After the big bang of the Singapore summit in June, with its showy but vague North Korean commitment to denuclearization, many analysts doubted that the deal had any real substance. But we’re beginning to see the first signs of what a serious accord would look like.
This week’s North-South summit meeting in Pyongyang produced agreement on some basic essentials of a real denuclearization process. North Korea agreed to accept internal inspectors to monitor destruction of one of its test sites, a first step toward the broader inspection process that will be essential for any verifiable pact.
North Korea also agreed in principle to dismantle its main nuclear-weapons facility at Yongbyon, though the details are fuzzy and its offer is conditioned on reciprocal U.S. “corresponding measures.” Finally, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week floated a timetable (without objection from North Korea) for completion of denuclearization by 2021. That is aspirational, to put it generously, but it at least provides a baseline for the United States to protest if Pyongyang delays.
The Trump administration seems willing to offer some version of the desired “corresponding measures” as a confidence-building step that would facilitate the Yongbyon shutdown. North Korea wants a formal declaration of the end of the state of war, but it’s unclear what precise formula the United States will propose.
Meanwhile, President Trump continues his mutual flattery with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Trump keeps cheerleading for a deal, tweeting Tuesday that emerging signs of detente between the Koreas are “very exciting.” And Kim said this week that he wants a second meeting with Trump to ratify the moves toward nuclearization.
This week’s summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in also advanced Kim’s fundamental goal of economic modernization. That’s the significance of the proposed bid for a joint North-South Olympics in 2032. Managing such a global event would be impossible without a massive upgrade of the North’s infrastructure over the next decade.
Steve Biegun, the State Department’s special envoy to North Korea, will be traveling soon to Pyongyang with Pompeo. One thing Biegun brings to the table is his experience as a Ford Motor Co. executive, which will help him explain, in business terms, what it would mean for North Korea to join the global economy.
What’s not to like about this week’s Korean diplomacy? First, there are still far more questions than answers. Framing this agreement is a bit like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. You find the straight edges that define the perimeter, then start inserting the hard-to-fit pieces in the center. The most difficult pieces are usually saved for last, and negotiators could be left with a big empty space in the middle of this deal.
A second concern is that the diplomacy is driven by the two Koreas and their reunification ambitions. The spirit of reunification was prominent during the summit, but it is problematic for regional neighbors and for the countries themselves. Will South Korea really bankroll modernization of a country that is anti-democratic and xenophobic, and that has a history of belligerence?
U.S. military officials and their counterparts in Japan will want to look very carefully at details of the inter-Korean military agreement announced this week. According to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency, it may include “pulling out some border guard posts and setting up air, maritime and ground buffer zones.” The U.S. military command in Seoul said Thursday it would “thoroughly review” the pact, which indicates that no one had cleared it with them beforehand.
A final problem for this deal is that it’s too linked to Trump, a polarizing and politically fragile president. North Korean commentators continue to anchor their denuclearization offer to Trump. A commentary last weekend in the state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper stressed that “President Trump . . . repeatedly expresses his thanks” for recent progress.
The Rodong Sinmun piece also included this backhanded statement of North Korea’s expectation that Trump will offer the key concession Pyongyang wants: “We have not heard him saying that he will not do a declaration of the end of the war.” And the commentary offers this obtuse reassurance: “Doing what we say we will do and seeing what we have started through to the end is our mettle and temperament.”
“I worry that in terms of the U.S. political calendar, we are already over the cliff, and that Korea policy is going to be a victim,” cautions Robert Carlin, a former CIA analyst who has traveled to North Korea more than two dozen times.
Is the North Korea denuclearization process for real? Many hard-line U.S. military and national security officials remain skeptical. The outer boundaries of the agreement are becoming clearer. But the middle is a big blur.