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Phased Strategy for North Korea’s Denuclearization and Directions for ROK-US Cooperation
2018.08.23  Thursday
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Cheong Seong-Chang


Phased Strategy for North Korea’s Denuclearization and

Directions for ROK-US Cooperation


President Moon Jae-in’s Liberation Day Address and Exploring Realistic Strategies for the Denuclearization of North Korea


No.2018-38 (August 16, 2018)

Dr. Seong-chang Cheong

Vice President, Research Planning Division,

The Sejong Institute



In the 2018 presidential address on August 15, the 73rd Liberation Day, President Moon Jae-in touched upon the achievements of the inter-Korean dialogue, delivering the government’s statement on the upcoming inter-Korean Summit in September and stressing his commitment to hold groundbreaking ceremonies for the construction of inter-Korean railroads and expressways. President also presented establishing “East Asian Railroad Community” whose members encompass six countries of Northeast Asia and the United States, and expressed that such community would serve as the first step towards Northeast Asian multilateral peace and security system.

Perhaps, given no concrete progress in the denuclearization of North Korea, the talk of ‘East Asian Railroad Community’ and ‘Northeast Asian Multilateral Peace and Security System’ may sound overly idealistic. However, the region faces numerous challenges other than the inter-Korean one, such as the conflicts between North Korea and Japan, South Korea and Japan, China and Japan, as well as the United States and China. These issues call for mid-term and long-term strategic visions for the region’s multilateral peace and security upon dismantlement of Pyongyang’s nuclear programs.

The Liberation Day speech included the hope to witness “complete denuclearization of North Korea” and subsequently “corresponding, comprehensive measures from the United States” shortly. However, in reality, it is unlikely that North Korea’s denuclearization will be completed over such a short period. Therefore, South Korea and the United States need to understand necessity of a longer timeline and propose a concrete roadmap of denuclearization and rewards, outlining dismantlement process and the US’s rewards for each step Pyongyang has taken.

Also, President Moon emphasized his firm commitment to complete denuclearization of the peninsula and take a bold step toward ending the Korean War and signing the peace treaty through the upcoming third Inter-Korean Summit in Pyongyang. Seoul will forge a stronger trust between the South and the North, along with “proactive approaches to facilitate inter-Korean dialogue on denuclearization.”

However, if Seoul insists on signing the peace treaty on the premise of “complete denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula, the Blue House may never see the treaty signed during President Moon’s term. Therefore, the government must plan and propose the stage of denuclearization in which the peace treaty will be signed.

On the other hand, if the United States decides the sanctions will stay unless complete dismantlement is delivered, it is possible Pyongyang, in an act of defiance to Washington’s one-sided approach, give up both denuclearization and any future negotiations. If the sanctions against North remain in place until the very completion of denuclearization, inter-Korean railways and expressways may never materialize, despite the groundbreaking ceremonies.

Thus, Seoul must engage the United States in a close discussion on North Korea’s milestones for denuclearization and rewards for Pyongyang’s achievements of the targets. There may be a discrepancy between the incentives intended by the United States and those desired by North Korea. Thus, both countries must jointly discuss and develop the roadmap for denuclearization process and corresponding rewards, based on the close cooperation between the relevant parties and the members of the global community.

Korea and the United States must carefully consider how willing Pyongyang would be to accept the proposed list of measures for denuclearization. For example, according to a news report, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanded North Korea produce a list of nuclear sites without disclosing any plan for compensation from the US side on his visit to Pyongyang on July 6th. If this is true, Pyongyang may have perceived such demand as “gangster-like.” North Korea is aware that the list reveals all their cards to the United States and fears Washington will seize the opportunity to their advantage in all the subsequent negotiations. Thus, the demand for the timeline of denuclearization must come with the timeline for rewards.

While Seoul must stay close to its goal of complete dismantlement of nuclear programs on the peninsula by taking a gradual and realistic approach, it must be able to distinguish addressing North Korea’s real nuclear threat and removing nuclear capability of Pyongyang. If North Korea’s real nuclear threat is gone, South Korea, North Korea, the United States and China will be able to move on to sign the peace treaty and lift the sanctions. Pyongyang’s removal of the capability to develop nuclear programs should be awarded the world’s complete withdrawal of sanctions against the North. An example of such gradual solution is aiming to dispose and relocate Pyongyang’s ICBMs and nuclear warheads during the Trump administration’s term, while the next administration is tasked with the relocation of nuclear materials to other countries and dismantlement of nuclear facilities.

If Pyongyang gives up its ICBMs by 2019, the UN Security Council sanctions on the very livelihoods of the regime, such as clothing and seafood export and economic cooperation, should be lifted first, followed by reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mt. Kumgang, and building of inter-Korean railroads and expressways. Similarly, giving up nuclear warheads by the year 2020 can be acknowledged by the United States and Japan normalizing their relations with Pyongyang, and ultimately, South Korea, North Korea, the United States, and China signing a peace treaty.

If Pyongyang’s nuclear threat is virtually eliminated within the term of the Trump Administration, the successor should focus on dismantling North Korea’s nuclear facilities. Upon the successful dismantlement of nuclear facilities, the sanctions against Pyongyang can be completely lifted, while the ways to allow and support the construction of light-water reactors (LWR) in North Korea can be reviewed, on condition that spent fuel is exported.

Pyongyang can expect light-water reactors to address energy issues. The world no longer needs to be concerned that North Korea may develop nuclear weapons with spent fuel, which will be exported. It should be also noted that failure to provide work for approximately 10,000 nuclear scientists and technicians in North Korea may trigger resistance to denuclearization within the country, with subsequent nuclear brain drain to the third world. Therefore, Seoul and Washington should view light-water reactor construction as as a way of containing and managing the nuclear experts of North Korea.

On the other hand, the worst-case scenario remains: after the construction of light-water reactors, the North may decide to expel IAEA’s inspectors, extract plutonium from the reactors, and develop nuclear weapons. However, with the dismantlement of nuclear facilities, Pyongyang’s attempt to rebuild nuclear programs would be time-consuming, and North Korea will also face stronger sanctions from the global community and a massive blow to its economy. Therefore, it is extremely unlikely that North Korea will attempt to rekindle its nuclear programs using the reactors with the normalization of North-US relation and complete withdrawal of sanctions.

For Seoul to succeed in facilitating denuclearization talks between the North and the United States, it is crucial for Seoul to support and help Pyongyang and Washington reach agreement on the mutual timeline for denuclearization and rewards. Close ROK-US cooperation on the timeline needs to take place before the fourth Pyongyang visit by the US Secretary of State. The Blue House must support the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Seoul’s counterpart to the US Department of State, and the Ministry must be more active in coordinating North Korea policies with the United States.