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The Replacement of North Korea’s Line-up of Denuclearization Negotiation and Tasks of South Korea: Necessity of Presenting a Draft of DPRK-U.S. Nuclear Agreement through the Formation of Task Force
2019.04.30  Tuesday
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Cheong Seong-Chang

The Replacement of North Korea’s Line-up of Denuclearization Negotiation
and Tasks of South Korea:

Necessity of Presenting a Draft of DPRK-U.S. Nuclear Agreement
through the Formation of a “Task Force on
Denuclearization and Peace on the Korean Peninsula”


No. 2019-16 (April 30, 2019)

Dr. Cheong Seong-Chang

Vice President for Research Planning, the Sejong Institute



The replacement of North Korea’s line of denuclearization negotiation has been confirmed through the recent visit to Russia by Kim Jong-un, the chairman of the Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK) and the State Affairs Commission (SAC) of the DPRK. Kim Yong-chol, the current vice chairman of the Central Committee of the WPK, was previously in charge of the overall negotiation on North Korea’s denuclearization and attended all three inter-Korean summits, two DPRK-U.S. summits and four DPRK-China summits since last year. However, he not only was unable to carry out Kim Jong-un’s latest visit to Vladivostok, but also failed to appear at the even for Chairman Kim’s departure on April 24.


On the other hand, Minister of Foreign Affair Ri Yong-ho and the First Vice Minister of Foreign Affair Choe Son-hui, who were generally invisible from Kim Jong-un’s previous summit diplomacy, accompanied Chairman Kim on his visit to Russia and attended a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in place of Kim Yong-chol. Ri and Choe began to reveal their presence shortly after the collapse of the Hanoi summit. They shared the same vehicle with Kim Jong-un in Vladivostok; it is hard to find a case of any North Korean official riding on Chairman Kim’s private car. Such incidents indicates that Chairman Kim has deep trust in Minister Ri and First Vice Minsiter Choe.


Kim Yong-chol’s declining status seemed apparent from the 4th Plenary Meeting of the 7th WPK Central Committee (WPKCC) held on April 10. At the meeting, North Korea elected Jang Kum-chol as a member of the WKPCC, which consists of the state’s 100 key elites, and also appointed him to the director of a certain department of the WPKCC without revealing the exact title. However, a report submitted on April 24 by the National Intelligence Service to the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee confirmed that Jang Kum-chol was appointed to the department director of the United Front Department of the WPKCC. Jang is known to have been in charge of civilian inter-Korean exchanges at the Consultative Council for National Reconciliation (CCNR) and the Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee (KAPPC).


A commemorative photo of Kim Jong-un and newly elected members of the SAC published in Rodong Sinmun on April 13 also indirectly revealed declined status of Kim Yong-chol. In the photo, Ri Yong-ho and Choe Son-hui were seated in the front row with Chairman Kim, but Kim Yong-chol was standing in the back row of Minister Ri with other military officials. And the fact that Kim Yong-chol was not able to accompany Kim Jong-un on his visit to Russia while Ri Yong-ho and Choe Son-hui did clearly suggests the decline in Kim Yong-chol’s status. However, Kim Yong-chol still possesses limited influence in North Korean politics as he continues to hold the seat of Vice Chairman of the WPKCC and also was elected as the member of the SAC at the 1st session of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) held on April 11.


The sudden decline in Kim Yong-chol’s status, who directed overall process of North Korea’s denuclearization negotiations, is largely attributable to the failure of the Second DPRK-U.S. summit in Hanoi. Kim Jong-un was not at all prepared for the discussion on “denuclearization measures in addition to dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear complex,” which President Donald Trump proposed at the second summit. At the summit, North Korea made excessive demand to the U.S. to lift sanctions and such action eventually broke down the summit. Primary responsibility for this failure lies with Kim Yong-chol who served as Kim Jong-un’s wingman. The best scenario that Kim Yong-chol and other hardliners in North Korea wanted was North Korea to abandon only a part of its nuclear program in exchange for the removal of critical articles of sanctions and continue remaining as a nuclear power. However, South Korea and the U.S. could never accept this scenario.


