SEOUL — It is one of the central questions in the negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program: What does Kim Jong Un want in return for giving up his weapons?
Specifically, the issue is what Kim means by his insistence on the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” — and whether that includes a demand for U.S. troops to leave South Korea and pull nuclear-armed American bombers and submarines out of the surrounding region.
South Korea’s government is playing a key role mediating between the United States and North Korea. But it is increasingly apparent that Seoul is not entirely sure about interpreting the North’s demands, displaying a lack of clarity that clouds preparations for a second summit between President Trump and Kim.
The White House said Friday that Trump and Kim would meet in late February. The location was not immediately announced. Trump met earlier for about 90 minutes in the Oval Office with Kim Yong Chol, a former spy chief who has served as Pyongyang’s lead negotiator.
At an annual televised news conference last week, South Korean President Moon Jae-in declined to say whether he had specifically asked Kim Jong Un to define the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” during their three meetings last year.
Responding to a question on the subject, Moon began by talking about American “hostility and distrust” toward North Korea. Then he raised a separate issue: whether making a “political” declaration that the 1950-1953 Korean War was over would affect the status of U.S. forces in South Korea.
In the end, though, Moon did say that Kim had told all the heads of state he met in 2018 “that complete denuclearization is not at all different from denuclearization demanded by international society.”
And he added that Kim “understands well” that any decision on the status of U.S. forces in South Korea is entirely up to Seoul and Washington to decide.
But compare Moon’s response with that of his own unification minister, Cho Myoung-gyon.
Cho told a parliamentary hearing on Jan. 9 that Seoul does not share Pyongyang’s definition of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
“Our ultimate goal is denuclearization of North Korea, not the type of denuclearization described by Pyongyang,” he said, explaining the divergence as “part of an ongoing process to draw North Korea to the negotiating table and solve the problem.”
The ambiguity over such a central question could be a negotiating tactic, leaving some of the tough questions for later in the peace process when mutual trust is higher.
But many experts see the lack of specificity as a problem, a sign that Trump and Moon are dodging some of the big issues in their desire to declare the talks a success.
The United States is demanding the “complete, verifiable and irreversible” denuclearization of North Korea. But when Kim met Trump in Singapore last June, the North Korean leader promised only to “work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
South Korea does not have nuclear weapons, and the United States withdrew its tactical nuclear weapons from the country in 1991.
So it is back again to that pivotal question: What exactly does North Korea want?
Its state media habitually portrays American soldiers as “cunning wolves,” decries the “atrocities” it says they committed during the Korean War and demands that the invaders withdraw.
But in 2016, a government spokesman set out Pyongyang’s definition of denuclearization of the peninsula, explaining that “this includes the dismantlement of nuclear weapons in South Korea and its vicinity,” a definition that North Korean state media restated in December.
“The withdrawal of the U.S. troops holding the right to use nukes from South Korea should be declared,” it added.
But does that mean all 29,000 American troops in South Korea, or only those that “hold the right to use nuclear weapons?” And does Pyongyang expect Washington to remove the nuclear-armed bombers and submarines stationed in the region?
In a New Year’s Day speech, Kim demanded that South Korea stop military exercises with the United States, adding that “the introduction of war equipment including strategic assets from outside should completely be suspended.”
Many South Koreans would feel distinctly uncomfortable without the “nuclear umbrella” offered by the U.S. military. For the Americans, withdrawing nuclear-armed forces from the broader region is not negotiable.
Sung-Yoon Lee, a North Korea expert at Tufts University, said Moon’s “meandering non-answer” to the question of how Kim defines denuclearization was “telling.”
He believes that Kim’s goal is for the North to keep its nuclear weapons while negotiating for the removal of U.S. forces in the South and that Moon’s liberal administration is playing into his hands by allowing him to “fudge” the question.
Shin Beom-chul of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank in Seoul, says the danger is that North Korea will demand that U.S. forces withdraw at the final stage of negotiations as a condition for finally dismantling its nuclear weapons.
But by then, sanctions may have largely been lifted, leaving few levers to persuade Pyongyang to denuclearize.
“We have to check the concept of denuclearization and draw up a more profound road map for the denuclearization process before lifting sanctions,” he said. “Otherwise, North Korea is going to take advantage at the last minute for its own interests.”
But some leading U.S. experts take issue with the idea that the North Koreans really want the Americans out.
Robert Carlin and Joel Wit at the Stimson Center in Washington were involved in negotiations with the North Koreans in the 1990s.
They point out that Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, told South Korean President Kim Dae-jung in 2000 that there was “nothing bad” about U.S. troops staying on in the peninsula after all sides sign a peace treaty, but only if their role was transformed to become “a peacekeeping army” rather than “a hostile force.”
That stance was confirmed during various rounds of negotiations from 1992 to 2001, Carlin said.
Pyongyang, at the time, saw the presence of U.S. troops as a geopolitical hedge “that would serve the regime as protection against baleful Chinese and Russian influence,” he wrote in an email.
“Scattered bits of evidence suggest that is also Kim Jong Un’s approach,” Carlin added.
But Chun Yung-woo, a South Korean conservative who represented his country in talks over North Korea’s nuclear program from 2006 to 2007, disagrees.
He said Kim Jong Il was probably doing his best to sound reasonable when he met the South Korean leader, by not pressing a demand that would be unacceptable to the other side.
Chun said that doesn’t mean Kim Jong Un isn’t serious about denuclearization, if it is really the only way to develop his country and remove international sanctions — especially since he hopes to remain in power for decades to come.
“I would give him the benefit of the doubt,” he said.