Is North Korea ready to face the music and denuclearize?

Kim Jong Un upon his return to North Korea from the Hanoi summit
Kim Jong Un upon his return to North Korea from the Hanoi summit. Image: Rodong Sinmun

The failure of the US-North Korean summit in Hanoi has led to a subdued war of words between the two sides. The US argues that North Korea demanded the lifting of all sanctions and left unclear what part of the Yongbyon nuclear facility would be dismantled. North Korea argues that they requested the lifting of specific sanctions that damage their civilian economy and that they made it clear to the US that the entire Yongbyon nuclear facility would be dismantled.

At a glance, it seems that the arguments made by both sides are at odds, but upon deeper reflection, this is not really the case. North Korea is demanding the lifting of five specific UN sanctions that were adopted in 2016-2017 and are bringing harm to their civilian economy – in short, sanctions that prohibit the export of minerals, marine products and textiles, limits on the import of fuel, and progressive prohibitions (prohibitions that become more severe with time) on sending laborers overseas. North Korea referred to these sanctions as “partial sanctions related to the civilian economy” and brought them out to the negotiation table; thus, from the American perspective, North Korea is calling for the lifting of all sanctions on the country.

The dispute over whether North Korea agreed to dismantle just part or all of the Yongbyon nuclear facility depends on which side you believe, but I’m going to choose to believe the North Korean argument on this one. This is because Choi Sun-hee, the vice-minister of foreign affairs, stated that “There is no history of [North Korea] offering the dismantlement of the entire Yongbyon nuclear facility.”

That being said, it does not appear that North Korea accepted US demands that Yongbyon undergo a scientific verification process. Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho noted during the midnight press conference in Hanoi on March 1 that “[Yongbyon] will be completely dismantled forever by engineers from both countries with American experts present.” Ri’s words suggest that he meant Americans would “observe” the dismantling of the site. In other words, it appears North Korea will accept American experts or engineers visiting the site to view the dismantlement, but that it won’t accept them collecting samples to conduct a scientific verification process aimed at identifying traces of nuclear material. North Korea, in short, is saying the same thing it did when scientific verification became the reason for the failure of the Six-Party Talks in 2008: no dice.

North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui at a press conference following the Hanoi Summit
North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui at a press conference following the Hanoi Summit. Image: Yonhap News Agency

We’ll dismantle Yongbyon, so just lift the sanctions

North Korea’s proposal can be interpreted to be the lifting of the five sanctions that harm the civilian economy – the ones doing the most damage to the economy as a whole – in exchange for its dismantling of the Yongbyon nuclear facility.

The question here is, however, whether the denuclearization process would continue smoothly into the future after Yongbyon is dismantled. Yongbyon is a symbol of North Korea’s quest for nuclear weapons and is still an important site for the country’s nuclear program. It is clear, however, that the site does not represent the full extent of the country’s nuclear program. There are other sites that will exist past the demise of Yongbyon that conduct uranium enrichment, and there is also the issue of the existing nuclear fissile material, nuclear-tipped warheads and ICBMs.

Moreover, the Yongbyon nuclear site is well known but other sites are not. This means that denuclearization negotiations will inevitably face difficulties. If the dismantling of Yongbyon is exchanged for the lifting of the most effective sanctions, the US and the international community will lose its negotiating card to force North Korea to follow through with denuclearization.

Of course, North Korea likely demanded the lifting of all sanctions (that is, those adopted after 2016) in exchange for the dismantling of Yongbyon as part of its negotiation strategy. The North Koreans likely judged that they needed to come out strong so that at least some of the sanctions would be lifted. If they did indeed demand the lifting of all these sanctions, then they should have offered the shutdown of other sites as well. Their demand for the lifting of all these sanctions with just an offer to dismantle Yongbyon suggests that they are not genuinely interested in denuclearization.

What’s the scope of denuclearization in North Korea’s view?

Since North Korea made progress toward dialogue early last year, debate has raged as to whether the country really intends to denuclearize. While it remains a matter of perspective, we have little choice but to believe what North Korea says given that there has not been any firm evidence to the contrary.

However, if North Korea is trying to limit the scope of denuclearization to Yongbyon, this changes everything. There are other sites related to nuclear development in North Korea besides Yongbyon, and this means that if North Korea fails to agree to the shutdown of these other facilities then they cannot be trusted to follow through with denuclearization.

This is still a “wait and see” situation. Foreign Minister Ri called North Korea’s negotiation plan for the summit a “first step in the process.” This could mean that the first step is the dismantling of the Yongbyon facility, and the second or third steps, for example, could be the shutdown of other sites.

The US has refused to accept North Korea’s offer, meaning that both sides need to offer new proposals to restart the negotiations. The question here will be whether North Korea accepts the shutdown of other nuclear-related sites. This will be, in essence, the “moment of truth” as to whether North Korea really plans to denuclearize.

Will this be North Korea’s moment of truth?

The failure of the second US-DPRK summit means that the South Korean government will need to step in and mediate. It is natural that the South Korean government, which currently maintains friendly relations with North Korea, needs to find a way to break through this deadlock via direct talks with the North Koreans.

The focal point of future inter-Korean meetings will be to determine whether North Korea genuinely intends to denuclearize. Yet, the South Korean government must do more than just confirm this. If North Korea is still on the fence about denuclearizing, then the South Korean government needs to persuade North Korean leaders to push forward. North Korea must show that it is ready to denuclearize before South Korea can persuade the US to lift at least some of the sanctions. But is the South Korean government ready and able to take on such a role?

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