How to read the coverage of “complete denuclearization” in North Korea’s international media

Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump at the second U.S.-DPRK summit in Hanoi last month
Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump at the second U.S.-DPRK summit in Hanoi last month. Image: KCNA

North Korea released articles outlining its official stance on March 12 and 13 following its silence after the US-North Korea summit in Hanoi. On March 12, the government published articles on propaganda websites Uriminzokkiri and DPRK Today, and on March 13 on the outlet Meari. All three of the articles include the following paragraph:

“As clearly stated in the US-DPRK joint declaration in Singapore, we are determined to establish a new relationship between the two countries, construct a long-lasting and firm peace system on the Korean Peninsula and move forward with complete denuclearization.”

It is fortunate that North Korea has emphasized “complete denuclearization” given that the country has been under scrutiny for activities occurring at a missile research facility in Sanum-dong, near Pyongyang, and the missile launch site in Tongchang-ri. North Korea’s emphasis on complete denuclearization suggests that, given the intense interest from other countries on whether it will restart its missile and nuclear programs, the country plans to avoid any actions that will destroy the momentum for dialogue. This, in a sense, is how North Korea is trying to manage the situation.

North Korea continues to call for the “Hanoi Solution”

That being said, North Korea’s statements do not mean that it will actively denuclearize, either. Articles in the “Tongil Sinbo” on March 11 and “Meari” on March 13 stated that the country had “proposed the most practical and generous denuclearization measures,” and that “There can be no better proposal because the demand for a partial lifting of the sanctions along with denuclearization measures sufficiently reflects the current stance and demands of the US government.” North Korea is essentially demanding a step-by-step solution to the problem and that partial sanctions should be lifted in exchange for the shutdown of the Yongbyon nuclear site.

On the surface, North Korea is just repeating its “step-by-step” proposal that it mentioned in Hanoi to shut down the Yongbyon nuclear site while under pressure from Bolton, Biegun and Pompeo to make a big deal to resolve the issue. However, it may also suggest that North Korea has not yet finished considering what new policy direction it will take.

That North Korea’s stance thus far hasn’t been released through influential media outlets like the Rodong Sinmun or KCNA and only featured on propaganda websites aimed at overseas audiences suggests that the country has yet to make a final decision on where it actually stands. We have to consider that North Korea’s emphasis on “complete denuclearization” is aimed at preventing further, unneeded increases in tensions and that discussions are currently being conducted in Pyongyang regarding policy direction on these issues.

North Korea holds the initiative for future negotiations

Observers now question how sincere North Korea’s intent is to denuclearize past the shutting down of Yongbyon, but even if we were to assume that North Korea had no desire to completely denuclearize, this wouldn’t mean that negotiations just fall apart. North Korea still has the initiative to continue negotiations. Even if the country can’t provide everything the US wants, it can clearly state that it will shut down all facilities outside of Yongbyon.

The shutdown of facilities outside Yongbyon include a myriad of different types of things: the shutdown of uranium enrichment facilities and the destruction of nuclear material, nuclear warheads, ICBMs, and chemical weapons. US-DPRK dialogue can continue if North Korea says it will get rid of even one of these items. The US is arguing for a “big deal” to swap the end of North Korea’s nuclear program for the lifting of sanctions, but it would be difficult for the US to refuse to engage in negotiations if North Korea commits to shutting down facilities outside Yongbyon. Even if US-DPRK negotiations continue, the two sides would struggle over how to define the scope of denuclearization outside the shutdown of Yongbyon.

North Korea needs to take the lead in shutting down all nuclear facilities

Ultimately, US-DPRK dialogue is dependent on whether North Korea decides to shut down weapons sites outside of Yongbyon or not. The South Korean government, which reportedly calls itself the “facilitator” as opposed to the “mediator” between the two sides, may or may not have approached North Korea about this issue. Regardless, the South Korean government needs to focus on ensuring North Korea accepts the shutdown of all nuclear and weapons sites.

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