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Hamish Macdonald is an NK News contributor and has previously worked at The Korea Herald and for the Australia Centre for Independent Journalism in Sydney.
North Korean officials during meetings with South Koreans over the last two days expressed their “will” to denuclearize if the DPRK’s security is guaranteed, Seoul announced on Tuesday.
The announcement was made by Chung Eui-yong, Chief of the South Korean National Security Office (NSO), who had led a delegation to Pyongyang for talks with DPRK representatives over the weekend.
“The North clarified its will to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, and made it clear that there is no reason to possess nuclear weapons if the security of the North Korean regime is guaranteed,” Chung said.
“The North expressed their intention to have open-hearted dialogue with the U.S. to discuss the issue of denuclearization and to normalize the North-U.S. relations,” he added.
The DPRK has previously said that it would not give up its nuclear weapons unless the U.S. ends what it deems to be a “hostile policy” against it and more recently in his New Year’s speech, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un also said that the nuclear development of the DPRK could not be rolled back.
However, its latest apparent diplomatic overture towards the U.S. has been met with a note of optimism in certain quarters. U.S. President Donald Trump took to Twitter, saying that “possible progress” was being made in talks with North Korea.
“For the first time in many years, a serious effort is being made by all parties concerned,” Trump said on the social media platform.
“The World is watching and waiting! May be false hope, but the U.S. is ready to go hard in either direction!”
But given that the DPRK has issued similar statements repeatedly in the past, does Tuesday’s announcement actually represent a significant development in the North Korean nuclear crisis? Will the comments lead directly to U.S.-DPRK talks? And what security assurances does North Korea need before it is willing to put its nuclear weapons “on the table”?
The following experts responded in time for our deadline:
Daryl G. Kimball: Without doubt, the results of the talks between senior South Korean officials and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang this week are an important breakthrough that the United States and the international community should welcome. The establishment of a hotline between South Korean and North Korean leaders, North Korea’s apparent willingness to consider denuclearization if its security is guaranteed, and willingness to suspend testing if there are talks with the United States, are all positive developments that strengthen the prospects for peace and security in the region. North Korea has issued various statements about its nuclear and missile programs.
At various points in time, North Korea has said it will agree to discuss its nuclear program if its own security concerns are also items on the negotiating table. Rather than endlessly parse the meaning of any particular statement, now is the time for the U.S., in coordination with its allies, to test what is possible through direct talks with North Korea.
Naoko Aoki: While this is a significant development, many questions remain. What did Kim Jong Un mean, for example, when he said that North Korea has no reason to possess nuclear weapons if military threats against the country were removed?
If the answer to that is the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea, for example, it’s a nonstarter for the United States.
Furthermore, is North Korea going to communicate the message directly to the United States?
Lisa Collins: I am skeptical that the inter-Korean communications from Tuesday represent a fundamental change in North Korea’s strategic calculus or its position toward denuclearization. The South Korean delegation that visited Pyongyang relayed the message that North Korea was willing to talk about denuclearization if the security of the country could be guaranteed and the military threat (from the U.S.) is eliminated.
Based on direct U.S.-North Korean talks in the past, we know that what the North Koreans mean by “guaranteeing the nation’s security” is essentially the removal of U.S. Forces from the Korean Peninsula and the dissolution of the U.S.-ROK alliance. While Kim Jong-un may be expressing more willingness than in the past to engage in preliminary tension-reducing talks and inter-Korean talks that may produce limited unilateral sanctions relief, I doubt that North Korea intends to follow through with a process of clear, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization.
The sequencing of talks (and offers) will be most important, and with the chaos surrounding U.S. North Korea policy, it is unclear to me that the U.S. will be prepared to negotiate accordingly.
However, I do not think the DPRK has changed its position on the fundamentals with the U.S., though it might make for interesting dynamics if any future denuclearization talks are bilateral, rather than multilateral through the 6-party talks.
John Nilsson-Wright: It’s too early to say. At this stage, this could in principle be an elaborate ploy to play for time by the North, a further attempt to drive a wedge between Seoul and DC, or simply an opportunity to generate positive publicity for the regime – or some combination of all 3.
