The Koreas are getting along – but denuclearization questions remain

The Globe and Mail | 20 September 2018

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in is a man in a hurry; North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un is a man on a roll.

Prior to Mr. Kim’s 2018 New Year’s speech, the world watched North Korea relentlessly improve its nuclear weapon and missile capabilities to the point where it could threaten not only the immediate region but also North America, despite tightening UN sanctions, U.S. threats of “fire and fury” and China’s measured disapproval.

Mr. Kim’s initial opening to have North Korea participate in the Winter Olympics and Mr. Moon’s quick positive response to field a combined North-South Olympic team led to a frenzy of summit meetings that has not abated. The first Kim-Moon summit in April in Panmunjom reiterated the main themes of two earlier high-level attempts to ease North-South tensions and perhaps move toward eventual denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The third summit, which concluded Wednesday, has further moved the yardsticks forward in creating Mr. Moon’s vision of peace and co-prosperity for both Koreas. Mr. Kim, however, has yet to demonstrate his commitment to dismantle his nuclear weapons, linchpins for his regime’s survival.

And therein lies the rub. Since the New Year, Mr. Kim has repaired North Korea’s badly frayed relations with China by meeting with President Xi Jinping three times. Perhaps more importantly, the Panmunjom Summit led to Mr. Kim’s unprecedented meeting in Singapore last June with U.S. President Donald Trump. Their joint statement was short on specifics: establishment of new U.S.-North Korea relations, efforts to build a lasting peace regime, a North Korean commitment to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and recovery of U.S. missing-in-action soldiers from the Korean War. What remains worrisome is that the two leaders mostly talked in private, with only interpreters present, and no one really knows what else they agreed to except to seemingly be new best friends.

At issue is what denuclearization really means. North Korea complained of US. gangster tactics when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tried to establish a road map forward that would include complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization. Even Mr. Trump admitted that there has been no progress on denuclearization. Through South Korean officials, however, Mr. Kim recently proclaimed his “unwavering faith” in Mr. Trump and asked for a second meeting with him, perhaps as a way around any objections by more cautious and skeptical U.S. officials. Preparations for the second Trump-Kim meeting are under way.

Mr. Moon has now upped his courtship of Mr. Kim both in scope and urgency. With this week’s Pyongyang Joint Declaration, Mr. Moon and Mr. Kim agreed to implement a series of military confidence-building measures to prevent accidental military clashes. Mr. Moon promised Mr. Kim visions of prosperity by reopening North-South rail and road connections and eventually establishing special economic zones. The South Korean leader’s delegation of 200 people included heads of South Korea’s key chaebols, the huge industrial enterprises like Samsung and Hyundai. In addition, Mr. Moon promised to strengthen humanitarian co-operation. Mr. Kim should find these promises enticing. They agreed to participate together in the 2020 Summer Olympics and bid to host the 2032 Summer Olympics.

Finally, both leaders agreed “to co-operate closely in the process of pursuing complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Mr. Kim promised to dismantle a missile engine test site and launch platform, as he had already agreed, but this time under observation by experts “from relevant countries” (presumably including the U.S.) and to dismantle a nuclear facility, as North Korea had in the 1990s only to renege later. Mr. Kim also agreed to visit Seoul at an early date, a first for a North Korean leader.

As the North-South romance continues at a whirlwind pace, many questions remain, especially around denuclearization. North Korea, claiming that it has already taken concrete measures by stopping nuclear weapon and missile tests, has insisted that the U.S. take commensurate measures beyond cancellation of combined military exercises with the South. Promised U.S. security assurances to the North remain undetermined.

The North has not revealed numbers and locations of its nuclear weapons, missile systems or nuclear production facilities. Questions around verification have not been addressed. Indeed, it is not evident that any serious discussions, let alone negotiations, are taking place. Mr. Kim and Mr. Moon seem eager to declare the official end of the Korean War and eventually to sign a peace treaty. Both possibilities raise serious U.S. security concerns.

Previous North-South courtships ended in bitter disappointment and even military clashes. Maybe this time will be different.

Marius Grinius is the former Canadian ambassador to South Korea (2004-07) and concurrently to North Korea (2005-07). He is a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, and an associate member of Canadian Pugwash Group.