Next week’s historic meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump will likely result in what will be only the first step towards Pyongyang giving up its nuclear arsenal, a leading South Korean DPRK watcher told NK News last week.
In an interview in Seoul, the Sejong Institute’s Cheong Seong-chang also argued that the long-awaited Singapore summit – set to take place next Tuesday at the Capella Hotel – will need to see the two sides take steps towards a permanent peace deal, else any agreement could be reversed by a future U.S. administration.
“On June 12, we likely won’t have a very detailed agreement, but rather some kind of first step towards complete denuclearization,” Cheong said.
“If the U.S. position does not change, it may involve something like the complete removal of nuclear weaponry and ICBMs by summer next year and dismantlement of of all other nuclear facilities until 2020, some kind of roadmap like that.”
Such a deal, Cheong argued, would have to involve major sanctions relief for Pyongyang, otherwise Kim Jong Un “will not accept it.”
This interview has been translated as well as edited and condensed for clarity and readability
NK News: My first question would be about the summit. It has been announced, canceled, and then reinstated again. It is definitely happening, isn’t it? What do you think will come out of it?
Cheong Seong-chang: Yes, it will happen. On June 12, we likely won’t have a very detailed agreement, but rather some kind of first step towards complete denuclearization. If the U.S. position does not change, it may involve something like the complete removal of nuclear weaponry and ICBMs by summer next year and dismantlement of of all other nuclear facilities until 2020, some kind of roadmap like that.
They could promote a declaration of the end of war first, and then a peace agreement, and then establishing of diplomatic relations – depending on the progress.
North Korea wants a non-aggression pact, and they may get it before a peace treaty; alternatively, the first step may be the declaration of the end of war and a general peace agreement signed by China, the Koreas, and the United States. Such a scenario looks quite likely.
NK News: Will the United States be able to convince North Korea to accept CVID (Complete, Verifiable and Irreversible Dismantlement)?
Cheong Seong-chang: The issue with verification is that it can be understood in different ways. It would be impossible to inspect every North Korean military installation to check if they have nothing nuclear or missile-related there. It may just end up with inspection of the list of installations compiled by Pyongyang. An agreement on the level of inspection will be needed.
“On June 12, we likely won’t have a very detailed agreement”
Next, if their nuclear installations are dismantled, it will take significant time for them to restart the program, should they want to do so. Although irreversible denuclearization is possible only theoretically, there can be measures which will make a restart of the program difficult to achieve.
The United States also must give North Korea guarantees which would survive a change in administration: a non-aggression pact with peace treaty and an agreement on diplomatic relations may make a military option more difficult to be pursued in the future.
NK News: And if this is done, how will Pyongyang explain it to its people?
Cheong Seong-chang: Kim Jong Un already announced the new line at the April plenum of the Central Committee. Ultimately, if they establish diplomatic relations with the United States, and sign a non-aggression pact, they can say their strategy ended in a victory and they do not need nukes.
NK News: But they said they do not need to do more tests – i.e. not to develop the nuclear program further, they did not say they want to reverse or dismantle it.
Cheong Seong-chang: Well, they did mention denuclearization in the Panmunjom declaration. And various officials – from the MFA or from the Peace and Reunification Committee – have told westerners that Kim Jong Un has decided to denuclearize.
Of course, some of the cadres may regret it, and many specialists have predicted that there would be hawkish DPRK politicians opposed to denuclearization.
Thus North Korea changed the Minister of People’s Armed Forces and the Chief of the Main Political Department before the summit – so these new cadres can negate a possible backlash against any agreement.
NK News: The three officials involved in negotiations with Washington are Kim Kye Gwan, the First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vice-Minister Choe Son Hui, and Vice-Chairman of the WPK Kim Yong Chol. Could you please tell our readers about these three?
Cheong Seong-chang: Kim Kye Gwan was the one who voiced protest against the Max Thunder air force drills. It is unclear how close he is related to the negotiations process. He did participate in the Six Party Talks, and was quite important then, but it was not him but Kim Yong Chol who was chosen to go to the United States.
Choe Son Hui may appear to be an important figure – she was a chief of the bureau responsible for the United States, but her real influence does not appear to be that high.
North Korea uses middle-level bureaucrats like her and Kim to attack hawks in Washington – like Bolton or Vice-President Pence. Since their statements formally made Trump to suspend the summit, they technically had at least some influence.
As for Kim Yong Chol, when he was in the White House, both Pence and Bolton were absent, but Pompeo, who was involved in previous negotiations, was – this shows some flexibility on behalf of Trump. The agreement will unlikely be the kind Pence or Bolton want.
Some may ask why Kim was the one to go to Washington – he is not even a specialist in the U.S. But he is a specialist in military negotiations and has been involved in them since the 1990s. He is also one of the people closest to Kim Jong Un.