However, President Moon is unlikely to have agreed to talks in April without some credible assurance from the North that Pyongyang was serious about talking and willing to offer something more than mere verbal platitudes. Stating it would in principle be willing to abandon its nuclear weapons programme in return for a security guarantee and a commitment to regime survival is symbolically important and provides a framework for talks that might lead in a positive direction, both with South Korea and ultimately with the U.S.
Daryl G. Kimball: Only Kim Jong-un really understands why he issued the call in his New Year’s address for better inter-Korean relations and an easing of tensions and has pursued the bilateral talks with the Moon Jae-in government to this point.
It could be that he has assessed that North Korea’s rapid and significant advances in ICBM development and testing give him, for all intents and purposes, a sufficient nuclear deterrent against the U.S. homeland; it could be that the increasingly tough sanctions are beginning to change his cost-benefit calculations; it could be that he recognized the PyeonChang Olympics presented a unique important opportunity show that North Korea is interested in dialogue and to test the credibility of the Trump administration’s statements of support for a peaceful diplomatic outcome. It could be a combination of all three factors and some others.
Naoko Aoki: While the North Korean may be motivated by a need for an easing of sanctions, it could also be driven by a desire to ward off threats of U.S. military action, or an increased political confidence from its missile and nuclear program.
It’s difficult to tell, but my guess would be some combination of the three elements.
Lisa Collins: There seem to be two perspectives on this. One group of experts, who are skeptical of North Korean motives for sudden dialogue, argue that the international “pressure campaign” including sanctions and diplomatic isolation imposed on North Korea is actually starting to have a significant impact. There are reports about North Korea’s foreign currency reserves being depleted and an overall decrease in trade earnings as UN sanctions enforcement has stepped up. As a result of the economic pressure, North Korea has reached out to get sanctions relief from South Korea because the Moon Jae-in government is perceived as being easier to deal with than the Trump administration.
Some also believe that North Korea could be carrying out an elaborate plan to cause rifts in the U.S.-ROK alliance by exposing policy differences between the Trump and Moon governments on DPRK policy. Another group of experts, who have a more optimistic view of the North Korean end-game for diplomacy, argue that the “charm offensive” is part of a long-term strategic plan to 1) freeze their nuclear weapons program; or 2) begin a slow rollback of the program, in exchange for a peace treaty with the United States and a substantial economic aid package.
According to this logic, addressing North Korea’s security dilemma (i.e. the external threat from U.S.) would eliminate Pyongyang’s need for nuclear weapons and would allow the regime to focus on priorities such as economic development. This, in turn, would create more long-term prospects for peace in the region. I think it is probably latter situation or the impact of sanctions and multilateral diplomatic pressure, that is driving the North Korean calculus to return to talks.
I attribute the recent overtures more as a response to positive interactions with Seoul, though sanctions could be affecting their strategic calculus as well.
I don’t see much of a u-turn in the DPRK’s position.
John Nilsson-Wright: It’s too hard to say, although anecdotal reports from Russian analysts who have spoken in recent weeks with North Korean officials suggest that Pyongyang may have been genuinely worried about the increased risk under Donald Trump of preemptive military action by the U.S., as well as by the wider pressure arising from bilateral and international sanctions. A sense of increased insecurity on the part of Kim and other North Korean officials may have contributed to this apparent softening in North Korea’s line.
Daryl G. Kimball: The table is set for a meaningful, sustained dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang. The current U.S. position, as expressed in recent comments by Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Tillerson, is that the United States is open to “talks” with North Korea but sustained negotiations will require that North Korea commit to denuclearization steps, including a missile and testing freeze. According to Tuesday’s account from the South Koreans, North Korea is apparently willing to consider denuclearization if its security is guaranteed.
That is a solid basis for what could be a long and arduous negotiating process, but one that is important and necessary to explore. It is important that the United States government seize upon—and that Congress support—this important diplomatic opening that has been forged by our close South Korean allies and agree to engage in talks with North Korea at a very senior level without preconditions.
