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Current Issues and Policies

Assessing Kim Yong-chol’s Visit to the U.S. and ROK-DPRK-U.S. Trilateral Talks in Stockholm
2019.01.29  Tuesday
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Hyun-ik Hong
Current Issues and Policies 2019-04 (January 29, 2019)


Assessing Kim Yong-chol’s Visit to the U.S. and

ROK-DPRK-U.S. Trilateral Talks in Stockholm


Dr. Hong Hyun-ik

Director, Department of Diplomatic Strategy Studies at the Sejong Institute


At the onset of 2019, Chairman Kim Jong-un expressed his trust in President Trump and hope for another summit meeting with him in his New Year address; and President Trump also articulated his expectations to meet with Kim Jong-un, revealing the fact that he received a personal letter from him. Afterward, Kim Yong-chol, vice-chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Central Committee and the Director of the WPK United Front Department, took a direct flight to Washington D.C. and met with U.S. State Secretary Mike Pompeo and President Trump on January 18. Consequently, the White House announced that the DPRK-U.S. summit will be held late February and President Trump stated, “That [meeting with Kim Yong-chol] was an incredible meeting … we have made a lot of progress as far as denuclearization is concerned.” And added, “We’ve picked the country, but we’ll be announcing it in the future.” Moreover, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun flew to Sweden immediately after attending the meeting with Vice-chairman Kim Yong-chol in Washington, and had a three-day in-depth negotiation with DPRK Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui and ROK negotiator Lee Do-hoon. Secretary Pompeo said that he made considerable progress in talks with North Korea through Kim Yong-chol’s visit and the negotiations in Stockholm made further advances.

In this context, this paper explores the post-Singapore negotiation process between North Korea and the U.S. and the changes in U.S. strategic orientation regarding North Korea. Then, it prospects the terms agreeable at the summit by examining the agendas expected to pop out at the second DPRK-U.S. summit scheduled at the end of February – as probably discussed in Kim Yong-chol’s meetings in Washington and ROK-DPRK-U.S. trilateral negotiations in Stockholm – and suggests South Korea’s role in the process.


Change in U.S. Policy Orientation on North Korea after the First DPRK-U.S. Summit

The U.S. administration has long claimed North Korea’s denuclearization should take place first. Since liberal politicians such as President Obama asserted on North Korea’s denuclearization to be realized first in the name of ‘strategic patience,’ the North Korean regime advanced its nuclear program for eight years without any concern. It was at the historic DPRK-U.S. summit last June organized by the Moon Jae-in administration only when the U.S. accepted that the North Korea’s denuclearization should go hand in hand with U.S. guarantee of North Korean regime security. However, the U.S. only suspended joint war games with South Korea and did not take interest in fulfilling the pledges announced at the summit, such as preliminary steps to normalize bilateral relations and establish a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula – opening a liaison office in North Korea, negotiating the establishment of diplomatic relations, declaring an end to the Korean War, etc. – whereas North Korea already took several measures - returned three American detainees and remains of 55 U.S. soldiers, demolished the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, and began to dismantle the Tongchang-ri missile engine test site, which caused concerns for the U.S., after the summit. As such, Kim Jong-un did not meet Secretary Pompeo who visited Pyongyang in July and the North Korean authorities deplored U.S. unilateral demand of denuclearization as “gangster-like demand."

President Moon Jae-in again took the driver’s seat. He visited Pyongyang in September and signed an inter-Korean military agreement that ensures alleviation of tensions and institutionally guarantees peace beyond a mere ‘end-of-war’ declaration with his North Korean counterpart. He also induced North Korea’s conditional concession to shut down nuclear facilities in Yongbyon – assumed to constitute more than 70 percent of North Korea’s nuclear facilities - permanently and to dismantle the Tongchang-ri missile engine test site before international observers in return for corresponding measures from the U.S. through the Pyongyang Joint Declaration. Accordingly, the negotiations between North Korea and the U.S. have been associated with the possible corresponding measures from the U.S.

Although Secretary Pompeo, with the improving inter-Korean relations as a stepping stone, met Chairman Kim early October in Pyongyang, Vice-chairman Kim Yong-chol cancelled his visit to the U.S. scheduled on November 8 as the U.S. insisted on its stance adamantly. Thereafter, North Korea avoided working- and high-level talks with the U.S. and the two sides engaged in a war of nerves. Then, the U.S., not North Korea, began to open some room for talks. In mid-November, Vice President Mike Pence, a hardliner on North Korea, signaled flexibility – saying that the declaration of the full list of nuclear and missile sites, once a precondition for the second summit, could be actually discussed at the summit. Early December, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton, a hawk on North Korea, said “What we need to see is performance. And when we get performance then we can look at removing the economic sanctions.” This vastly contrasts from his previous comments that a complete transformation in North Korea is necessary to re-evaluate sanctions against North Korea.


