correction: An earlier version of this column stated incorrectly that China was a signatory of the 1953 Korean War armistice. North Korea represented China at the signing. This version has been corrected.
Wendy R. Sherman, a senior counselor at Albright Stonebridge Group, was undersecretary of state for political affairs from 2011 to 2015 and served as North Korea policy coordinator in the Clinton administration.
We should all be glad that Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea, and Moon Jae-in, the president of South Korea, had a positive summit — and that Kim literally took a historic step into the South, as did Moon, briefly, into the North. Dialogue is certainly better than a march to war. That said, we all need to keep our expectations in check.
Although the leaders agreed in the Panmunjom Declaration to work together toward a permanent peace rather than the current armistice and declared a commitment to “denuclearization,” we cannot know whether this statement of principles will be of lasting worth until the details are hammered out. This is certain to be a long and difficult process.
Similarly, we should all welcome the Trump-Kim summit expected in May or June. But no summit declaration on that occasion will be meaningful regarding North Korea’s nuclear arsenal if the definition of the term “denuclearization” is left blurry and no robust verification regime is put in place. We need to see concrete steps. That would include, in the first instance, allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency back into North Korea to begin an assessment of Pyongyang’s nuclear program and ensure, if possible, that North Korea is not advancing the program while talks continue.
Any U.S.-North Korean declaration must also include a detailed definition of “denuclearization” to ensure that we are all talking about the same thing. In 1992, when the North and South issued a joint declaration, this term was born because “disarmament” was considered unacceptable terminology. Pyongyang has long used denuclearization as a proxy for ensuring that its security was guaranteed and not threatened by U.S. military power and nuclear weapons. The United States, and the rest of the world, are looking for quite a different outcome: the destruction of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and permanent constraints on its missiles. President Trump must also concern himself with Americans held in North Korea, Pyongyang’s cybercrimes and its disastrous human rights record.
In testimony just this week, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis opined that he had read the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — better known as the Iran deal — three times and was impressed by the robust verification and monitoring it includes, easily the most extensive in history. But we knew where the assets were in Iran and that no nuclear weapons existed. In North Korea, neither is the case, circumstances that demand a verification and monitoring regime that goes beyond even the Iran agreement.
Kim has grasped the hand of Moon, and soon that of Trump, principally because he now has nuclear weapons and the delivery system for those weapons and can afford to turn his attention to the economic future of North Korea. No doubt the many years of sanctions, further intensified in the past months, have had an impact, but Kim remains in the driver’s seat. He has now signed a commitment to get to a peace agreement in the coming year, he has invited Moon to Pyongyang, he’s had a state visit with the president of China, and he is soon to sit down with the president of the United States. Not a bad set of plays for the leader of the world’s most isolated regime.
However, if these summits are to become more than glossy photo ops, it will take technically skilled negotiating teams, a presence in North Korea by inspectors and months of sober, hard work. Illustrative of the complexity is the fact that the North and South have committed to getting to a peace agreement this year, which would logically include a complete, irreversible and verifiable dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program. Getting all that done is more than a steep climb, given all the parties involved, the required technical assessments, and the mismatch in definitions and expectations. In addition, vigorous rings of consultation with South Korea, Japan, China and even Russia will be needed since any such negotiation is ultimately about the future of Northeast Asia and the balance of power in the region. Already South Koreans and Japanese worry that Trump may surrender their security in pursuit of “America First.” And China, wishing to assert its primacy in Asia, will undoubtedly want a major role in any outcome.
Dealing with North Korea demands precision and persistence more than pomp and circumstance. The latter may usher in hope, but only the former can get the job done.