Current Issues and Policies
Current Issues and Policies is a monthly analytical e-report which aims to provide analysis on current policy issues and problems, and propose alternative policies in the areas of foreign affairs, security, and unification.

Current Issues and Policies

Current Issues and Policies 2018-8
2018.09.18  Tuesday
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Cheong Seong-Chang

The Direction for Discussing Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula at the Upcoming Inter-Korean Summit


Current Issues and Policies (September 11, 2018)


Dr. CHEONG Seong-Chang

Vice President of Research Planning,

The Sejong Institute



Kim Jong-un’s Comment on “Denuclearization within the First Term of President Trump”

The September 5th visit by South Korea’s Special Envoy to North Korea, headed by Chung Eui-Yong, Director of the Blue House (Cheong Wa Dae) National Security Office, successfully affirmed Kim Jong-un’s stance on the denuclearization timeline for the Korean peninsula. According to Chung, Chairnan Kim Jong-un “wished he could eliminate 70 years of hostile history with the United States, improve North Korea-U.S. relations and realize denuclearization within the first term of President Donald Trump.”

One may construe that Chairman Kim’s remarks convey his hope to complete denuclearization before the end date of President Trump’s current term, January 2021, as well as his willingness to normalize his country’s relations with the United States and sign the peace treaty. South Korea lately discovered from Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton’s recent interview that Kim had discussed “denuclearization within a year” with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea. And this second disclosure of Kim’s affirmation of the deadline of the disarmament – “denuclearization within the first term of President Trump,” – now gives more feasibility to the prospect of denuclearization of North Korea and negotiations for the corresponding rewards.

Kim’s willingness to end the hostilities and improve the relations between Pyongyang and Washington within the current US administration’s term is certainly good news to Trump, who is aiming for a second term at the presidential election in November 2020. Provided that North Korea indeed completes nuclear disarmament before America’s next presidential election in 2020, Trump will be able to promote, to home and abroad, this success as the greatest diplomatic accomplishment of his administration. With nuclear-free Korea, Washington has no reason to say no to normalization of DPRK-US relations and signing of the peace treaty for the Korean peninsula.


 “Practical Measures for Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” as Agenda for Inter-Korean Summit

Another noted success of the Special Envoy’s September visit was the agreement to discuss “Practical Measures for Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” at the upcoming third South-North Summit from September 18 to 20. Pyongyang, in the past nuclear talks and negotiations, would reach out to the United States but prefer to keep South Korea out of the discussions. However, since Pyongyang failed to see eye to eye with the United States at the high-level talk between Mike Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of State and Kim Yong-chul, Vice-Chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, Pyongyang is now engaging South Korea directly to discuss “practical measures” and President Moon Jae-in has risen as a key player in the North’s denuclearization.

To succeed in this pivotal talk, President Moon must have a clear understanding of Chairman. Kim Jong-un’s definition of “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” Rodong Sinmun stated on September 6th that in the meeting with the South Korean delegation, Kim has “reiterated his commitment to denuclearization and transformation of the peninsula into the land of peace, free from nuclear weapons and threats, by eliminating the fear of armed conflicts and war.” Given that the message came from the official mouthpiece of Workers’ Party of Korea, one may construe that Kim’s definition of nuclear disarmament is, fundamentally, elimination of nuclear arsenal and threats, which includes disposal of ICBM capabilities that allow the delivery of nuclear weapons.


Setting “Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” Deliverable within President Trump’s Term as a Goal

Can Seoul and Washington set the goals for denuclearization to encompass complete removal of the nuclear facilities and thorough verification of the existence of concealed facilities to go beyond simply ridding North Korea of its ICBMs and nuclear warheads? The general assessment is that achieving such level of denuclearization will be impossible within the current US administration’s term.

More than 390 buildings stand in the Yongbyon Complex alone, and the estimate of North Korea’s nuclear weapons amounts to approximately 50. Given such scale of Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities, many experts agree that complete removal of all nuclear facilities, warheads, and materials and thoroughly verifying the existence of concealed facilities by January 2021 are realistically impossible. Dr. An Jin-soo, former Senior Research Fellow at the Korea Institute of Nuclear Nonproliferation and Control, said “South Africa had only seven nuclear weapons and one facility, but to my knowledge, the verification process took more than three years,” and pointed out that “attempts to verify every single detail is bound to take longer.” (Yonhap News, September 6th, 2018)

However, if South Korea and the United States agree to define the goals of denuclearization as removal of nuclear weapons and threats, “permanent disablement” of the reactors and reprocessing facilities, and dismantlement of uranium enrichment facilities, they can be attained within the current U.S. administration’s term.

Dr. An further stated that “It boils down to the question of ‘what kind of denuclearization we are aiming for,’ as disabling a nuclear facility is not a lengthy process. Dismantling and shipping out nuclear weapons, ‘permanently disabling’ nuclear reactors and reprocessing facilities and tearing down uranium enrichment facilities can be achieved in less than a year.”

