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Current Issues and Policies

The U.S. View on the 2018 Pyongyang Inter-Korean Summit and Prospects for North Korea’s Denuclearization Talks
2018.10.05  Friday
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Woo Jung-Yeop

The U.S. View on the 2018 Pyongyang Inter-Korean Summit and

Prospects for North Korea’s Denuclearization Talks


October 5, 2018

Dr. Woo Jung-Yeop

Director, Department of Security Strategy Studies, the Sejong Institute




1. Introduction


U.S. State Secretary Pompeo announced his plans to travel to North Korea for a day on October 7. Simultaneously, he said that he will meet Chairman Kim during this visit. Related to this, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said, ‘North Korea and the U.S. will engage in in-depth discussions on the denuclearization issue with Secretary Pompeo’s visit to North Korea considering the second bilateral summit’ at a press conference on October 4.

The DPRK-U.S. talks, which have been suspended after Pompeo’s visit to North Korea was canceled late August, has been resumed through the Pyongyang inter-Korean summit mid-September and the series of meetings along with the UN General Assembly meeting in New York late September — the ROK-U.S. summit and DPRK-U.S. foreign minister meeting. This has reignited hopes for the resumption of denuclearization talks between North Korea and the U.S. While it is natural to have hopes with the talks being back on track, South Korea should prudently approach the situation, examining several issues.

It should analyze the U.S. foreign policy, particularly its North Korea policy, under the premise that the U.S. is not a unitary actor. That is, the current U.S. administration itself has shown tendencies of bifurcating views between the president and bureaucrats, not in the conventional sense that the state that comprises of the executive branch, legislative branch, public opinion, etc. cannot be viewed as a unitary actor.

There seems to be a perception gap between the bureaucrats who have a suspicious look at the possibility of North Korea’s denuclearization and President Trump who have relatively optimistic expectations and outlook on the current situation. The two sides also appear to have a contrasting evaluation on the September inter-Korean summit. When the U.S negotiates with North Korea, the settlement between the two groups — the president and the bureaucrats — will determine how the U.S. sets its relations with North Korea. The problem is that it is difficult to presage the final settlement as it remains clueless to outsiders what mechanisms are in effect between the two groups. The arrangement between President Trump who pursues the second summit with Kim Jong-un despite the uncertainty on North Korea’s denuclearization and the bureaucrat group which tries to block the summit of which the outcome is doubtful—or to maximize the level of denuclearization measures—will set the pace of resolving the North Korea issue including the fate of the second DPRK-U.S. summit.



2. U.S. Response to the Inter-Korean Agreement related to Denuclearization

at the Inter-Korean Summit


Prior to the Pyongyang inter-Korean summit in September, it was told that the following arguments were discussed, albeit unverifiable. ‘The key detail in the intermediary draft was placing North Korea and the U.S. a step back from what they insisted — the former sticking to the ‘end-of-war’ declaration and the latter arguing that the early measures for denuclearization should proceed such as declaring the list of nuclear facilities and inspecting them. [On September] 5th, the South Korean special envoy to North Korea suggested in the following order: North Korea pledges to declare nuclear facilities and allow international inspection; the relevant parties declare the end to the Korean War; and the international community receives the list of nuclear facilities from North Korea and inspects these facilities.’ (Joongang Ilbo, September 10, 2018) In this regard, there were several articles in the following tone. ‘In a press interview, Moon Chung-in, President Moon’s special adviser for unification, diplomacy and national security affairs, said that he understands South Korea has agreed with the U.S. that the two parties are willing to negotiate with the declaration to end the Korean War if North Korea expresses its intent to declare the list of nuclear facilities. He added that the special envoy seems to have persuaded the North Korean regime. (Yonhap News Agency, September 6, 2018)

In accordance with these articles, the South Korean government presumably regarded the exchange between the ‘end-of-war’ declaration and the list of nuclear facilities with a high probability. That being said, the U.S. political sphere viewed this exchange — or even North Korea to declare nuclear weapons — at the inter-Korean summit very unlikely. If North Korea accepted the exchange, the U.S. side believed that there is some leeway to negotiate. It appears that North Korea refused the exchange offer and proposed a new idea, expressing that it will implement additional measures such as the permanent dismantlement of the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon when the U.S. takes ‘corresponding measures’ — though Pyongyang did not explicitly state this corresponding measure as the declaration to end the Korean War.

According to the Washington Post’s interview with Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha on October 3, Seoul asked Washington to ‘hold off on a demand for an inventory of North Korea’s nuclear weapons … to break the impasse between North Korea and the U.S.’ And she assessed, “If they [permanently dismantle their nuclear facilities in Yongbyon] in return for America’s corresponding measures, such as the end-of-war declaration, I think that’s a huge step forward for denuclearization.”

It is significant to explicate why the element to exchange with the ‘war-ending’ declaration changed from the list of nuclear weapons to the dismantlement of nuclear facilities in Yongbyon. This will be the crucial factor in discussing the North Korea policy between South Korea and the U.S. If North Korea accepted the South Korean government’s offer — exchange between the declaration and the list of nuclear weapons —, both President Trump and bureaucrats would have interpreted it as North Korea’s intent to resume negotiations on denuclearization. Nonetheless, the U.S. administration has perplexing perceptions internally by North Korea’s suggestion — exchanging the declaration with the dismantlement of nuclear facilities in Yongbyon. The bureaucrats in the federal government have a negative view on discussing the ‘end-of-war’ declaration since North Korea’s suggestion falls short of the submission of the list of nuclear weapons, which they consider it as a concrete step towards substantial denuclearization, whereas President Trump is likely to take North Korea’s offer.