The young North Korean leader tried to take the initiative in Korean Peninsula affairs once again through this year’s New Year address. Pronouncing that he is ready to improve relations with South Korea and meet with President Trump and that he is willing to carry out the complete denuclearization synchronously with the establishment of a peace regime on the peninsula, Chairman Kim emphasized “we would neither make and test nuclear weapons any longer” and appealingly added, “if the United States … attempts to unilaterally enforce something upon us and persists in imposing sanctions and pressure against our Republic, we may be compelled to find a new way”. In an interview with Fox News on January 3, Secretary Pompeo said, “I’m confident that in the next short period of time, President Trump and Chairman Kim will get a chance to meet again.” Several days later, Kim Jong-un visited China to meet with President Xi and strengthened bilateral cordial cooperation. It alluded to the ‘new way,’ – it manifested that this ‘new way’ to assure the safety of the regime could be enhancing relations with China and not conducting another nuclear and missile provocation.

In his another interview with Fox News in Egypt on the 11th, Pompeo underscored, “we’re moving forward in these conversations [with North Korea], lots of ideas about how we might continue to decrease the risk to the American people. … at the end that’s the objective; it’s the security of American people.” Additionally, before meeting Kim Yong-chol, he elaborated in a conversation with a media outlet a week later, “There aren’t nuclear tests being conducted. There haven’t been missile tests conducted. These are things that were threatening the United States when President Trump took office. We want to reduce that risk, reduce North Korea’s capacity to build out their program.” He implied that the summit will conclude with a freeze on nuclear and missile program rather than the complete denuclearization or even ‘final, fully verified denuclearization (FFVD)’ that the U.S. has argued for. The U.S. boasted strategic flexibility so as to hold the second summit with North Korea successfully.

Anyhow, the course of events has built up expectations for the second summit at the end of February in Vietnam or Thailand and some level of agreement at the summit: the leaders of North Korea and the U.S. have consecutively affirmed mutual trust and determination to hold the summit and are satisfied with the exchange of letters and development of negotiations.


Forecast on Agreement at the Second DPRK-U.S. Summit

The second DPRK-U.S. summit, to be held late February, is predicted to draw up some level of agreement smoothly. This is because North Korea and the U.S. have already articulated or suggested certain measures. First, North Korea already replied to the suspicions from the West – whether Punggye-ri nuclear test site is genuinely demolished in an irreversible manner – with the indication that it is willing to accept a group of international inspectors. It also revealed that it could dismantle the missile engine test site in Tongchang-ri ‘under the observation of experts from relevant countries’ in the Pyongyang Joint Declaration with President Moon. Accordingly, the upcoming summit could be a venue to announce an action plan to implement them.

The U.S. also could lift the travel ban on North Korea as North Korea returned a U.S. national who illegally entered North Korea. As the U.S. administration’s pre-existing principle is not to link humanitarian assistance with political affairs such as denuclearization, Washington could convey the intention to resume humanitarian aid without stipulating it in the agreement.

Other issues require agreement through negotiations. Foremost, the U.S. removed the submission of the list of nuclear and missile facilities as a prerequisite for the summit. Hence, it will not ask North Korea of such list. However, it is likely that the U.S. will demand North Korea to enumerate the details of nuclear facilities in Yongbyon and long-range missiles – the items and installments it expressed to dismantle.

Moreover, North Korea should vow to suspend and freeze the operation of its nuclear and missile program – something that needed to be agreed at the first summit last year. While it may be difficult to agree on declaration and inspection of this matter, the two sides could find a midpoint by North Korea accepting a group of experts to inspect and verify the permanent shutdown of Yongbyon nuclear facilities after the dismantlement, without the declaration.

On missiles, the U.S. will hope to bring some of North Korea’s long-range missiles to the U.S. as National Security Advisor Bolton said last May. However, North Korea will repel the claim since it exposes Chinese and Russian technology employed to the missiles. As a second thought, Washington may request the transfer of missiles to China or Russia; Pyongyang will refuse on the grounds of sovereignty. Therefore, the two could reach a middle ground in placing the missiles in parts under experts’ observation after North Korea disassembles them before American observers. The short- and medium-range missiles will be an agenda for the inter-Korean talks or talks between North Korea and Japan rather than the North Korea-U.S. negotiations.

