With North Korea’s diplomatic outreach since the beginning of 2018 is rapidly pushing ahead, many are discussing the possible outcome of key summits and if a deal may be struck on the denuclearization of the DPRK.
Amid heated speculation ahead of a planned summit between Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump, NK News spoke with Marc Vogelaar, a former Dutch ambassador who served as director of the KEDO (Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization) between 1999 and 2002.
Vogelaar, the current chairman of Pugwash Conferences on Scientific and World Affairs in the Netherlands, visited North Korea multiple times during his time with KEDO in order to negotiate various aspects of the implementation of the Agreed Framework between the U.S. and the DPRK.
NK News spoke with Vogelaar about his assessment of the failures of past negotiations with the DPRK and about the potential forms new agreements may take during this crucial period for the peninsula.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
NK News: In your opinion what was the single biggest contributor to the breakdown of the Agreed Framework, which accelerated in 2002?
Marc Vogelaar: Well something went wrong on two fronts. On the DPRK side, the nuclear weapons program was secretly continuing in spite of the freeze that was agreed upon in the Agreed Framework. This was known to the Americans for some time but the North Koreans were confronted openly by the Bush administration in 2002.
This led to a breakdown of the Agreed Framework. There was a lot of distrust and the step-by-step, synchronized approach that was laid down in the Agreed Framework did not work because after each step there was mistrust that the other side would reciprocate and so on and so forth. This chain of increasing distrust ultimately led to the collapse of the deal.
NK News: In late 2002, KEDO’s Executive Board suspended the supply of heavy fuel oil to the DPRK as part of the AF due to the country’s undeclared uranium enrichment program. Did you deem the DPRK to be credible negotiating partners at the time and do you think nations should deem them a credible negotiating partner under Kim Jong Un?
Marc Vogelaar: At the time I think they were quite credible negotiating partners and like in all negotiations the North Koreans would put forward valid arguments. I will give you an example that illustrates how they made good use of the fact that the Americans didn’t always implement the Agreed Framework by the book.
The fuel supplies that you mentioned were not only stopped after 2002 but there were hiccups even before 2002. There were frequent difficulties, both financially and logistically, to get these shipments in. This proved quite irritable to the North Koreans and they used this in the negotiations during the years that I was working there. They were often complaining of late arrivals or non-arrivals of the fuel supplies.
“There was a lot of distrust and the step-by-step, synchronized approach that was laid down in the Agreed Framework did not work”
As for your second question, yes I would consider at the present stage the North Koreans very much as credible and serious negotiators, which is quite a different question to “what is it that they really want?”
The initiative for the present turn around came from Kim Jong Un in the form of an invitation to President Trump. The overture has luckily been taken seriously by President Trump – even so seriously that he has surprised the whole world by accepting the invitation on very short notice. Therefore the process does have credibility. But that doesn’t mean that I am optimistic as to the outcome of the negotiation.
NK News: Have you been at all surprised by Kim Jong Un’s peace overtures beginning in 2018 and the rapid pace of diplomacy since January?
Marc Vogelaar: Yes, in all frankness yes, I think most observers have been surprised especially if you remember the very fierce and antagonistic exchanges between the U.S. and North Korea in the very first days of this year. So yes, it was a turnaround and a surprising one.
I am personally convinced, though I have no evidence, that the overtures by Kim Jong Un were actually triggered by President Moon of South Korea. He has been the driving force behind these developments. Moon has been working very hard to get a dialogue going both between his country and North Korea as well as between the U.S. and North Korea. The Winter Olympics and all that happened there clearly illustrates this.
NK News: You said while you think the DPRK wants to negotiate credibly, you might not be optimistic about a resolution. Both South Korea and China have reported that Kim Jong Un pledged a commitment to the denuclearization of the peninsula. In your opinion does that encompass the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) of the DPRK and if not, what is your assessment of what it means?
Marc Vogelaar: I suspect that if you look at that question from the perspective of Pyongyang and Washington respectively, you would get two very different answers. Let me start with the Americans. One never knows if there are hidden agendas, but President Trump and his administration have made very clear that what they are interested in is the complete dismantling of the nuclear weapons programme of North Korea, a denuclearization that is complete, irreversible and that can be verified. This is a clear objective indeed but there is a risk in any one-track negotiation. I don’t want to make a pun here but Trump has no trump card except this one. Denuclearization, it is his sole objective.
The North Koreans have indeed indicated that they are ready to negotiate this issue of denuclearization but in exchange for what?
There are a number of things that they would wish to receive in return. Also, I doubt that the North Koreans would accept a complete and irreversible denuclearization in one single step.
I think it’s much more likely – supposing they put this on the table at all – that they would rather offer a step-by-step denuclearization. They’ve called it a “synchronized” approach at some point. That is not the right way forward in my view. The synchronized or step-by-step approach based on reciprocity – one step being followed by the other party etc – has proven to be the weakness of the Agreed Framework. So if a deal would be struck along those lines we may very well end up like we did in 2002.