While the Pyongyang Joint Declaration does not include ‘inspection and verification,’ the U.S. comprehensively deciphered the clause of dismantling Tongchang-ri missile engine test site under the observation of experts from relevant countries as North Korea’s approval of inspection and verification of nuclear facilities — a strategy to make such term a ‘fait accompli.’ This leaves open two possibilities: the South Korean government’s message to the U.S. included contents regarding inspection and verification; and moreover, the U.S. government officials attempted to raise the goal of the second summit talks prior to the summit itself with the anxiety that President Trump will accept North Korea’s offer to exchange the ‘end-of-war’ declaration with the dismantlement of Yongbyon nuclear facilities without any inspection. In other words, from the U.S. officials perspective, they want to organize a ‘proper’ draft for negotiations — make the verification on Yongbyon nuclear facilities a fait accompli and compel North Korea to follow IAEA procedures of declaration, verification, and dismantlement — even if it is unable to receive an inventory of nuclear weapons from North Korea.

While there were mixed opinions on what message from Chairman Kim did the South Korean government deliver to the U.S., U.S. State Department spokesperson said, “Nothing can happen in the absence of denuclearization. Denuclearization has to come first... President Moon and also Chairman Kim did talk about inspectors...Having IAEA inspectors and the United States inspectors be a part of anything is really shared understanding.” This indicates that President Moon conveyed North Korea’s message of ‘accepting inspectors’ to the U.S. side including President Trump. If the two Koreas actually discussed the inspection of Yongbyon and this fact was delivered to the U.S., North Korea and the U.S. is likely to argue over how to carry out inspection and verification of nuclear facilities.



3. Observable Points


The dominant view in the U.S. is one of skepticism related to North Korea’s denuclearization after Secretary Pompeo’s visit last July. Particularly, despite understanding that the negotiations will begin in earnest after the June 12 DPRK-U.S. summit, Washington believes that it will be difficult to negotiate with Vice Chairman Kim Yong-chol after he refused negotiation when Secretary Pompeo visited North Korea in July. Back then, North Korea unilaterally demanded the U.S. for the ‘end-of-war’ declaration, rather than taking a tit-for-tat approach. The element that the U.S. viewed as a ‘step forward’ in the inter-Korean summit was North Korea’s intention to have a ‘quid pro quo’ deal with the U.S.

The U.S. has hoped DPRK Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho to be Secretary Pompeo’s negotiation partner, strengthening Minister Ri’s stance at ASEAN Regional Forum, etc. and Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui to be the counterpart for U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun. This is not a mere ‘adjustment of counterparts’ but rather designing a framework of ‘negotiations on North Korea’s denuclearization’ with North Korea. Beginning with Secretary Pompeo’s remarks after the inter-Korean summit and his meeting with Minister Ri and offer of talks with Representative Stephen Biegun are all part of such endeavor.

The U.S. will try to ascertain North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization by Pompeo’s visit this October. Although Chairman Kim Jong-un complained that the rest of the world does not trust the measures North Korea did until now, the U.S. perceives that North Korea’s demand for ‘corresponding measures’ with these initiatory measures rather heightens U.S. distrust against North Korea. Hence, the U.S. will try to examine what changes have occurred in North Korea from the point of the cancellation of Secretary Pompeo’s visit to North Korea last August until now. The U.S. position still remains ambiguous whether it will demand the list of the nuclear arsenal as a prerequisite or discuss the measures corresponding to the dismantlement and verification of Yongbyon nuclear facilities with the second DPRK-U.S. summit as a given point.

The U.S. will check whether North Korea has the earnest intention to sit with the U.S. over denuclearization. Should Secretary Pompeo sit across Foreign Minister Ri, and not Vice Chairman Kim Yong-chol, Washington will read that North Korea is prepared to talk with the U.S. in a more forward-looking manner. Moreover, if Pyongyang agrees to hold working-level talks between Stephen Biegun and Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui as Secretary Pompeo suggested, it will be highly regarded by Washington.

Short-term predictions are never easy. In addition, the Korean Peninsula is currently undergoing unprecedentedly strong turbulence with steep ebbs and flows, making such predictions more difficult. Regarding Secretary Pompeo’s visit to North Korea, the prediction that the denuclearization talks will make a huge progress has been gaining grounds as Pompeo’s visit was decided swiftly and includes meeting with Chairman Kim. Some even forecast a ‘big deal.’ Previous cases for reference are only Secretary Pompeo’s earlier visits. However, there were four occasions over Secretary Pompeo’s visit to North Korea. Among them, he actually visited North Korea three times and one was canceled at the last minute. The two times Secretary Pompeo met with Kim Jong-un were before the first DPRK-U.S. summit and the meetings were to arrange the bilateral summit and to confirm North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization. Secretary Pompeo’s third visit to North Korea aimed to take a further concrete and substantial step in the denuclearization process after the Singapore summit. That being said, Pompeo was unable to meet Kim Jong-un and the negotiations with Kim Yong-chol did not bear fruit. The fourth occasion, which did not include plans to meet Chairman Kim, was scrapped before the visit. Factoring in these four occasions, Secretary Pompeo’s announcement of a short visit to North Korea which includes a meeting with Chairman Kim is a possible indication that this visit focuses on the second DPRK-U.S. summit rather than the negotiations on denuclearization. Even though the second DPRK-U.S. summit may possibly have a positive effect in North Korea’s denuclearization in the long run, the connection between holding the summit and producing a tangible outcome in the denuclearization process currently seem feeble. In the end, the two issues are likely to be dealt with separately.





This article is based on the author’s personal opinion and does not reflect the views of the Sejong Institute.



*Translator’s note: This is an unofficial translation of the original paper which was written in Korean. All references should be made to the original paper.