Korean denuclearization hanging in the balance ahead of Moon-Kim summit

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Korean denuclearization hanging in the balance ahead of Moon-Kim summit

South Korean President Moon Jae-in meets with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un on Tuesday in a bid to turbocharge flagging peace talks. After the cancellation of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip to Pyongyang last month, the key question for Moon and Kim is whether sustained moves toward the “denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula will ultimately prove to be anything more than a mirage.
 
At the heart of the logjam is not just the vagueness of the commitments in June’s Singapore summit between Kim and Donald Trump; there is also a fundamental difference between Pyongyang and Washington over what next steps are needed to build confidence.
 
While Trump and much of the international community are expecting further concrete actions from Pyongyang, Kim argues that the North has already taken the major step of dismantling a nuclear test site in Punggye-ri, where nuclear tests “have been made impossible for good.” The North is therefore now calling for a reciprocation of goodwill measures, beyond the halting of joint Washington-Seoul military exercises, to “create situations where (Kim) would feel the decision to denuclearize was a right move.
 
Specifically, Kim appears to be looking for Trump to give his support to the formal ending of the 1950 to 1953 Korean War. On the face of it, this seems a simple (albeit very symbolic) step, but US officials and conservatives in South Korea are concerned such a declaration would weaken the Washington-Seoul alliance and remove the rationale for the 28,000 US forces stationed on the peninsula.
 
With remaining resistance to this in Washington, another more modest objective at the Korea talks will be to coax the US back into the talks after Pompeo’s cancelled trip. Here, both Seoul and Pyongyang will have been encouraged by Trump’s apparently positive response to Kim’s recent letter to him, which the president declared “said some terrific things about me.” Trump’s self-absorbed reaction underlines that a second meeting with Kim this autumn remains a significant possibility. Indeed, there is already some speculation this could take place this month at the UN General Assembly meetings in New York. 
 
Yet, despite Trump’s personal investment in the talks, there is growing White House frustration with Pyongyang. National Security Adviser John Bolton said he is “still waiting” for significant action from Pyongyang post-Singapore, including a detailed declaration over the size of its ballistic and nuclear arsenals.
 
What this underlines, even if there is unexpected progress this week, is the significant expectations gap that emerged out of the Singapore summit. That session was no more than a start to a sustained strategic dialogue, despite the hype put on it by both sides.
 
A breakthrough in North Korea denuclearization talks this autumn is still possible but, unless Trump's team raises its game, a sustained, peaceful and diplomatic outcome may remain elusive.
Andrew Hammond
 
Trump, for instance, declared the “nuclear threat from North Korea was over.” One might have been forgiven for thinking that he had already completed the immensely complicated process of de-escalating tensions in the world’s last Cold War-era frontier.
 
Instead, the potential further future complexity and tough nature of the talks is as high as those conducted by the Obama administration over the Iran nuclear deal, which took years. Indeed, the final round of these talks alone — between Tehran and the P5+1 — in Lausanne in March and April 2015 lasted well over a week. This was the longest negotiation at a single site by a US secretary of state since at least the 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. 
 
Even today, however, it is still not clear that the Trump team has a comprehensive, clear or coherent strategy toward Korea, which continues to contain much complexity for the president around US alliances and the non-proliferation regime, not to mention what exactly would constitute “denuclearization” on the peninsula. And this will therefore be a key task in the coming weeks for Stephen Biegun, the new US Special Representative to North Korea. 
 
As before, the chief issue for the Trump team to resolve is what sequencing will be necessary to move the process forward. While this is still unclear, Biegun will have been encouraged by Kim’s reported remarks to Moon’s envoys last week that North Korea wants to move significantly on denuclearization before the end of Trump’s first term in early 2021.
 
Moon will this week seek to build on this statement, which was apparently the first time that Kim has talked timeframes. The South Korean leader is acutely aware that his counterpart in Pyongyang will be wary about making concrete commitments, and will want to win economic and political concessions before any further significant reductions in nuclear capabilities, let alone committing to “full denuclearization.”
 
Taken overall, the historic potential opportunity offered by the Korea negotiations is now hanging in the balance post-Singapore. A breakthrough this autumn is still possible, which could see Korea becoming a central part of Trump’s foreign policy legacy. Yet, unless the president’s team raises its game, it is just as likely to emulate others who have failed to bring a sustained, peaceful and diplomatic outcome to one of the key foreign challenges facing Washington.

 

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at the LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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