SEOUL — North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons, but only if it receives serious security guarantees, Russian President Vladimir Putin said after meeting with Kim Jong Un in Vladivostok on Thursday.
The comment upended the conventional wisdom: that North Korea is desperate for sanctions relief and that a continuation or even intensification of “maximum pressure” will eventually persuade Kim to return to the negotiating table with a more reasonable offer than he tabled in Hanoi.
Instead, it may be that the North Korean leader is really after something else entirely — a guarantee that his regime would be safe should it give up its nuclear arsenal.
Kim is bound to be aware of what happened to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi after they gave up their weapons of mass destruction — both men suffered violent deaths.
But can the United States really offer Kim a credible guarantee that he wouldn’t suffer the same fate?
What does Kim want?
North Korea has long maintained that it needs security guarantees before it would consider surrendering its nuclear weapons. Indeed, in a midnight news conference directly after the breakdown of the Hanoi summit, Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said that was Pyongyang’s main goal, rather than sanctions relief.
“Security guarantee is the more important issue in our denuclearization pursuit, but we thought it would be burdensome for the U.S. to take military measures at the moment, and suggested partial sanctions relief as a corresponding measure,” he said.
North Korea has repeatedly made clear it vehemently objects to joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises and repeated that objection Thursday in a strongly worded statement. Many experts think Pyongyang would ultimately demand the withdrawal of all U.S. forces in South Korea as an eventual condition for denuclearization, something both Washington and Seoul maintain is not on the table.
There are interim measures that might help to reassure North Korea that the United States is not a hostile power. Last year, for example, it asked for a declaration of an end to the 1950-1953 Korean War, which ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty.
It has also objected in the past to the presence of U.S. nuclear-armed “strategic assets” in the region, such as bombers or submarines, although it is hard to imagine a U.S. president being able to make a credible promise to keep such military assets away from the Korean Peninsula.
John Delury, an associate professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, said providing security guarantees was more complicated than providing sanctions relief but that it is important to have a serious discussion with the North Koreans about the issue.
“You have to see first of all what they are asking for,” Delury said. “Credible security guarantees are hard to provide.”
Can the outside world guarantee the security of Kim’s regime?
Ultimately, Kim wants to be certain that the United States won’t attack his country, even to support an internal rebellion. But that’s a promise the United States could never credibly make, experts say.
“Nobody is in a position to give them the security guarantees they would like to have,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul. “They want a guarantee not only against an outside attack but also against possible internal discontent. But nobody's going to provide them such a guarantee.”
Lankov, who is also a director of NK News, said security guarantees against a foreign attack could form part of an arms control agreement, but the United States could never offer the sort of security guarantees the North Korean regime would need to surrender its entire nuclear arsenal.
“On balance, it’s a nonstarter,” he said.
”If the U.S. gives a promise not to intervene in a domestic rebellion or to ignore the actions of the North Korean government when it starts machine-gunning and bombing the rebels — I don’t think any American government will be able to keep this promise,” Lankov said. “And there is another problem with any kind of guarantees, even the realistic guarantees against a foreign attack — they might be useful, but who can be sure that after democratic elections the next American president will keep the promise?”
Are the North Koreans sincere?
The North Koreans have long used the supposed absence of security guarantees as a way to put the onus onto Washington to end its “hostile” policy, and as a way to characterize their own weapons of mass destruction program as defensive and legitimate, says Jung Pak at the Brookings Institution. It then defines anything — from the U.S. alliance with South Korea to criticism of Kim — as evidence of that “hostile” policy.
In this way, North Korea makes “maximalist demands that would be almost impossible to fulfill in the absence of a fundamental restructuring of U.S. priorities in the region and the abandonment of the nonproliferation regime that Washington and the international community have built and nurtured,” Pak said.
“Ultimately, North Korea requires a ‘hostile’ U.S. and outside world to justify the Kim dynasty’s brutal repression of its people, tight control of information, and provocative actions. And its consistent calls for 'security guarantees’ serve as a fig leaf to delay denuclearization and cement its status and relevance as a regional player,” she added.
How credible are Washington’s promises?
Like it or not, Washington’s credibility isn’t high. Diplomats from other nations complain that President Trump has reneged on a perfectly good deal with Iran, just because it was agreed to by his predecessor. Any deal Trump signs with Kim could easily be rejected by his successor as U.S. president.
Gaddafi gave up his nuclear weapons program in 2003 in return for better relations with the West. But when the Arab Spring encouraged his people to rise up, the United States intervened on behalf of the rebels and Gaddafi ultimately was killed.
Nor is that the only cautionary tale Kim will have in mind.
In Seoul, a Ukrainian diplomat is often heard questioning U.S. credibility. His country gave up its nuclear weapons in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union in return for a promise from the United States that it would ensure the country’s territorial integrity from Russia. With Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine now in Russian hands, that promise has clearly been broken. Why, the diplomat asks, would Kim believe Washington’s promises?
In Vladivostok, Putin said that if U.S. guarantees are not enough for North Korea, then six-party talks, which would include Russia, can be resurrected. That might offer a more binding international framework for any security guarantees.
But Lankov argues that the bottom line is that no one can offer the North Korean regime a security guarantee anywhere near as strong as that offered by its own nuclear arsenal. That’s why, he argues, North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons.