North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, left, and South Korea's Culture, Sports and Tourism Minister Do Jong-whan at the East Pyongyang Grand Theatre in Pyongyang on April 1, 2018. Photo: AFP

North Korea has told the United States that it is willing to discuss the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, sources have told Reuters news agency. But, there is likely to still be a wide gap between the two countries’ positions when they meet for talks.

The assurance reported by Reuters appears to confirm what Kim Jong-un told senior South Korean envoys in Pyongyang on March 5, and what he told Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing at the end of last month.

Following Kim’s meeting with the South Koreans, US President Donald Trump agreed to a summit with Kim by the end of May, in what will be a historic, first-ever meeting between North Korean and US leaders. Prior to that meeting, Kim will conduct a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on April 27 in the Demilitarized Zone, in what will be the third inter-Korean summit.

According to Reuters, multiple secret contacts between North Korea and the United States have been taking place through two channels: The North’s United Nations mission involving US State Department officials, and through representatives of both countries’ intelligence agencies.

North Korea and the United States do not share diplomatic relations. However, contacts behind-closed-doors between the two Koreas have frequently involved both states’ intelligence agencies, rather than more conventional diplomatic channels.

Some pundits have expressed suspicion about North Korean intentions, given that North Korea’s state media has maintained radio silence on Kim’s offers of summits and denuclearization – which have been widely reported by global media. However, while not specifically mentioning either summits or denuclearization, Pyongyang has signaled to the North Korean public the possibility of improved relations with the United States.

The meetings reported by Reuters are likely to be a relief to Seoul. A presidential official told Yonhap News Agency that, “If such things are happening, it looks positive and it’s a good sign that they are talking.”

What will be Kim’s price for denuclearization?

Even so, while pundits say there are many steps Kim could take on denuclearization – such as extending his current testing moratorium, dismantling some missiles, accepting international inspectors to oversee his facilities and even giving up some fissile materials – few (if any) expect Kim to denuclearize to the “complete, verifiable and irreversible” extent that Seoul, Tokyo and Washington demand. He is likely to keep key facilities, human resources and some materials.

This indicates that post-summit negotiations – if and when they get underway – are likely to be both fraught and long drawn-out. And even if successful, such negotiations could result in an erosion, to a greater or lesser extent, of the Seoul-Washington alliance.

“For North Korea, the standard definition of denuclearization is the complete peninsula without nuclear weapons,” said Go Myung-hyun of the Asan Institute in Seoul. “That means no way the US can bring tactical nuclear weapons to the peninsula, and no extended deterrence.”

This raises a significant problem: What kind of security guarantee could Pyongyang demand?

“When you talk about security guarantees, there are many different things they could consider,” Go said. “But the main one is the South Korean-US alliance.”

Amid an atmosphere in which Trump is demanding that South Korea pay a greater share of defense costs, and in which Moon wants to remove wartime operational control of South Korean troops from US generalship, “some downscaling of the alliance is likely to be on the table,” Go said.

However, if the price for resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis is a downscaled or dismantled alliance, a further, long-term strategic problem on the Korean peninsula would likely manifest itself.

“All combined, this could lead to a decline of US influence on the peninsula in five to 10 years,” Go said. “We can mitigate the North Korean nuclear threat, but then we would face a different threat – the void will be replaced by Chinese influence.”

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