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 11):
The largely anticipated visit to North Korea by US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, ended of course with no concrete results.
Pompeo emphasized the success of his visit to North Korea stating that the talks had made progress and that a “working level” group would be formed to push ahead with negotiations for denuclearization.
On the other hand, the North Korean Foreign Ministry openly criticized the visit stating that it pushed the current US-North Korea relations to a dangerous brink, in which North Korea may even change its mind on denuclearization.
We can see that Kim Jong Un, who made a brisk visit to meet President Moon at Panmunjeom and sent Kim Yong Chol to Washington to beg for the summit in the midst of Trump’s sudden cancellation, has now finally caught his breath and is feeling a bit more relaxed.
With the support of an allied army in China, and the initial success of both the inter-Korean and US-North Korea summit, Kim Jong Un has bought a bit of time and can sit comfortably for a while.
The up-side to all this is that through the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s discourse we are able to see North Korea’s position on the “phased and simultaneous steps” of denuclearization.
North Korea’s demand is that according to the outcome of the US-North Korea Agreement in which North Korea insists on regime stability first then denuclearization, the US should agree to an announcement of the end of the Korean War in return for the destruction of ICBM engine test-sites.
In other words, North Korea’s argument is that a detailed denuclearization process can only be discussed together with the reduction of sanctions and establishment of peace structures after the announcement of the end of the war.
Additionally, North Korea considers the repatriation of the remains of US soldiers killed in the Korean War as a service to pave the way for the announcement of the end of the war.
This is far from how the US sees it.
As the US has already temporarily suspended the joint military exercises, the announcement of the end of the war can only be possible when North Korea begins a more concrete denuclearization process such as reporting the location of nuclear facilities and amount of nuclear material.
I suspect that North Korea is trying to make the implementation of the denuclearization as complex as possible so that it is able to get what it needs at every level until it reaches the final stages of denuclearization where it will decide to bail.
The fundamental difference between the US and North Korea on denuclearization that had until now been covered by a veil, has now been uncovered.
North Korea’s Foreign Ministry emphasized that the main spirit of the “US-North Korea Summit was a trust-building and that CVID by the US is a gangster-like demand.”
This shows once again the importance of every word and arrangement of sentences in agreements signed by the heads of state, and how much it influences the detailed steps in the implementation process.
Teams of experts are always involved in the preparation of North Korea’s statements before it is presented to Kim Jong Un to be approved.
That is how important each word and sentence is in a North Korean piece of text.
Not only did the Trump-Kim summit fail to draw a roadmap for North Korea’s denuclearization process but it surrendered the US policy of ‘denuclearization process first then dialogue’ and codified ‘trust-building first, then denuclearization.’
As such, North Korea will bring out this agreement whenever it has future negotiations and put the United States in the corner; and it won’t be easy for the US to grab hold of the reigns again at the negotiation table.
However, the US still has a powerful negotiation card- sanctions.
At this moment in time, Kim Jong Un is working hard to announce the declaration of the end of the war with the US and have the sanctions lifted before September 9th, the 70th anniversary of the Foundation of North Korea to show the North Korean people that he is an almighty leader who can make the impossible possible.
Thus, Kim Jong Un will push to keep the current momentum of dialogue with the US.
While the statement from the Foreign Ministry may criticize Pompeo, the spokesman’s ending stating that “we still cherish our good faith in President Trump”, clearly shows Kim Jong Un’s uneasiness of Trump’s unpredictability that may lead to a break in the negotiations.
As such, it is incredibly important how the US goes forward with its tactics.
Right now, neither the US nor South Korea have publicly announced the details of North Korea’s denuclearization process.
South Korea has stated that it is using the improvement of inter-Korean relations as an incentive for denuclearization while the US simply has an ambiguous plan of using the sanctions card if things do not go their way.
The US and South Korea must now give a clear response to the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s statement of claiming that the US made ‘gangster-like demands.’
The US and South Korea should clarify a detailed plan to trade the demand of an announcement of the end of the war and make it clear that if such an offer by US and South Korea is not met not only will the declaration plan be scrapped, but the sanctions will also remain.
The US should not show its uneasiness about trying to achieve something with North Korea before its midterm elections in November.
There’s a saying in Korean that the thirsty man will dig the well first.
It has been the essence of North Korea’s diplomacy that it returns to the dialogue table when it is pushed in corner and leaves the table when it is relieved from difficulty.
South Korea should not leave the issue of denuclearization to the US but avail itself of every opportunity to demand the denuclearization whenever it engages in North Korea.