Dr. Lee Chun-geun, Research Fellow at the Science and Technology Policy Institute, said “The timeline for denuclearization depends on the degree of verification. Focusing on nuclear weapons and fissile materials will not take a long time,” and pointed out that “There is no telling how long it would take to see complete disposal and decontamination of nuclear facilities, but that’s probably not Washington’s biggest concern.”  (Yonhap News, September 6th, 2018)

Therefore, President Moon’s goals for denuclearization should be the elimination of nuclear weapons and threats, “permanent disablement” of nuclear reactors and reprocessing facilities, and dismantlement of uranium enrichment facilities within President Trump’s term. If North Korea succeeds in meeting the goals by January 2021, the United States and Japan should consider normalizing their relations with Pyongyang, followed by South Korea, North Korea, the United States and China signing the peace treaty. The world should respond by relaxing or completely lifting sanctions against North Korea.

Total removal of North Korea’s ICBMs will significantly curtail Pyongyang’s nuclear threats, rendering the warheads useless for posing actual threats to the United States. Pyongyang’s renouncement of the missile program and consequent elimination of nuclear deterrent against America also means that North Korea can no longer target South Korea or Japan with their remaining nuclear weapons. Thus, disposal of ICBMs will be immensely beneficial not only to the security interests of the United States but also to those of South Korea and Japan. Further removal of Pyongyang’s nuclear warheads will, in fact, eliminate the country’s nuclear threats.


Four-Phase Approach to North Korea’s ICBMs and Nuclear Programs Disposal

As Kim Jong-un emphasizes taking a phased approach and synchronized measures, denuclearization process that includes disposal of ICBMs and nuclear warheads should be broken down into four phases, to be completed within President Trump’s term.

At the second DPRK-China Summit with General Secretary of China Xi Jinping in last May, Kim Jong-un stressed that “the DPRK and the US will establish mutual trust through dialogue, and that all relevant parties will take phased and synchronous measures in a responsible manner to comprehensively advance the political settlement process of the Korean Peninsula issue, and eventually achieve the denuclearization and lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

Thus, the first phase should be shipping 50% of ICBMs out of North Korea by the end of 2018. The second phase should entail moving out the remaining 50% by summer 2019. 50% of the nuclear warheads should be removed from the peninsula by the end of 2019 by shipping them out of North Korea. In the final phase, the rest of the warheads should also be relocated by summer 2020 and North Korea should “permanently disable” nuclear reactors and reprocessing facilities and dismantle uranium enrichment facilities. The world should respond to each successive phase with corresponding rewards.

When North Korea agrees with the above denuclearization timetable and ships 50% of ICBMs out of the country by year-end, the United States should accept the end-of-war declaration at the level of a “mere political declaration” and provide sanction reliefs to Pyongyang. This measure will enable the Moon administration to host the ground-breaking ceremony for construction of inter-Korean railway and roads.

The UN Security Council should respond to Pyongyang’s disposal of the entire stockpile of ICBMs by summer 2019 by easing the sanctions affecting North Korea’s livelihoods, such as clothing and seafood export as well as economic cooperation. Upon delivery of each phase, the international community should continue to relieve and lift sanctions against the country, enabling reactivation of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, reopening of Mt. Kumgang to tourists and construction of inter-Korean railway and roads.

If North Korea disposes 50% of nuclear warheads by the end of the year 2019, the United States should take a rudimentary step for building a diplomatic tie with North Korea (establishing a liaison office or consulate); and South Korea, North Korea, the United States, and China should concentrate their full efforts on the negotiations to deliver the peace treaty for the peninsula.

When Pyongyang succeed in removing all nuclear warheads, “permanently disabling” nuclear reactors and reprocessing facilities and dismantling uranium enrichment facilities by the summer of the year 2020, the United States and Japan should normalize the relations with DPRK, while South Korea, North Korea, the United States, and China sign the peace treaty. The UN Security Council should also take the next step by significantly easing or ending most of the sanctions imposed on Pyongyang.


“Voluntary” Denuclearization of North Korea and Timetable for Rewards

If North Korea can reap benefits sooner with the swifter disposal of ICBMs and nuclear warheads, Pyongyang will pursue denuclearization with more energy and vigor. Therefore, Seoul must engage Washington in close discussions to outline the rewards for each phase of denuclearization as well as the timetable for nuclear disarmament and corresponding measures. It is entirely possible that the rewards intended by the United States differ from the ones demanded by North Korea. Therefore, closing such a gap requires developing the roadmap for denuclearization and compensation at the high-level DPRK-US or four-party talks involving South and North Koreas, the United States and China.


To list the measures to be undertaken by North Korea for denuclearization, South Korea must have a clear and thorough understanding of Pyongyang’s stance. For example, North Korea may prefer to follow South Africa’s case of “voluntary” disposal of nuclear weapons prior to declaration and verification. In this case, pressing Pyongyang to submit a declaration of their nuclear programs first can be an inappropriate move.

After removal of ICBMs and nuclear weapons, “permanent disablement” of nuclear reactors and reprocessing facilities, and dismantlement of uranium enrichment facilities, South Korea should push for complete dismantlement of the nuclear facilities in North Korea and verification to be finished within the four-year term of the new U.S. president elected in November 2020. Seoul and Washington must see complete disposal of North Korea’s nuclear weapons as the goal, but at the same time, share a realistic understanding that even if Pyongyang succeeds in concealing several nuclear weapons, they will not be sufficient enough to launch a preemptive strike.

After 2020, given that North Korea’s nuclear facilities are completely dismantled and verification is successful, the international community should consider allowing and supporting the construction of light water reactors in North Korea, on the condition that spent fuel rods will be shipped out of the country.