North Korea may request the international community to recognize the Korean peninsula as a neutral state in return for complete denuclearization, head of the Stockholm Korea Center at the Institute for Security & Development Policy (ISDP) Lee Sang-soo said in a recent interview with NK News.
What Pyongyang wants from the Trump administration is security guarantees for the regime, and a formal end to the Korean War could be a means to achieve this goal, Lee said, adding it could serve as a first step to facilitate current nuclear negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea.
And despite Washington’s promises of economic prosperity in exchange for the abandonment of its nuclear program, he said Pyongyang is unlikely to accept broad financial support as it is aware of negative ramifications of reform and opening up on its political system.
Using his Swedish passport, Lee has traveled to North Korea twice a year since 2015 – most recently in May – and held meetings with North Korean officials during track 1.5 talks.
In a wide-ranging interview in Seoul, he shared his thoughts on various pending issues including ways to facilitate DPRK-U.S. nuclear talks, a recent trip to Pyongyang, and Sweden’s role in finding a diplomatic path to peace in Korea.
This interview has been translated as well as edited and condensed for clarity and readability
NK News: With regard to Pyongyang’s demand for ‘action for action,’ what kind of compensation can the Trump administration offer in return for measures that North Korea might take at the first stage of negotiations?
Lee Sang-soo: I agree with many people’s suggestion of a declaration ending the Korean War: the U.S. can offer it as the first stage of a long-term process to provide security guarantees for the North Korean regime.
Pyongyang would welcome it, too. When U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to North Korea, it seems that Pyongyang requested an end-of-war declaration. But the U.S. could not provide it immediately due to public opinion and the domestic political situation. North Korea expressed a considerable amount of discontent over the matter following the talks.
There is no mutual trust and North Korea is under the apprehension that the Trump administration might change its stance after the midterm elections. Therefore, Pyongyang is likely to strive to declare an end to the war at the earliest possible time. It hopes to achieve the goal before it takes action on denuclearization, or at the same time at least.
NK News: Some argue that North Korea developed nuclear weapons with the purpose of discarding them. Do you agree with the assertion?
Lee Sang-soo: North Korea values nuclear weapons and understands their value more than anyone else: the country is aware that it might not exist without nuclear arsenals. But there is a possibility that Pyongyang will discard them, but only when tremendous rewards are guaranteed.
It’s a complex matter.
NK News: But what could be an example of the “compensation” North Korea could ask for?
Lee Sang-soo: My personal opinion is that North Korea will make a request to recognize the Korean peninsula as a neutral state — which holds a neutral position between China-U.S. relations — while persuading South Korea. I’ve read a lot of papers written by previous visiting researchers, who were from the DPRK Foreign Ministry, at the Institute for Security & Development Policy (ISDP).
The conclusion of the papers is that the goal is to realize a neutral and unified Korean peninsula, which possess nuclear weapons and maintain its independence between China and the U.S., describing it as the most ideal scenario.
“There is no mutual trust and North Korea is under the apprehension that the Trump administration might change its stance after the midterm elections”
I don’t think it makes sense now if North Korea seeks the unification of the Korean peninsula and recognition as a neutral state without giving up its nuclear arsenal.
I think Pyongyang still considers it as a way that regime security can be guaranteed ultimately and safely, despite there being the option of establishing diplomatic ties.
Some raised the possibility of North Korea establishing a military alliance with the U.S. But it seems impossible due to North Korea’s political system and dictatorship. Instead, it can make the request to recognize North and South Korea respectively as the neutral state even before the unification.
NK News: The U.S. has said that North Korea can achieve economic prosperity in return for its achievement of the complete denuclearization. But first vice-minister of the DPRK Foreign Affairs Kim Kye Gwan dismissed the U.S. claims, saying the country has never had any expectation of U.S. support and will not make such a deal in future. Does Pyongyang want economic compensation?
Lee Sang-soo: Kim Jong Un pursues the goal of having a normal state and being a normal leader, and wants the end of hostile policies toward the country and the declaration of an end to the war to achieve the goal.
Kim Jong Un believes that North Korea can change into the normal state and asks the international community to treat it as the normal state. Therefore, North Korea will be unlikely to want broad economic supports despite it can demand the ease or lift of sanctions.
South Korea, China, and the U.S. have referred to the national economic development. Washington, especially, promises to turn North Korea into Vietnam or South Korea.
But this is not consistent with the theory of the North Korean regime. And it isn’t an appropriate way to persuade people if we say the regime can abandon its nuclear forces — which described as “powerful treasured sword” and has been developed with hard efforts — for money.
Pyongyang doesn’t want economic support: it is well-aware of the burden and threats the regime would face if there is a sudden economic cooperation, investment, and support.
So, it will take a cautious approach in terms of economic support and market opening.
NK News: So the regime understands that market opening could be accompanied by political instability and the risk?
Lee Sang-soo: North Korea is aware of this, and I believe the country will pursue economic opening and development based on the concept of the self-reliant economy, which prioritize the manufacture of domestic products for the home market and the improvement in technology, rather than adopting the Chinese or Vietnamese models.
Even though the country accepts support, I believe it wants the transfer of technology and know-how and training which it doesn’t have. Technical skills are what Pyongyang wants very much. But the country’s strategy is to establish its economic structure in its own way based on technology transfer rather than to allow foreign companies to construct buildings, for example.
Secondly, North Korea will likely to seek a model for economic development on the basis of multilateral investment involving China, South Korea among others, avoiding the model of depending on one sole country.
