaign [against his country] to continue? ... Or is he looking for something big and bold and different, something that hasn’t happened before?" in his interview with the ABC on April 29.

The leaders of the two Koreas “confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula” by the Panmunjeom Declaration. The term ‘complete denuclearization’ could be construed as a short term for ‘complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement’ (CVID) which Presidents Trump and Moon demanded of North Korea. While some Korean and international observers comment that the phrase ‘complete denuclearization’ is nebulous, President Moon Jae-in would have negated the concept of ‘complete denuclearization’ other than the CVID which he continuously demanded. And if Chairman Kim refused the term CVID, the inter-Korean summit could not have been amicable as it seemed and President Moon will not have agreed to ‘declare an end to the War’ by the end of the year and ‘facilitate comprehensive and groundbreaking advancement in inter-Korean relations.’

Explicating the reason for meeting Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang confidentially, State Secretary Pompeo said, “[A]nytime you get the chance to meet face to face with someone, you get a better read about what they’re thinking, whether they’re really prepared to do something that is historic and different. We got a long history in negotiating with North Korea. Repeatedly, they have taken actions only to find that those promise proved false or unworthy or they were incapable of achieving them. My goal was to try and identify if there was a real opportunity there.” on April 29. Revealing that he had an in-depth discussion on the methods to achieve CVID, Secretary Pompeo added that he believes there is ‘a real opportunity’ for the complete denuclearization. Noting this remark by the hawkish Pompeo, it seems inappropriate to presage that Kim Jong-un will never give up the nuclear weapons and intends to ‘bide time’ based on Chairman Kim’s words and deeds last year.

Kim Jong-un’s consent to include the term ‘complete denuclearization’ in the Panmunjeom Declaration implies that he already decided to completely abolish the nuclear weapons on condition that the military threats against North Korea are removed and the regime safety is guaranteed. Recently, one South Korean media outlet reported that North Korea demanded the following to the U.S. at the working level meetings in preparations for the summit with the U.S.: withdrawal of U.S. nuclear strategic assets from South Korean soil; discontinuation of deploying nuclear strategic assets during the ROK-U.S. joint military exercises; a guarantee that it will not attack North Korea with conventional and nuclear weapons; transformation of the armistice to a peace treaty; and the establishment of diplomatic ties with the U.S. While, North Korea previously put forth conditions unacceptable to South Korea and the U.S. such as ‘disclosing U.S. nuclear weapons on South Korean soil’ and ‘declaring the withdrawal of U.S. Forces in Korea’ as the requisite for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, it has now recanted such unfeasible demands.

It appears that North Korea has considerably bridged the gap with the U.S. related to the removal of military threats against North Korea and guarantee of regime security at the working level meetings for the DPRK-U.S. summit. Should there have been no such mutual exchanges, President Trump has no reason to overturn his views on Kim Jong-un, whom once he derided as a ‘little rocket man,’ praising that he “has really been very open and I think very honorable based on what we are seeing.”

President Trump fixed the summit schedule with Kim Jong-un, which was predicted to be held late May or early June, to May, saying that the meeting will take place “over the next three or four weeks” at a rally in Washington Township, Michigan on April 28. This indicates that North Korea and the U.S. have come close to sharing views on North Korea’s complete denuclearization.

Beginning the summit talks, Chairman Kim Jong-un said, “if we could meet whenever, tackle the pending issues, and gather our hearts and minds with determination, we could make up for the 11 years lost [since the last summit].” And when President Moon and Chairman Kim walked with the honor guard, he said that he can show Kim a more impressive scene if Kim visits Cheong Wa Dae. Chairman Kim replied that he will visit Cheong Wa Dae whenever the President invites him.

Chairman Kim’s active determination to meet President Moon seems to stem from the point that President Moon assists him in arranging the meeting with President Trump and improving North Korea’s relations with the international community, while demanding North Korea’s ‘complete denuclearization.’ Even though Chairman Kim offered to meet with President Trump first, he could be anxious whether the summit with Trump would turn out to be successful. In such circumstances where Kim Jong-un has to trust and rely on President Moon, South Korea has the opportunity to achieve North Korea’s complete denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula.