Does North Korea intend to denuclearize?

Kim Jong Un during his visit to Junghung Farm in Samjiyon County. Image: Rodong Sinmun (July 10)

The South Korean government has consistently emphasized North Korea’s clear intent to denuclearize throughout the fast-moving string of summits this year. South Korean government officials have argued that North Korea is making a fundamental shift in its policies from the nuclear and economic “byungjin line” to one focused on economic development, and that it is willing to exchange its nukes for regime survival.

There appears to be a need, however, to reexamine whether North Korea’s intent to denuclearize is genuine, with over a month having passed since the US-DPRK summit.

Let’s examine a recent statement by the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs on July 7.

The statement, in regards to the meeting between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean KWP Vice Chairman Kim Yong-chul, said that “The US side […] came out with only [the] unilateral and gangster-like demand for denuclearization, just talking about CVID, declaration and verification contrary to the spirit of the Singapore summit meeting and talks […] The matters the US side insisted on at the talks are the stumbling block which the previous administrations had clung to, thereby disrupting dialogue processes, stoking distrust and increasing the danger of war […] [The US] is fundamentally mistaken as much as to think that the DPRK would accept, out of patience, even the demands reflecting its gangster-like mentality.”

The North Koreans have effectively indicated through this statement that they will not accept the certified, verifiable, and irreversible disarmament or the reporting or monitoring of its nuclear program. There is no real reason to conduct denuclearization negotiations if the country refuses to report on or submit to monitoring of the terms of the agreement.

A signature negotiation tactic?

Although it is still too early to take North Korea’s statement as final, it likely forms part of a greater negotiation strategy. Pompeo himself even stated during a press conference in Tokyo that, “North Korea understands and accepted that denuclearization without certification is ridiculous.”

However, suspicions abound as to whether North Korea actually intends to denuclearize. Rather than issue accusations of “unilateral and gangster-like demands for denuclearization” by the US, a more measured response would have been that it was not willing to disarm before a US guarantee of regime survival.

During the US-DPRK summit, the two sides only agreed to the principle of denuclearization and failed to create a roadmap for denuclearization at the high-level US-DPRK talks a month later. They agreed to hold a working-level meeting on the uncomplicated issue of repatriating the remains of fallen US soldiers and to hold a working-level meeting on the closing of North Korea’s missile engine testing facility, which had been promised during the US-DPRK summit. There is uncertainty as to when the two sides will discuss special on-site monitoring of nuclear facilities in North Korea and the destruction of nuclear materials, warheads and existing ICBMs.

There must be agreement on basic terms for progress to be made. The two sides must be in agreement that North Korea intends to denuclearize, but this does not appear to be the case.

A cold, rational look at reality is needed

US-DPRK negotiations will continue, but there is a need to look coldly and rationally at the situation now that the excitement of the inter-Korean and US-DPRK summits have faded. We should not simply trust that North Korea intends to denuclearization; rather, we need to critically assess whether the regime is just stalling for time.

A calm examination of the bigger picture is needed, without getting lost in emotions.

*Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.