NK News: As you know, there are rumors now that Kim Jong Un is afraid to leave the country when the summit happens – rumors say that he thinks that he can be overthrown. Do you think there is any merit to this?
Cheong Seong-chang: If Kim Jong Un’s popularity would be low, then yes, there would be some chance of a coup. However, even then it should be hard to do, and the fact is that Kim Jong Un’s approval rate appears to be quite high in the North – higher than his father has when he was alive.
The North’s economy has steadily grown every year since Kim Jong Un came to power. His policy towards marketplaces is much more lenient. He has created incentives for industry to work and he has reduced the size of workgroups at collective farms, so that if one works hard, he can be rewarded for it.
In the past, 80% of items sold in the DPRK’s marketplaces were Chinese. Now 70% or so are North Korean. Previously it was unthinkable arrangement for so many light industry products to be of a local origin. Under such circumstances a coup against Kim Jong Un would be, although theoretically feasible, nearly impossible in practice.
NK News: If the summit yields good results, what might happen with sanctions? Will they be reduced step-by-step or only after Pyongyang fulfills all conditions for abandoning its strategic weaponry?
Cheong Seong-chang: If a denuclearization roadmap is accepted on the summit, it is quite likely that the sanctions will be reduced on a step-by-step basis.
If they are not, North Korea will not accept it. Thus, it is likely that a denuclearization deal and the reduction of sanctions will accompany each other.
NK News: Kim Jong Un met with President Xi twice in recent months. What would you say are the results of these Sino-North Korean summits?
Cheong Seong-chang: For six years since Kim took power, he never met with the Chinese President. The reason was that China demanded the North announce their stance on denuclearization. And up until this year, Kim Jong Un’s stance was that not would they not surrender the nuclear weaponry, but that they were not open to negotiations. Thus a summit with China was impossible.
But this year the situation has changed. The summits have been held since the DPRK was open to denuclearization negotiations.
The idea that the DPRK can abandon its nuclear arsenal if given guarantees of stability of the regime – China welcomes such statements. And when Kim visited China for the second time, hawkish politicians in the United States like John Bolton began stating that the Libyan scenario would be applied – the North should surrender not only nuclear, but also chemical and biological weaponry – that may have been the reasons for the second summit.
“Irreversible denuclearization is possible only theoretically”
After those summits North Korea became bolder towards the United States, and President Trump feels that China may have been the reason why it happened.
NK News: For the sanctions to be relaxed, all five members of the UNSC must agree to it. Many specialists say that the United States will propose it, another four – France, Russia, UK and China – would follow. Do you share this opinion?
Cheong Seong-chang: Yes, I do. If the United States proposes a relaxation of sanctions, other nations would agree.
NK News: As you said, Kim Jong Un is conducting economic reforms. How would you assess the country’s economic position?
Cheong Seong-chang: After the sixth nuclear test, and after the launch of the third ICBM in November 2017 it suffered a major blow. I was near the new Tumen river bridge in 2017 and saw many vehicles moving across it. However, after the sixth test, in October, when I was there, there was just one crossing the river in 10 minutes.
It was a major change. After these two tests, China stopped 90% of its oil exports to the North. The economy had to react to this.
Of course, the sanctions now are not unbearable, but as the time passes by, they may become harder and harder to handle. This is why Kim Jong Un changes his policy line and pursues talks with the United States. If the agreement will be negotiated during the economic decline of North Kore, their negotiation position will be weaker.
NK News: In a previous interview, you said that if the DPRK conducted a satellite launch, it may lead to a war. Is there a chance this could still happen?
Cheong Seong-chang: Yes, the DPRK said that they had a plan to launch a satellite on September 9 to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the state. However, given the current atmosphere of dialogue, they will have to abandon this plan. Currently the chance that they will actually launch it is very low.
NK News: What do you think is the chance of a war breaking out here in Korea?
Cheong Seong-chang: It is never zero, but given this detente atmosphere, the probability of an armed conflict is very low. Even if something arises here, the possibility of the situation escalating into a full scale war is nearly non-existent.
However, in the future there may be a more hawkish president in South Korea and the inter-Korean relations may worsen again. Currently this is very unlikely.
NK News: And the final question. What do you think is the most dangerous of all potential scenarios? Thee one which we really should avoid?
Cheong Seong-chang: Well, this would probably be if North Korea makes some promises on denuclearization, but inspections would find that they are not keeping them.
For example, the DPRK has lot of underground facilities, and the United States may demand access to one of them, suspecting them to be related to the nuclear program.
But, if one of these would be, let’s say, the country’s Supreme Command, the DPRK may decline the request. Currently dialogue with the North appears to go smoothly, but such a probability should not be dismissed.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
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