Can the US and South Korea proceed on North Korea’s ‘desire’ for denuclearization alone?

Chung Eui Yong, head of South Korea’s special envoy, meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and hand-delivering a letter from the South’s president. Image: Cheong Wa Dae

South Korea’s special envoy delegation returned from a visit to North Korea last week where they sought to make progress in relation to stagnating denuclearization discussions. Leading the envoy was Chung Eui Yong, head of the presidential National Security Office, who said at a press conference on September 6 that Kim Jong Un restated his personal desire for denuclearization, and that both Koreas should work with the United States to achieve this goal.  

According to Chung, Kim Jong Un is frustrated by the international community’s doubts that the North Korean leader is not willing to denuclearize. Jung also added that Kim Jong Un wishes to achieve denuclearization and normalize relations with the United States by the end of US President Donald Trump’s first term, which ends in 2021.

The North Korean media made similar announcements. Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that Kim Jong Un has reaffirmed his vision for joint efforts with the North and South to make a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula a reality.

Soon after, Kim sent a personal letter to President Trump. The letter reportedly expressed his desire for a second summit between the two leaders. The request for direct dialogue as well as the lack of ICBMs on display during North Korea’s Founder’s parade on September 9 are considered positive steps. In contrast to the events of August, including US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s cancelled visit to Pyongyang, the recent developments in September can be viewed as a reset of sorts.

How negotiations with North Korea may unfold

With that said, more is needed before true progress can be claimed. The issue has been that concrete steps have not been outlined, such as declaring a list of nuclear facilities or an overall denuclearization roadmap.

The diplomacy with North Korea that has taken place from the beginning of the year has been built on the notion of North Korea’s denuclearization. However, the lack of details in how this can be achieved has led to the current impasse between Pyongyang and the international community. Without an earnest and open discussion of the details, the ‘desire’ for denuclearization will remain only an idea, and the possibility for progress will decline.

Has there been a breakthrough we don’t know about yet?

Kim Jong Un reportedly vented his disappointment at the international community’s lack of recognition for North Korea’s steps of disabling the Punggye-ri missile testing site. According to the special envoy, the North Korean leader believes he has been sincere but the United States has added to its original requests. For instance, North Korea expected a declaration to end the Korean War but the United States has since demurred.

If the messages relayed back and forth to the US and North Korean leaders through South Korean representatives contain undisclosed progress in negotiation efforts, all the better. However, if the messages only focus on the concept of ‘denuclearization’ without any actual steps to achieve this, the situation will remain in its stagnant state.

The devil is in the denuclearization details

Unlike past diplomatic interactions with North Korea, the approach this time has been top-down. The approach was seen as the reason for the initial breakthrough. However, in order to realize the ultimate goal of North Korea’s denuclearization, difficult discussions to hash out the details are needed to give substance to the currently abstract notion of denuclearization. The next step in negotiation requires efforts from officials at all working levels.

Currently, negotiations are at a crossroads. To take the right path, we must accept the fact that it is necessary to focus our efforts on resolving the details required to achieve the goal, not the goal itself.

*The ideas expressed in this article are the writer’s own.

Translated by Nate Kerkhoff