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.
On September 5, Kim Jong Un met with the special envoy of the South Korean President and said he would like to resolve the issue of denuclearization within the remaining term of President Trump.
He even clarified that the US troops would continue to stay in South Korea after the adoption of the end-of-war declaration.
Before we jump to any conclusions, there is a need to thoroughly analyze this statement.
First and foremost, the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula that Kim Jong Un speaks of is very different to the denuclearization that we think [of].
Kim Jong Un stated that the denuclearization that he wishes is the complete removal of the danger of an armed conflict and the fear of war on the Korean Peninsula, which will then be replaced by a place of peace without nuclear weapons or nuclear threats.
As you can see when South Korea and the US refer to denuclearization, it is the denuclearization of North Korea.
On the other hand, for Kim Jong Un, it is the denuclearization of the entire peninsula.
Kim Jong Un’s denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula refers to the removal of any army with nuclear weapons from the peninsula.
He is stating that the North Korean army will give up its nuclear weapons, on the basis that South Korea removes any troops with nuclear weapons on South Korean soil.
Kim Jong Un went one step further to stay that US troops will be allowed to remain in South Korea even after the announcement of the end-of-war declaration.
By saying this, and allowing US forces which are in possession of nuclear weapons to stay in South Korea during the transitional period from the declaration of the end of the war until the signing of a peace treaty, he is indirectly saying that North Korea will also keep its nuclear weapons to keep the balance with US forces.
Next, there is a considerable difference between North Korea and South Korea in the perception of South Korea’s security structure after the signing of the end-of-war declaration.
While Kim Jong Un said that US forces will be allowed to remain after the signing of the declaration, there was no mention of the dismantling of the United Nations Command in South Korea or the abolition of the armistice.
There are some South Koreans who claim that even after the end-of-war declaration is announced, the armistice agreement will remain unchanged until a peace agreement is signed.
Such a claim is not true.
Until now, North Korea has declared that the end-of-war declaration is the ending the cease-fire and thus should end the armistice agreement.
So it thinks that the United Nations Command in Seoul, which is in charge of the armistice, should be dismantled as well.
It is strange that Kim Jong Un mentioned the issue of allowing US forces in South Korea to remain but did not mention the dismantling of the United Nations Command.
Currently, the United Nations Command is in charge of operating the Military Armistice Commission, operating a Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, dispatching and operating security forces under the Joint Security Area in Panmunjom, and operating Guard Posts in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
As a result, symbolically the UN Command has played the deterrent role of preventing a new war by directly managing the frontline with North Korea.
Therefore, in the instance that North Korea attacks South Korea from the front then it will be the Panmunjom or DMZ which will be attacked. As these are the areas managed by the UN Command, it essentially means that there will be an immediate intervention by the UN Command troops.
At present, the United Nations Command is made up of 16 countries which participated in the Korean War and has the symbolic meaning that it can immediately legally intervene in a Korean War.
Thus, for decades, North Korea has denounced the UN Command as the Asian version of NATO.
If the UN Command is dissolved with the announcement of the end-of-war declaration, the control of the Panmunjom and the DMZ will be handed over to the South Korean military.
If this happens, the United Nations’ immediate intervention structure will disappear leading to a big change in South Korea’s security.
In a few days, the third inter-Korean summit will be held in Pyongyang from September 18th.
On 13th September, North and South Korea will discuss the detailed plan to withdraw 10 GPs and demilitarize the JSA as an one part of preparation for the third inter-Korean summit.
This means that North and South Korean government have already started the process of dismantlement of UN Command but there are very few people in South Korea who know that current development will change the security structure of South Korea dramatically.
During the third inter-Korean summit, there are a few things for South Korea to clearly establish with North Korea as well as the US.
First, the future of the UN Command.
Second, Kim Jong Un’s definition of the denuclearization.
As to whether it is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula which includes the removal of US troops or whether it is the denuclearization of North Korea.
If this issue is left unclear when the end-of-war declaration is adopted, then in the case that the UN Command is still in place, it is likely that North Korea will pressure the US and South Korea that they have not properly implemented the adoption of the declaration.
If the understanding of the UN Command and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula continues to be unclear after the end-of-war declaration, confrontation and the apple of discord will remain.