South Korea's Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha updated the media on Wednesday but gave away few details. Photo: AFP/Mandel Ngan
South Korea's Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha updated the media on Wednesday but gave away few details. Photo: AFP/Mandel Ngan

The good news? A US plan for North Korean denuclearization does, indeed, exist. The bad news? It cannot be divulged – at least, for now.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, speaking to foreign journalists in Seoul on Wednesday, revealed that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo does, indeed, have a plan for North Korean denuclearization, and spoke about what kind of role she anticipated South Korea would play in the process.

But she conceded that Seoul was not informed in advance by Washington about the cancellation of military exercises – a surprise concession that US President Donald Trump offered to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during their summit in Singapore last week.

Amid a flurry of rumor and a cascade of hope about inter-Korean relations, she also poured cold water on some over-eager expectations for business ties with the North and a Korean War peace treaty.

Yes, a ‘detailed plan’ exists. Sorry, no details

Following last Tuesday’s Singapore summit, no public details have been released by any related governments or international agencies on how, via what steps, using what personnel or according to what timelines denuclearization is to be achieved.

The Singapore summit declaration was a broad vision statement but lacked any information on protocols, personnel, timelines and commitments. Even the term used in the summit declaration, “total denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” has been widely debated.

Moreover, while US Secretary of State Pompeo has been named the chief negotiator of the denuclearization process from the US side, the North Korean side has yet to name his counterpart. Pompeo is expected to consult with US National Security Adviser John Bolton and US Secretary of Defense James Mattis before starting consultations with North Korea, but the timing and location of that meeting are still uncertain.

But South Korean Foreign Minister Kang shed some light on the subject.

“Mr Pompeo shared with me his detailed plan going forward, but that of course requires consultation with the North Koreans … I leave it to [the US side] to brief you,” she said. “I don’t think it is my place to make that announcement, I think the US and North Korean sides are in communications to spell out the schedule.”

Addressing the summit declaration, which has been widely critiqued for its vagueness, Kang said: “Complete denuclearization is the goal. The task now is to spell out the methodology to reach that goal.”

She did, however, spell out what “complete denuclearization” meant: “Complete denuclearization means weapons, materials, facilities and plants and that would include the Yongpyong complex,” she said.

The Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center is the flagship atomic facility in North Korea, home to the country’s reactors, plutonium processing and uranium enrichment facilities. Both types of fissile material are believed to have been used in the country’s six nuclear tests.

While South Korea has no nuclear arms and the United States withdrew tactical nuclear weapons from the peninsula in 1991, Kang did not address the assets which comprise the wider, regional US nuclear umbrella – such as strategic bombers and nuclear submarines. Some experts believe that once denuclearization discussions begin in earnest, North Korea will demand such assets be included in the talks – or may even hold back from complete denuclearization until “global zero” is reached.

Consultation or no consultation?

Kang also addressed the controversy which has arisen over whether or not Seoul was consulted prior to Trump’s revelation, in a post-summit press conference, that he had told Kim he was cancelling South Korea-US military drills.  On Wednesday, one week after Trump’s surprise announcement, Seoul and Washington issued communiques confirming the suspension of drills, which the US president said were both “expensive” and “provocative” toward North Korea.

“The drills suspension is a joint decision by US and South Korea military authorities,” she said. “We have made clear this is a goodwill gesture to strengthen dialog momentum.” She added that the suspension is “not irreversible” and the drills can resume if “momentum loses speed.”

However, when pressed on the issue, Kang conceded that Seoul had not been informed about the initiative in advance.

“It is practice not to reveal the content of diplomatic communications,” she said. “I received an immediate phone call from Mr Pompeo after the discussion and was fully informed of the outcome.”

Stating that communications between Seoul and Washington were “at the strategic level,” she said it was up to “the judgement of President Trump to conduct the discussion as it progresses … you cannot script these meetings” when they take place with “a top-down approach – as it has been so far.”

Still, she held out hopes that Washington would closely consult with Seoul once the denuclearization process gets underway.

“South Korea probably knows North Korea better than anybody” due to proximity and “all that painful history,” she said, adding: “We will bring all that experience and lessons learned to the table, to move the agenda forward.”

No business, no peace treaty – at least, not yet

Meanwhile, a number of Korean businesses and sectors are being quoted in vernacular media about the prospects for business in North Korea. Significant lobbying is also underway by South Korean entrepreneurs to restart the inter-Korean industrial complex in North Korea’s Kaesong – whose operations were halted by Seoul amid military tensions in 2016.

However, Kang was wary about the prospects of commercial engagement with North Korea.

She noted that while much can be done regarding “confidence-building measures,” South Korea – and South Korean businesses – remain bound by UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea.

Recently talks have taken place on inter-Korean sporting initiatives and military affairs. Further talks are anticipated this week on reunions of divided families.

And amid rumors that a peace treaty may be signed in the coming weeks to replace the armistice that halted the fighting in the 1950-53 Korean War, Kang said: “The process will require time.” This is due to the various structures that have been in place since 1953, and due to the difficulty of spelling out what the key signatories would commit to,” she said.