The success of the summit will hinge on what the U.S. will put forth as measures corresponding to North Korea’s such steps toward denuclearization. Pyongyang primarily desires either ease or relief or even removal of sanctions, but the issue is intricate as the U.S. unilateral sanctions are entangled with the UN Security Council sanctions. Hence, the U.S. could make efforts to partially ease UN Security Council sanctions in a phased manner in accordance with the progress in North Korea’s denuclearization and at the same time, agree on the exemption of sanctions for inter-Korean economic cooperation – something that the administration could do without the approval from the Congress. In such case, the two Koreas could initiate several projects: resuming tourism of Mount Kumgang, reoperating the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and beginning the connection of railways between the two Koreas. Noting that Secretary Pompeo said, “if we can make a substantial step towards achieving the denuclearization and create the right conditions, it’ll be the private sector that sits there” at the Davos Forum on January 22, it is necessary to have pre-calculated review and preparations sufficient to invest in North Korea swiftly.

Other demands from North Korea will include the commencement of talks or the opening of liaison offices in two countries to establish new bilateral relations between the two countries – as agreed at the first summit –, initiation of international dialogue such as quadrilateral talks to establish a lasting peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, and adoption of an ‘end-of-war’ declaration, among others.

Even if the two countries come up with significant progress, it will be nearly impossible to agree on North Korea’s full submission of nuclear sites or a complete schedule for denuclearization. This will likely spark criticisms and voices of dissatisfaction in South Korea and the U.S. - that the agreement de facto acknowledged North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons. For that reason, the agreement of the second DPRK-U.S. summit must lay down the clause that the guarantee of North Korean regime security and North Korea’s complete denuclearization are the ultimate goals that the two countries pursue.


South Korea’s Role

While the leaders of North Korea and the U.S. expressed mutual trust and expectations for the summit, the holding of summit per se may actually be in jeopardy as working-level talks have reportedly yet to tangible and substantial outcomes and the experts, media, and the Congress in the U.S. all still look askance at North Korea and the summit. Therefore, the South Korean government should expound South Korea’s position and support the bilateral negotiations by intervening from the initial stages if possible as Lee Do-hoon, South Korea’s special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs, served the mediating role and bridged the gap between North Korea and the U.S. at the trilateral talks in the Swedish capital.

Should the summit itself be at stake as the two countries re-encounter the situation last May - cleavage between the two countries widen -, Seoul could consider the inter-Korean summit to discuss solely the DPRK-U.S. summit and provide a breakthrough and prepare for it, if necessary.

South Korea should make use of all official and non-official communication channels with North Korea and the U.S. First, it should persuade North Korea that the whole nation could reap large benefits with large-scale mutually beneficial economic cooperation such as resumption of tourism of Mount Kumgang and of Kaesong Industrial Complex, connection and modernization of railways and roads, and gas pipeline projects even if the negotiations with the U.S. proceed unfairly and North Korea needs to take a half step back. And toward the U.S., it could persuade that the U.S. could show flexibility in its corresponding measures to take a great leap in denuclearization as the international sanctions, despite pressuring North Korea considerably, does not seem to succumb North Korea soon and the U.S. politics will be immersed in presidential elections – thus, the North Korean nuclear issue may be harder to be resolved. The government in Seoul should convince that it is wise to implement an elastic mechanism such as snap-back – easing sanctions in gradual stages first and imposing harsher sanctions in the event of North Korea’s deviation from the path of denuclearization. Provided that the U.S. administration cannot vigorously adopt a policy of enticement, the South Korean government and the private sector should appeal that it could induce North Korea to denuclearization through economic cooperation.

Simultaneously, the South Korean government should make sure to prevent Kim Jong-un’s visit to South Korea that will come after the DPRK-U.S. summit from instigating a social discord within South Korea. Furthermore, it should prepare the summit painstakingly to translate the summit into an occasion to eradicate distrust between North and South Koreans, to heal the wounds that caused South Korea’s unilateral sanctions against North Korea, and to establish a foundation advancing inter-Korean economic cooperation.


*Note: This article is based on the author’s personal opinion and does not reflect the views of the Sejong Institute. This is an unofficial translation of the original paper which was written in Korean. All references should be made to the original paper.