Kim Jong-un’s unrealistic negotiating strategy shown at the Hanoi Summit was the result of hardliners in North Korea overshadowing his eyes and ears, indicating that Chairman Kim failed to make a reasonable judgement. Thus, Kim Jong-un’s removal of Kim Yong-chol from the director of the United Front Department and his exclusion from summit diplomacy can be seen as a positive sign toward the future denuclearization negotiations between North Korea and the U.S. Kim Yong-chol may participate in prospective negotiations, but he will be difficult to oversee the entire denuclearization negotiations as he had done in the past.


However, it is unlikely that North Korea’s denuclearization negotiation strategy will change significantly in a short period despite the replacement of North Korea’s line-up of denuclearization negotiation from a military figure as Kim Yong-chol to diplomats, such as Ri Yong-ho and Choe Son-hui, since both Ri and Choe are hardliners against the U.S. Unlike Kim Yong-chol, Ri and Choi have no need to represent the interests of the military; nonetheless it will be difficult for them to present a more active denuclearization negotiation plan to Kim Jong-un that opposes the interests of the military.


In order to induce a meaningful change in North Korea’s strategy for denuclearization negotiations, it is important for Kim Jong-un to recognize that means to ensure national security and normalize foreign relations are in line with denuclearization. Realistically, it is difficult for anyone inside North Korea to present a bold denuclearization deal to Kim Jong-un. Thus, it is necessary to present him a “comprehensive schedule on North Korea’s denuclearization and corresponding measures of the U.S.,” which both North Korea and the U.S. can agree on, from the outside of the state.


However, Seoul seems to not possess a kind of comprehensive schedule to present to North Korea. Therefore, Seoul urgently needs to organize a “task force on denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula” under the Blue House or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which includes experts on international affairs and national security, North Korean and U.S. experts and as well as nuclear scientists and engineers. Since the current Trump’s administration ends in two years and the U.S. will begin its presidential campaign in upcoming year, denuclearization negotiations are likely to be suspended from next year. In such case, DRPK-U.S. relations can deteriorate again unless South and North Korea and the U.S. agree on “denuclearization and corresponding measures” within this year.


Currently, neither the U.S. nor North Korea have been able to present a draft agreement acceptable to both sides in regard to “denuclearization and corresponding measures.” If Seoul utilizes its full capabilities to draft an agreement, it could prevent the delay in negotiations or the aggravation of DPRK-U.S. relations and bring substantial progress in denuclearization.


If a task force in Seoul comes up with a detailed draft of the “denuclearization and corresponding measures,” it needs to closely consult with the U.S. for the draft of ROK-U.S. joint agreement. Afterwards, Seoul should deliver the draft agreement directly to Kim Jong-un by sending a special envoy to North Korea or holding an inter-Korean summit at the Panmunjom so that it may develop into an agreement among South Korea, North Korea and the U.S.


President Moon Jae-in needs to point out to Chairman Kim the risk that an overly gradual approach may only prolong the denuclearization process and that negotiations can be suspended due to prospective regime change in the U.S. without reaching the goal of normalizing diplomatic ties between North Korean and the U.S. Also, it is desirable to actively persuade Kim Jong-un to complete denuclearization at an early date and form diplomatic ties between North Korea and the U.S. by carrying out several denuclearization measures in simultaneous and synchronous manner.


At the same time, Seoul also needs to prepare for a prolonged denuclearization process for North Korea’s excessive adherence to the phased agreement and implementation. In preparation for this case, a “task force on denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula” should devise a detailed negotiation strategy to reach an agreement within this year that would bind both North Korea and the U.S. and prevent both sides from halting North Korea’s denuclearization process.