The up-coming June 12th tête-à-tête meeting between President Trump and Chairman Kim will signal the start of a long and complicated process of diplomacy to move towards denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. It will require a long series of confidence building quid-pro-quos from Pyongyang and Washington, patience in both capitals and cooperation by relevant stakeholders such as South Korea, China, Japan and possibility Russia. Each has something to lose or gain depending on the evolution of the process.
Political cycles in the US, South Korea and Japan may also impact the denuclearization process. Strategically, the Kim regime could feint an incremental denuclearization process patiently waiting until his Washington counterpart’s political expiry date comes due allowing Pyongyang to halt its forced denuclearization.
The question we are left with is what are Chairman Kim’s long-term intentions? North Korea, having achieved its national imperative of acquiring a credible strategic nuclear deterrent is now positioning itself to invest in economic development by being able to negotiate as equals for an outcome that secures the Kim regime from a military strike and economic strangulation.
Having achieved a credible strategic nuclear deterrent, this pursuit of economic development is fully in line with North Korea’s ideology of byungjin, parallel economic and nuclear development. It also means that Pyongyang is negotiating from a position of relative strength in that the acquisition of a credible nuclear deterrent means that the Kim regime can come to the negotiating table as a nuclear peer with something give up in exchange for a legion of demands from the US and stakeholders in the region.
In exchange for denuclearization (that will also include short and mid-range missiles, chemical and biological weapons and submarine-based launch systems), Kim will expect a non-aggression pact, development assistance and an eventual peace treaty with the US. This is a high bar for the Trump Administration and it will expect complete, irreversible and verifiable dismantling of Pyongyang’s nuclear and ICBM weapons and the capability to produce those systems.
He may also attempt to extort economic assistance from Japan as long overdue reparations for Japan’s colonial period as well as South Korea and China.
The Inter-Korean Summit was the first step in this process if the Kim regime is sincere about denuclearization. South Korea’s President Moon has provided Chairman Kim an economic roadmap in the form of the Blueprint for Inter-Korean Economic Cooperation which would link South Korea, North Korea, China and Russia. This would complement China’s BRI and pull the peninsula into China’s orbit.
Another possibility that both Pyongyang and Washington may be considering though is peace through development funded by the US, Japan, European countries, South Korea and China in exchange for denuclearization. This denuclearization equation has much to like for the US and North in that in exchange for denuclearization, North Korea shifts its economic dependent relationship (most estimates are around 90 %) away from China to a more diversified economic portfolio.
While important, the outcome of the Trump-Kim Singapore Summit will most likely be similar to the “Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification on the Korean Peninsula”. According to Sang Hyun Lee, the Panmunjom Declaration stressed “improving relations to seek shared prosperity and self-reliant reunification; second, reducing military tensions between the two Koreas; and third, establishing lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula”. The order of the declaration is salient as it prioritizes the actions which are clearly achievable in the short term while punting the those such as denuclearization and demilitarization far down the road.
With a deep dearth in trust and substantially different understandings of what denuclearization means, the Panmunjom Declaration will indeed be the model by which the two leaders necessarily craft their summit outcome. Any “Singapore Declaration” will be short on substance and long on concrete measures concerning complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantling (CVID) of all nuclear capabilities.
The reason for this is related to regime security, long term strategic imperatives and practical considerations. At regime security level, the North cannot simply hand over its strategic nuclear deterrent without security guarantees for the regime. This is especially so in light of the Trump Administration’s maximum pressure campaign and bloody nose attack rhetoric emanating out of the White House and comments by the National Security Advisor John Bolton that a Libya Model was applicable to North Korea.
At the strategic level, the Kim Dynasty has viewed the pursuit of nuclear weapons as not only a means to protect itself from a US attack to decapitate the Kim regime. Concurrently, by appealing to interethnic unity Chairman Kim has suggested that nuclear weapons are a tool to prevent the bullying of Koreans from outside powers including the US, Japan and importantly China.
Practical considerations maybe the biggest obstacle in the CVID process. North Korea has been a closed state for much of its existence. It is bestrewed with known and unknown labour and prison camps with appalling conditions. Its populous has been indoctrinated with xenophobic vitriol and society is highly militarized. It remains an open question as to how a CVID process could be implemented under such conditions without seriously compromising the regime’s highly refined and extensive social control mechanisms.
Even if the CVID process proceeded in tandem with economic development, the regime has to develop a strategy to allow for economic liberalization while maintaining social control to ensure its regime’s survival. In the end, this unsolvable conundrum making a grand bargain between Pyongyang and Washington at the Singapore Trump-Kim Summit an unrealistic expectation for both parties.
About the author:
*Stephen R. Nagy is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University based in Tokyo. Concurrently, he is a distinguished fellow with Canada’s the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada and an appointed China expert with Canada’s China Research Partnership.