Interim assessment of denuclearization negotiations: a gap between ‘hope’ and ‘reality’

The once-active denuclearization negotiations between the US and North Korea appear to have quietened down. Following Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to North Korea, US President Donald Trump said in regards to the site of the next summit, “We are reviewing three to four places outside of Singapore.” The date for the summit has been delayed until after the US midterm elections in November. It is possible that Trump has realized that without a guarantee that the second US-DPRK summit will be a success, the political benefit from holding it before the midterms remains uncertain.

Two perspectives on the denuclearization negotiations

One perspective on the denuclearization negotiations foresees smooth sailing ahead. This emphasis generally flows from the statements by US and South Korean government officials. Secretary Pompeo, who has now returned from his visit to North Korea, said, “we can now see a path to the ultimate goal of final, fully-verified denuclearization,” with Trump referring to Secretary Pompeo as “fantastic and a star,” while adding that his relationship with North Korea was really good. Chung Eui Yong, the director of South Korea’s National Security Office, was quoted as saying, “There were many successes achieved from Secretary Pompeo’s trip to Pyongyang.” Even Minister of Foreign Affairs Kang Kyung Hwa said that Secretary Pompeo’s trip “brought home good results.” President Moon Jae In, added that the negotiations on denuclearization between the US and North Korea “have been progressing well.”

The second perspective casts a cloud of suspicion on some of the rosy-eyed optimism surrounding the negotiations. Perhaps the most representative of this is the US government, which has maintained its strong determination to maintain sanctions against North Korea. When talk about “reviewing the removal” of sanctions toward North Korea arose in South Korea, Trump flatly stated, “That won’t happen without US approval,” suggesting that the US is not particularly optimistic about negotiations with North Korea. Despite North Korea’s strong demands for the loosening of sanctions recently, the US has clarified that it has no intention to consider such measures until the country takes decisive measures to denuclearize.

There has been no sign that the denuclearization negotiations have reached an important breakthrough. Setting aside the ultimate end point of the denuclearization process, Secretary Pompeo has not revealed much about the immediate issue of exchanging a declaration to the end of the Korean War for North Korea’s reporting of its nuclear weapons to the international community or dismantling the Yongbyon Nuclear Site. He has simply said, “I will not talk about the current progress of the negotiations.” Just like Minister Kang’s statement that “the US and South Korea don’t necessarily have the exact same thinking” after South Korea’s proposal of a plan to delay the reporting of the North’s nuclear weapons inventory, it is unclear whether the US and South Korea have narrowed the gap in their perspectives on how to continue negotiations on denuclearization.

Have the denuclearization negotiations made important progress?

Rational assessments of the current status of the denuclearization negotiations are needed.

As many of the details of the denuclearization negotiations currently ongoing between the US and North Korea have not been made public, there is still a possibility that important issues are being discussed privately in depth. If the optimistic statements made by the governments of both countries are based on such confidential information, we may soon see the announcement of an important agreement.  

If that’s not the case, however, our [South Korea’s] expectations may be somewhat overblown. The expectations in South Korea surrounding the denuclearization negotiations have been overtaken to a large extent by the powerful image of Moon and Kim holding hands at the top of Mt. Paektu.

There also needs to be rational analysis of the agreement made between the two Koreas regarding denuclearization enshrined in the “September Pyongyang Joint Declaration,” which was instrumental in restarting US-DPRK denuclearization negotiations.  

“If the US responds with measures that accord with the spirit of the June 12 US-DPRK joint statement, the North clearly states here that it has the intention to continue to adopt additional measures like the complete dismantling of the Yongbyon nuclear facility.”

This agreement was significant due to the fact that North Korea put the dismantling of the Yongbyon nuclear facility up as a negotiating card, but the country only hinted at a possibility of agreement; it did not mean that an agreement in the negotiations had actually been reached. Moreover, the fundamental issues required to dismantle the country’s nuclear weapons program, like the auditing of its nuclear arsenal, still appear far from resolved.

Distinction between “expectations” and “reality”

We [South Koreans] need to distinguish between expectations and reality. With a second US-DPRK summit and Kim Jong Un’s visit to Seoul expected to occur, along with the powerful image of reconciliation created by the two Korean leaders in Pyongyang and Mt Baekdu still fresh in our minds, we now carry the “hope” that the denuclearization negotiations will make an important breakthrough. If this hope becomes a reality, it will be welcomed by all of us. However, there is still no clear evidence that this may occur.

South Korean society includes progressives, who view the denuclearization negotiations in positive terms, and conservatives, who view the same situation negatively. It is not important, however, whether we are progressive or conservative. The important point is whether we view the current situation objectively, and rationally analyze it. If we become trapped in the dichotomy of “progressives” and “conservatives” when viewing and interpreting reality, there is a high possibility of both distorting and failing to understand the situation properly. The inter-Korean relationship is caught up in this difficult ideological dichotomy more than anything else, but we need to continue our efforts to understand and analyze the inter-Korean relationship for what it is, and avoid viewing it through progressive or conservative prisms.

There’s no reason to fret, but it’s still too early to be optimistic

The denuclearization negotiations are now at an important crossroads that will determine whether they progress or not. The direction of additional negotiations will be decided in working-level negotiations between Steve Biegun and Choe Son Hui, which will likely be held soon, following Pompeo’s visit to North Korea as a starting point. The atmosphere for progress with the second US-DPRK summit and Kim Jong Un’s visit to Seoul doesn’t appear negative, but there has not yet been any clear signs of a decisive agreement between the two parties in the negotiations. Another factor in all of this, of course, will be the results of the US midterm elections.

While there’s no reason to fret over the current situation, it’s also too early to be optimistic. What we need now is a rational mindset that allows us to clearly distinguish between “hope” and “reality.”

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