Thirdly, Pyongyang will attract a foreign investment but the scope will be limited to special economic zones (SEZ). But my view is that it will open special tourist zones like the now-shuttered Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) at the first stage to earn foreign currency and income.
It seems North Korea plans to open a number of special tourist zones including one at Mount Paektu. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s experience of studying abroad in Switzerland may affect that decision.
Though I wasn’t unable to witness substantial economic development when I visited Pyongyang, one thing I did notice is that the country has a lot of confidence in its national economy despite international sanctions. Whenever I met North Korean officials, they were confident in developing the economy in their own way.
“The North Korean nuclear issue is a very urgent matter for the Trump administration”
One official said it was difficult to the achieve the success of the self-reliant economy and the technology improvement due to sanctions. But they believe it’s nothing serious.
NK News: A statement by the DPRK foreign ministry issued right after two-days of working-level talks in Pyongyang explicitly showed the discrepancy in opinions between the two sides. How can we minimize conflicting views in the short term to proceed with nuclear negotiation without any setbacks?
Lee Sang-soo: The North Korean nuclear issue is a very urgent matter for the Trump administration, considering the 2018 midterm elections and other upcoming political events and public opinion.
Kim Jong Un has power permanently, and Washington wants to swiftly drive North Korea to achieve denuclearization.
As these factors are intricately connected: I believe it is the Trump administration who should change its pace.
My view is that Pyongyang will start to take action only when the U.S. makes a declaration of the end to the war first.
If Washington can make public a declaration of the end to the war on the occasion of the anniversary of the armistice agreement or before the midterm election, then Pyongyang will take specific measures towards denuclearization.
NK News: It was believed that the Trump administration hoped that Pyongyang would achieve complete denuclearization within two or three years, considering his intention to run for re-election in 2020. But there has been an apparent change in the U.S. rhetoric. Why did President Trump backtrack on his plans and say there is “no time limit” on the process?
Lee Sang-soo: First of all, I think the Trump administration overestimated the situation. Then, it adjusted the timetable after becoming aware that North Korea wouldn’t abandon its nuclear weapons unconditionally.
If there is no progress before the November midterm elections as the administration has said, it could lead to very crippling and negative consequences.
I think the Trump administration has changed its strategy considering public opinion, believing that minor achievements can have a positive effect on the midterm elections if it tones down the public expectations. The higher the expectation, the greater the disappointment. In one word, Washington fails to fully understand the reality of the situation.
“The higher the expectation, the greater the disappointment”
NK News: Sweden has in the past contributed to alleviating tensions on the Korean peninsula as the location of track 1.5 and 2 dialogue. What is the country’s role in facilitating nuclear negotiations?
Lee Sang-soo: The Swedish government and many Swedish institutes prefer a low-key approach and playing the role of facilitator discreetly behind the scenes rather than taking the lead.
The ruling Swedish Social Democratic Party intends to play the role of a middleman to resolve the conflict of various countries with interest. The party has put the issue of the Korean peninsula on the front burner and hopes to play the role of mediator and facilitator.
Social Democratic politician Kent Härstedt visited Pyongyang in June and last December. And during his visit to North Korea last year, Kent invited DPRK foreign minister Ri Yong Ho, vice-minister Han Song Ryol, and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the DPRK Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) Ri Su Yong to Sweden.
Han traveled to Stockholm in late January and Ri Yong Ho held the meeting with Minister for Foreign Affairs Margot Wallström. I came across the rumor that both sides held a serious discussion on the U.S. detainees in North Korea and Sweden contacted the U.S. simultaneously.
Sweden also pushed for Ri Su Yong to visit Stockholm, but it was canceled, possibly, due to its overlap with the inter-Korean summit on April 27.
But Sweden’s arbitration between North Korea and the U.S. hasn’t been completely suspended. As South Korea takes the initiative in playing the role of mediator, the Swedish side needs to change its direction for a while. And I believe Stockholm will seek its role as the mediator when there is an opportunity.
But from the long-term perspective, North Korean issues can’t be resolved with the sole presence of the facilitator due to its complexity. And therefore, someone should actively play the role of mediator.
Sweden’s role, in that regard, is greatly important.
NK News: During your visit to Pyongyang following the inter-Korean summit, how did North Korean officials view the results of the first meeting between ROK President Moon Jae-in and DPRK leader Kim Jong Un?
Lee Sang-soo: When I visited the country after the inter-Korean summit, I could see the atmosphere was improving. During my meeting with officials from the DPRK foreign ministry, they described the situation as a historic beginning.
The officials made a very positive assessment of South Korea and inter-Korean relations. Whenever I went to a store or a restaurant, a TV program on the summit and the Panmunjom Declaration was aired continuously.
“When I visited the country after the inter-Korean summit, I could see the atmosphere was improving”
NK News: What is the biggest difference in their perception of the Moon and Trump administration? Do you agree with the argument that North Korea trusts Seoul more than Washington?
Lee Sang-soo: The U.S. is North Korea’s main target for negotiations, while South Korea can be considered valuable in helping with negotiations.
South Korea can raise issues that Pyongyang has difficulties directly discussing with the U.S. The lifting of sanctions and internal difficulties in the economic field are examples of this.
Seoul can manage the situation as a mediator when DPRK-U.S. negotiations aren’t going well: Pyongyang has trust in South Korea in that sense.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: Joint Inter-Korean Summit Press Corps
Join the influential community of members who rely on NK News original news and in-depth reporting.
Subscribe to read the remaining 2320 words of this article.