Has North Korea’s ruler, Kim Jong-un, made a strategic decision to trade away his nuclear program, or is he just engaged in another round of deceptive diplomacy, pretending that he will denuclearize in exchange for material benefits for his impoverished country?
This is, perhaps, the key question in the run-up to the summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump in Singapore on June 12. Until then, no one will know the answer, perhaps not even Kim himself.
Optimists tend to believe that Kim’s declared intention to denuclearize is sincere. They highlight the fact that North Korea’s economy has changed fundamentally since he succeeded his father, Kim Jong-il, in 2011. It is now more open, with foreign trade accounting for almost half of GDP, the result of a gradual marketization process that began in the mid-1990s.
But with this openness comes vulnerability, which explains Kim’s active diplomatic efforts to prevent serious economic disruption from the existing international sanctions regime.
Unlike his father, the 34-year-old Kim has been active in pursuing pro-market economic growth and may be aiming to emulate Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s reforms in the late 1970s. Kim’s recent sacking of three senior old-guard military officials may hint that he is ready to offer some important concessions to prepare a favorable diplomatic environment for concentrating on economic development.
The key question remains whether Trump is now ready to embrace Kim’s North Korea as President Richard Nixon did with Deng’s China.
Pessimists, however, caution against believing that Kim is serious about denuclearization. There is so far no evidence, they argue, that Kim is different from his father (and grandfather, Kim Il-sung), when it comes to adhering to international agreements. They are skeptical, for example, that North Korea will cooperate fully on three major issues.
First, despite Kim’s declaration, it remains unclear whether he is agreeing to “complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement” (CVID) of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. His commitment remains aspirational and lacks substance or operational content.
Second, given North Korea’s bad track record, the pessimists think it unlikely that Kim will permit intrusive nuclear inspections, which is a critical component of CVID.
Finally, North Korea has not yet clarified the terms of its denuclearization. Its past official position –withdrawal of US troops from South Korea and an end to the bilateral alliance, would be a non-starter.
But there may be a way to achieve denuclearization that satisfies both optimists and pessimists. To find it requires taking a step back and considering the most fundamental reason for the diplomatic failures of the last three decades: the high level of mutual distrust, which has made a small and weak country like North Korea, surrounded by big powers, paranoid about its own security.
In order to address this problem at the root, the US should have taken a political approach, rather than focusing repeatedly on concluding a narrowly defined military-security deal.
For example, President George H.W. Bush’s administration declined North Korea’s offer to establish diplomatic relations in 1991-92, when the fall of the Soviet Union heightened Kim Il-sung’s sense of insecurity.
Likewise, North Korea’s major complaint regarding the October 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework was that the US did not keep its promise to improve political relations with North Korea. The Clinton administration tried a political approach in 2000, but it was too little too late.
The first Trump-Kim summit may not be able to resolve all three major issues dividing the US and North Korea all at once. But that does not mean the summit will be a failure. For the first time, the US is tackling the fundamental cause of the North Korea problem, rather than focusing on its symptoms.
And this is why Trump’s seemingly impromptu decision to meet Kim face to face is meaningful and productive, especially if he can bolster Kim’s confidence that he and his regime will be safe without nuclear weapons and that the international community will help him to focus on economic growth.
That said, Trump would be well advised to leave the details of the denuclearization process in the hands of diplomats who have much experience in dealing with North Korea. In the meantime, he will need to rebuild an international coalition to maintain effective economic sanctions, which is the most powerful leverage for persuading Kim to accept CVID.
Here, close cooperation with China will be essential. Moreover, the US should reward critical concessions by North Korea – for example, permission to conduct intrusive inspections of its entire nuclear program by international inspectors – even before the completion of CVID.
There are of course no guarantees that it will work. What is clear is that successful denuclearization of North Korea will require a combination of bold political decisions – say, formally ending the Korean War, opening liaison offices, or relaxing some economic sanctions – and realistic prudence.
Yoon Young-kwan, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea, is Professor Emeritus of International Relations at Seoul National University