“I doubt that the North Koreans would accept a complete and irreversible denuclearization in one single step”
NK News: In a recent article, you said as much and that any deal between the U.S. and North Korea should be considered as “one single deal” and not a step-by-step reciprocity deal. Can you explain this further and how this might look?
Marc Vogelaar: Let me first say that I don’t expect that such a deal, such a big package will be agreed upon. The most likely outcome of the summit meeting will be the start of a process, meaning further negotiations. A different approach – and it seems worthwhile attempting to do this during the summit – is to make a great bargain which would encompass more elements than just denuclearization.
Obviously, that package should contain, first and foremost, the complete, irreversible and verifiable denuclearization of the DPRK. But more could be added to make it more acceptable for all countries involved, for example, peace treaties both between North and South Korea and between North Korea and the U.S.
These would imply a formal end to the Korean War and would also serve as a security guarantee to the North Koreans. Thirdly there could be an economic package in the form of aid, investments, and lifting of sanctions, to permit the DPRK to come back into the fold of the world economy.
Now again, I don’t know if the Americans are willing to put all this on the table. But in my view, the only way out is to try and reintegrate and create interdependence between North Korea and the rest of the world. Only in this manner can the isolation of the DPRK – which has lead to such nasty consequences – come to an end.
I hope all negotiating parties would consider it worthwhile to come to an agreement along these broad lines in the next few weeks.
NK News: Do you believe that the construction of a Light Water Reactor Project or the offering technical cooperation as was in play with the Agreed Framework is still a valid mechanism that could be offered to the DPRK in return for denuclearization or has the DPRK’s price likely changed?
Marc Vogelaar: After so many years – since 1993 – the world looks different, the world economy looks different, the needs of the DPRK may well have changed and therewith their demands. The underlying principle of the Agreed Framework was to obtain political and military concessions in return for economic benefits. That principle might still apply.
Maybe light water reactors will not be on offer this time, and the DPRK may have different priorities at this point. But I hope that if the North Koreans could obtain the lifting of sanctions and massive investments – not only by the U.S. but by neighboring countries like Japan, China, and South Korea – that might be a tempting offer. But let’s wait and see whether that offer will be made in the first place.
NK News: What were the most important lessons that you learned from your time at KEDO and dealing with the North Koreans that you believe the international community should take from that experience and apply now given that dialogue is taking place again?
Marc Vogelaar: Well given the sad outcome of the Agreed Framework process, we should not make the same mistake again, therefore, cloning the Agreed Framework would be a mistake. The only bet that might work is to go beyond the cautious step-by-step approach that characterized the Agreed Framework by trying to strike a great bargain all at once.
The implementation of such a bargain would still require detailed negotiations and even downstream the whole process might still fall apart. But any deal that might start a peace process should be broad and all-encompassing and should look beyond the denuclearization issue.
“I am convinced that there is a gray area where a compromise is possible”
In short, the lesson is to go beyond 1993 and to be less cautious. For the Americans and the international community, this would mean taking a huge risk. Trusting the North Koreans has proven to be a hazard. At the same time, I see no alternative and my assumption is that Kim Jong Un, who is still relatively young and probably hopes for a long career as leader, has an interest in finding a modus operandi with the international community that would safeguard his country’s security.
The crux of the perception that the North Koreans have of the world is that they are being surrounded by hostile nations. Secondly, such a deal would enhance the survival of his family’s dynasty.
That is basically what Kim wants. I believe that he has shown readiness to negotiate denuclearization in an attempt to see what he can get in return. If he is not satisfied he will withdraw his offer and the crisis will linger on for decades.
Let us not speculate too much on what these leaders have or may not have up their sleeves once they are at the negotiating table. But at the end of the day, the basic interests of the various parties will determine their behavior once the talks begin. I am convinced that there is a gray area where a compromise is possible.
NK News: Anything you would like to add regarding the situation?
Marc Vogelaar: Yes, that is the multilateral dimension. It is crucial even at this early stage that the United States makes sure that there be no divisions between their allies and themselves as a result of these negotiations.
Prime Minister Abe went to Washington yesterday [ed: this interview was conducted on April 17]. It is quite likely that the Japanese are alarmed over what President Trump may or may not agree with the North Koreans. They have hardly been consulted as far as I know. The same goes for the summit between President Moon and Kim Jong Un.
That event can turn out to be an excellent preparation and sounding out of positions, which would benefit the U.S.-North Korean summit. But it could also have the opposite effect if the North Koreans succeeded, which I doubt, to lure the South Koreans into concessions or agreements that would not be to the taste of the Americans.
Therefore, in order to avoid tensions among the U.S. and its allies in the region, it will be of enormous importance that the positions be aligned and that the ROK and Japan be fully informed and closely involved in the negotiating effort. The same goes for China. If a deal is reached, its implementation can only succeed if all parties involved and I should add Russia, should play their part.
The North Korean nuclear crisis is not just a bilateral problem. It is a multilateral problem which can only be solved in a multilateral setting.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
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