It is in the U.S. national security interest to reciprocate with actions and statements that reduce tensions, including being prepared to modify planned U.S.-Republic of Korea military exercises in ways that appear less provocative to the North. As John F. Kennedy once said: we must not negotiate out of fear, but we must not fear to negotiate.
Naoko Aoki: The downside of the moratorium on missile and nuclear tests that North Korea said it will maintain during possible U.S.-North Korea talks is that it does not prevent the country from improving its missile and nuclear capability in other ways.
But it would be foolish for the United States not to at least hold exploratory talks. This is a chance to find out about Kim Jong Un’s goals and negotiating style. The question I have is whether the United States is prepared to deal with this, particularly as it does not have key officials on the issue in place.
Lisa Collins: I think this could be seen as a minimum threshold for engaging in bilateral talks between the U.S. and DPRK at least for the sake of reducing tensions over the short-term but if the U.S. and North Korea still to their respective positions on denuclearization I am not optimistic that the talks will yield much progress.
Tristan Webb: It is unclear. The Obama administration was consistent that the DPRK needed to take unspecified ‘concrete steps’ in demonstrating its sincerity for denuclearization before the USA would talk. In contrast, President Trump has shown willingness to be a bit maverick and risks losing control of the agenda if inter-Korean relations improve dramatically.
I think he will be more relaxed on preconditions, or perhaps claim that a DPRK suspension of ICBM and nuclear tests meet the requirement.
John Nilsson-Wright: I suspect the U.S. will continue to play a waiting game, allowing the ROK to proceed with its planned talks in April and, for the duration, refraining from a restart in joint ROK-U.S. training exercises.Trump has no incentive to move on the issue of talks between DC and Pyongyang until the ROK-NK summit talks have been concluded. Although, those talks will give some political momentum to South Korea, blunting potentially Trump’s claim to have delivered a more accommodation stance from North Korea.
The threat of new U.S. trade tariffs against international steel and aluminium exports from a range of countries (including South Korea, the third largest steel exporter to the U.S.), along with Trump’s efforts to renegotiate KORUS, is bound to antagonise not only public opinion in the South, but also corporate interests in the government. Trade tension, therefore, risks undermining bilateral alliance cooperation between the U.S. and the ROK and, as such, come at the most inopportune time imaginable.
Daryl G. Kimball: What it might take to actually achieve the long-term goal of denuclearization is impossible at this point to determine. What both sides should focus on are initial steps that build confidence and advance progress toward the goals of the negotiating parties: denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and the peace regime. I would expect that should negotiations begin in earnest, the North Koreans will likely revive proposals relating to the negotiation of a peace treaty, easing of certain sanctions, and ending certain types of military exercises.
This opening for dialogue may be fleeting and it is important that Washington is able to take “yes” for an answer. If it does not, or if North Korea suddenly pulls back its offer to talk, we will see a resumption of the dangerous cycle of escalation. With additional missile tests, Kim Jong-un could soon have a reliable nuclear retaliatory capability, not just against our South Korean and Japanese allies, but against the continental United States.
Naoko Aoki: Various formats of political statements have been attempted in the past, but none have worked. Will North Korea be willing to give up its nuclear capability for a promise from the United States, or is it going to demand more concrete steps?
Again, we need more from North Korea to make a judgment.
Lisa Collins: I think they will probably request the cancellation of U.S.-ROK joint military exercises, the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula, and the normalization of diplomatic relations with the U.S. which I am sure would include a request for a peace treaty or peace agreement.
The key remaining part is the absence of a US military threat, which in the past the DPRK has said means multilateral denuclearization.
This seems prudent given (for example) the failure of the Budapest Memorandum as a security guarantee for Ukraine.
John Nilsson-Wright: A no-first-use commitment from the U.S. and potentially a drawdown, if not a full blown removal, of all U.S. troops on the peninsula and further afield in East Asia, especially within Japan.
The North will also call for a guarantee of regime survival in the North: ruling out any possible efforts by the U.S. to destabilize or coerce the regime, either through military action and/or political and economic pressure, including U.S. and international sanctions.
Featured image: KCNA