A U.s.–north Ko­rea Deal Is Dis­ap­pear­ing

Newsweek - - Departments - BY BILL POW­ELL @ bil­la­sia2010

for a mo­ment, the south Korean of­fi­cial was silent.

It was late De­cem­ber, and, with ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween the United States and North Ko­rea at a stale­mate, I had asked a straight­for­ward ques­tion: What, ex­actly, does the “de­nu­cle­ariza­tion” of the Korean Penin­sula mean? The mat­ter is at the heart of the his­toric talks Don­ald Trump and Kim Jong Un be­gan in Sin­ga­pore last June. The South Korean of­fi­cial, a se­nior ad­viser to Pres­i­dent Moon Jae-in, let out a deep sigh. “There is no con­sen­sus,” the of­fi­cial said, “not be­tween us and the U.S., not be­tween North Ko­rea and the U.S.; not, frankly, even within our own gov­ern­ment.”

That an­swer is the prin­ci­pal rea­son why the once-thaw­ing re­la­tions be­tween the two sides now seem to be get­ting colder. Trump, of course, had fa­mously de­clared the nu­clear cri­sis “largely solved” after last sum­mer’s sum­mit. But in Novem­ber, as talks stalled, the North Kore­ans can­celed a planned meet­ing be­tween U.S. Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo and the North’s chief nu­clear ne­go­tia­tor, Kim Yong Chol. Just over a month later, on De­cem­ber 16, as the U.S. in­creased sanc­tions, Py­ongyang’s For­eign Min­istry fired a warn­ing shot: The added eco­nomic pres­sure, it said, could be Amer­ica’s “great­est mis­cal­cu­la­tion,” po­ten­tially block­ing a deal “for­ever—a re­sult de­sired by no one.”

To skep­tics of the rap­proche­ment that the pres­i­dent set after with typ­i­cal fan­fare, the diplo­matic dead­lock was all too pre­dictable. The path toward de­nu­cle­ariza­tion was al­ways go­ing to be vastly more com­pli­cated than the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has pub­licly ac­knowl­edged.

Start with Wash­ing­ton’s open­ing po­si­tion: The U.S. in­sists that the North must first com­ply with what it calls “com­plete, ver­i­fi­able and ir­re­versible dis­man­tle­ment” of its nu­clear pro­gram. That be­gins with a dec­la­ra­tion of all the work the North has done on its nuke pro­gram, and all the ma­te­rial the na­tion has used in pur­su­ing it. Then—and only then—would the North be­gin to see the ben­e­fits it seeks, in­clud­ing the end of eco­nomic sanc­tions, which could trig­ger huge in­vest­ments from South Ko­rea, China, Japan and the U.S., and a for­mal end to the Korean War, as well as diplo­matic recog­ni­tion from Wash­ing­ton. From Py­ongyang’s per­spec­tive, these de­mands are not just un­re­al­is­tic— they are lu­di­crous. “To North Ko­rea, it’s a re­quest that they uni­lat­er­ally dis­arm be­fore any­thing else hap­pens, and that’s just not some­thing that they can do,” says the South Korean pres­i­den­tial ad­viser.

Wash­ing­ton points to his­toric ex­am­ples of coun­tries will­ingly and openly stand­ing down their nu­clear pro­grams:

South Africa after it de­moc­ra­tized and Ukraine after the dis­so­lu­tion of the Soviet Union. If you do that, the U.S. has told the North, the money will be­gin to flow.

That po­si­tion ig­nores the ex­tra­or­di­nary level of mis­trust be­tween the Kim regime and the U.S., say cur­rent and for­mer diplo­mats who have dealt with Py­ongyang. Con­sider what the North means when it talks about de­nu­cle­ariz­ing the Korean Penin­sula. Yes, it wants the South re­moved from the U.S. nu­clear um­brella—the air and seaborne weapons stand­ing ready to de­fend Seoul and other East Asian al­lies—but its sights go much fur­ther. U.S. diplo­mats and in­tel­li­gence

of­fi­cials have learned to their cha­grin that the North Korean gov­ern­ment ap­par­ently be­lieves—in­cor­rectly— that the U.S. still main­tains a se­cret stash of nu­clear weapons in the South. In a De­cem­ber 20 state­ment, Py­ongyang said the U.S. “must study ge­og­ra­phy.” The Korean Penin­sula, it said, “in­cludes the ter­ri­tory of our repub­lic and also the en­tire re­gion of South Ko­rea where the United States has placed its in­va­sive force, in­clud­ing nu­clear weapons.”

