Editor’s Note: Thae Yong Ho was serving as North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom when he chose to defect with his family to South Korea in 2016. Following the recent release of his book, “Cypher of the Third-Floor Secretariat,” and his departure from the Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS), he has committed himself to improving the outlook for those still living in the DPRK. His current efforts focus on information sharing and the power of education to effect change.
As one of the highest-ranking diplomats to ever defect, Thae has teamed up with Daily NK and its broader media consortium, Unification Media Group, for a weekly series to share his unparalleled insight into the North Korean system, ethos, and strategic thinking, while unpacking his vision for peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Transcript (filmed on July 18):
Little time has passed since the inter-Korean and US-North Korean summit took place, but there have been an assortment of theories, both positive and negative, surrounding the denuclearization of North Korea.
The disagreements lie on whether the discussions for denuclearization should be pushed back for the sake of ‘trust-building’ grounded in the inter-Korean and US-North Korean Summits, or whether the issue should in fact, be pushed forward.
On one hand, North Korea asserts that main concept of the two summits are the improvement of relations and an establishment of a peace system based on “trust-building.”
On the other hand, the US sees trust-building to be served for the sake of denuclearization, and thus believes denuclearization should be discussed from the start.
One thing that is certain is that the issue of declaring the formal end to the Korean War should be solved immediately. From North Korea’s perspective, declaring the formal end to the Korean War during the year was already agreed in both summits, and will thus move ahead as planned.
Even some experts in South Korea agree with North Korea’s position stating that declaring the end of the war should not be linked with the process of denuclearizing North Korea and it can only create a favourable environment for North Korea’s denuclearization.
By saying this, experts are criticizing the US’ passive position on the issue of declaring the end of the war, while defending North Korea’s position. According to these experts, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is en route to giving up his nuclear weapons, and so if the US and South Korea deliver a “declaration as a gift” then it will give Kim Jong Un a reason to begin the denuclearization process.
If these arguments against US prevail, then the US will be put in an awkward situation again which is what happened when it tried to discuss the denuclearization process first instead of the issue of declaring the end of the war in their last visit to North Korea in early July.
How is it possible that after only one month since the US-North Korean Summit in Singapore, there are conflicting interpretations of the agreement?
This is because South Korea and the US used “strategic ambiguity” at the summits to avoid the key issues of scale and verification when it comes to denuclearization.
In fact, back in September 2005, the Joint Statement adopted at the Six-Party Talks as well as the following plans in February and October 2007, also did not give a detailed definition regarding the reporting of nuclear programs and verification methods, which left room for interpretation.
Also the relationship between the nuclear disarmament and regime security was not defined in terms of implementation and correlation. This ambiguity led to the catastrophic situation in which North Korea elevated its nuclear weapons program.
Some are of the opinion that it will not be a problem to gift North Korea the declaration ending the war as a political announcement without getting anything in return. However, there are many things that we can give North Korea for a trust-building environment.
The cancelling of US-ROK military exercises, declaration to end the war, an ease of sanctions, signing of a peace agreement are just to name a few. However nobody knows or has ever negotiated what we can get from North Korea in return for these acts of goodwill.
North Korea is attempting to exchange the dismantlement of ICBM Engine Test Sites with a declaration of end to the war. But if we are unable to receive even a political announcement that promises the surrender of all nuclear weapons and programs, and give the declaration to end the war so easily, then we will, no doubt, be pushed back.
The least we can exchange for a declaration, is a “political announcement from North Korea to give up all its nuclear weapons and programs” as was stated in the 2005 September 19th Joint-Statement.
If this is not done and the issue of the an end-of-war declaration and denuclearization are dealt with separately, then it can be said that denuclearization will not be possible in our time.