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Opinion on the latest North Korea issues from analysts, academics and experts worldwide. Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own.

Why a new North Korean statement on denuclearization should come as no surprise
Why a new North Korean statement on denuclearization should come as no surprise
Thursday's KCNA dispatch, put simply, represents a honest admission of Pyongyang's real intentions
December 20th, 2018

Month in Review

On Thursday, North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency dropped what appeared to be a bombshell commentary. The statement, seemingly, delivered a massive blow to the denuclearization dream, saying that North Korea will surrender its nuclear weapons only when and if U.S. forces and the nuclear umbrella is withdrawn from the Korean peninsula and the region.

The statement says clearly: “When we refer to the Korean peninsula, the term encompasses the area of DPRK plus South Korean territory where U.S. nuclear weapons and other forms of aggression forces are deployed.”

This statement might have come as a shock to the few remaining nuclear optimists, whose very existence has perplexed this author for the entire year of the supposed “great turn” by Pyongyang.

However, a more unbiased observer should not be surprised at all: North Korea has never had the slightest intention to surrender their nuclear weapons. They saw what happened in Iraq and, more importantly, in Libya, and have long believed that without nuclear weapons they will become vulnerable to both a foreign invasion and a local revolution supported from without (the latter scenario is, essentially, what happened in Libya in the last days of Gaddafi).

A more unbiased observer should not be surprised at all


In 2017 the North Korean government came to face a highly unusual double threat: a U.S. President who was seemingly willing to use military force, and a China which was willing to maintain a unified front with the U.S. and enforce a hitherto-unthinkably harsh sanctions policy.

This was not a pleasant situation, so in order to win time and break this unprecedented U.S.-China unity, the North Koreans made some concessions and aired some promises.

This was necessary to win time, and it worked: Donald Trump’s later decision to start a trade war with China also broke the unity of two giants.

kim il sung photo

2018 has seen Pyongyang tone down its sabre-rattling in lieu of diplomatic niceties – but this may not last | Photo by nknews_hq

Irritated by U.S. policy, Beijing relaxed sanctions implementation, and the North Korean leadership, cornered for nearly a year, once again escaped the trap – at least in part.

But a more careful look will show that even in the midst of that crisis, the North Koreans never made a clear commitment to denuclearization.

No matter what American observers wanted to hear, the actual wording of the so-called Singapore declaration was quite clear: it implied that both sides should “work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

This wording is not new: it has been present in North Korean documents for decades, always implying, above all, the withdrawal of the U.S. forces from the peninsula and the formal dissolution of the ROK-U.S. military alliance as a precondition.

In Singapore, the North Korean diplomats, brilliant as ever, managed to include this old formula, with all its well-known connotations, into the text of the official documents signed by the U.S. President.

The North Koreans never made a clear commitment to denuclearization


Now it is good time to remind ourselves what this formula stands for – and, indeed, the KCNA statement contains such a reminder.

It says: “The U.S. should recognize the meaning of the term ‘denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,’ and should especially get right to work studying geography.”

Well, indeed.

It also says: “When we refer to the ‘denuclearization of the Korean peninsula’ as well, it should be correctly understood as removing all nuclear threat factors from not only the North and the South but from all neighboring areas.”

In other words, the North Korean government is not going to surrender nuclear weapons as long as the U.S. remains present in the Korean peninsula as well as, perhaps, “all neighboring areas.”

That the U.S.’s tactical nuclear weapons were withdrawn from Korea a long time ago matters little. The North Koreans can always claim that some weapons are still secretly present there – or, as long as the U.S. has a network of bases in the region, that they can be shipped back clandestinely and within a very short period of time.

The statement says, essentially, that there will be no denuclearization as long as U.S. forces are present in the southern part of Korea. Of course, even if U.S. forces are withdrawn, it will hardly satisfy Pyongyang, who will insist that the U.S. presence in Japan makes denuclearization impossible. If they leave Japan, it will be Guam which becomes a problem, of course.

There is, of course, some logic to this position: since the U.S.’s nuclear capabilities are global in nature, no matter where nuclear weapons are deployed, they still constitute a potential threat for North Korea – and for the leadership the only way to counter this threat is to maintain its own nuclear potential.

Denuclearization is not going to happen, no matter what.

North Korea has greatly benefited from Trump’s naivety about its intentions | Photo: Kevin Lim/THE STRAITS TIMES.


However, this statement does not necessary mean that Pyongyang has decided to quit the denuclearization game it has been playing with such great skill recently, trying to win time and diffuse the dual threat from China and the U.S.

Sooner or later North Korea will openly resume its nuclear program, but right now the circumstances are just not ripe. The KCNA statement is much more likely to be a minor signal, rather than a major turning point.

There is one good reason why North Korea cannot afford to discard the denuclearization talk: Donald Trump is still in the White House.

Even now, with a measure of tacit Chinese support, North Korean leaders have to be careful. In recent months President Trump’s optimism (not quite sincere, perhaps) has been a major bulwark against the U.S. hard-liners, who form the vast majority of the Washington bureaucracy.

The KCNA statement is much more likely to be a minor signal, rather than a major turning point

If Trump changes his tune, and if he comes to realize that he has been deceived by the North Koreans, he might react in a very violent way. Perhaps he will even consider a military strike again – and this is not what Pyongyang wants.

So, one should not read too much into the KCNA statement, even though, arguably, it reflects the actual North Korean attitude better than any other statement in recent years.

The time for an open break (seemingly unavoidable in the long run) has not come yet, so the severe wording is merely a way to send a diplomatic signal, to make Americans more ready to make concessions, especially in regard to the sanctions – still taking their toll on the North Korean economy.

The North Koreans do not want Donald Trump to go ballistic, so to speak: no doubt the sweet talk will resume soon. However, the tough wording of the KCNA statement reflects the world view of the North Korean leaders far better than syrupy speeches of recent months.

Edited by Oliver Hotham

Featured image: KCNA

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