The U.S. re­moved all tac­ti­cal nukes from the South in the early 1990s, but the North’s claim is in line with do­mes­tic pro­pa­ganda the North uses to de­mo­nize the U.S. Py­ongyang claims Amer­ica started the Korean War in 1950 by in­vad­ing the North; in fact, Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Un’s grand­fa­ther, in­vaded the South. It says the U.S. seeks to keep Ko­rea per­ma­nently di­vided and stands poised to at­tack the North at any mo­ment. The stan­dard as­sump­tion among many for­eign pol­icy an­a­lysts is that the lead­er­ship sim­ply uses these claims to jus­tify its own spend­ing on the mil­i­tary in the face of wide­spread poverty.

But that doesn’t mean that in pri­vate dis­cus­sions with out­siders— in­clud­ing U.S. or South Korean diplo­mats—the North sim­ply waves away the out­landish claims as use­ful pro­pa­ganda. Far from it. As Kim Sung­hak, a South Korean scholar who has ex­ten­sively stud­ied North Korean pro­pa­ganda, puts it, “they tend to be­lieve what they say pub­licly. It’s in the fab­ric of their DNA.”

Does that mean Kim him­self ac­tu­ally be­lieves the U.S. is hid­ing se­cret nukes in the South? Diplo­mats say that’s not clear. But a U.S. of­fi­cial not au­tho­rized to speak pub­licly about talks with North Ko­rea adds that some of Kim’s mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers “may well” hold the con­vic­tion. And that’s a prob­lem. The U.S. side en­vi­sions a de­nu­cle­ariza­tion process in the North that will re­quire in­ter­na­tional in­spec­tions and 24-hour mon­i­tor­ing of Py­ongyang’s nu­clear sites un­til all are sat­is­fied that noth­ing is left hid­den. What if the North also re­quests the in­spec­tion of U.S. and South Korean mil­i­tary bases in the South, to en­sure that in fact there are no nukes there?

The sub­ject has yet to come up in the meet­ings Pom­peo has had with the North (and there is zero chance

“To North Ko­rea, it’s a re­quest that they uni­lat­er­ally dis­arm be­fore any­thing else hap­pens, and that’s just not some­thing that they can do.”

Wash­ing­ton and Seoul would agree to those terms). But just the prospect that it could speaks to the ten­u­ous na­ture of the diplo­macy. In its De­cem­ber 16 state­ment, the North Korean For­eign Min­istry said re­la­tions now need to be “im­proved step by step,” with a “pri­or­ity” on “con­fi­dence-build­ing mea­sures.” It point­edly blamed Pom­peo for mak­ing un­re­al­is­tic de­mands and tried to ap­peal to Trump, who “avails him­self of ev­ery pos­si­ble oc­ca­sion to state his will­ing­ness to im­prove” re­la­tions.

That’s a bit of an ex­ag­ger­a­tion, but it is true that Trump, as he seeks re-elec­tion in 2020, would love to tout a suc­cess­ful “deal” with Kim. The irony is that there are peo­ple in Pom­peo’s State De­part­ment who agree with their North Korean coun­ter­parts: that the best way to pro­ceed now is with more con­fi­dence-build­ing mea­sures, be­yond the North’s wary pause of its mis­sile test­ing pro­gram and the U.S.’S tem­po­rary sus­pen­sion of some mil­i­tary ex­er­cises with Seoul. They pri­vately view the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pub­lic po­si­tion—that the North reach full de­nu­cle­ariza­tion by 2021— as an un­reach­able goal.

The diplo­matic small ball could start with per­son-to-per­son con­tacts be­tween tech­ni­cal per­son­nel in North Ko­rea and coun­ter­parts from the U.S., the In­ter­na­tional Atomic En­ergy Agency and pos­si­bly other coun­tries. To build up a mea­sure of good­will, they could work toward ap­ply­ing the IAEA’S nu­clear safety mea­sures at nu­clear sites in the North. Per­haps Wash­ing­ton and Seoul could al­low a small amount of South Korean in­vest­ment to flow sooner rather than later in re­turn for con­crete steps from the North to be­gin de­nu­cle­ariza­tion. And they could try to fig­ure out a way to as­suage the North’s fears about a se­cret nu­clear stash.

To many North Ko­rea watch­ers, those are the type of steps the United States could take if it were se­ri­ous about get­ting the North to dis­arm even­tu­ally. For now, the prospect of the op­po­site seems more likely: the North turn­ing away, re­veal­ing Trump’s sum­mit with Kim last June to be lit­tle more than a pub­lic­ity stunt. Kim and Trump sign­ing doc­u­ments at the Sin­ga­pore sum­mit last -une. Trump pre­ma­turely de­clared the nu­clear cri­sis “largely solved.”

6ome U.6. oɽ­cials pri­vately view the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s tar­get of 2021 as an un­reach­able goal.

HALT AND CATCH FIRE North Ko­rea– U.S. talks have stalled, largely over the deɿ­ni­tion of de­nu­cle­ariza­tion. At left: Kim vis­its a spe­cial forces com­mando op­er­a­tion in the North in 2017.

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