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View more articles by Dagyum Ji
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appears to be considering “Plan B” for future nuclear negotiations amid a months-long diplomatic impasse, former ROK Permanent Representative to the UN Kim Sook said in a recent interview with NK News, warning that the Moon Jae-in administration must be prepared.
“So, I think we have to prepare our own Plan B. I think there are two possibilities for our Plan B,” Kim said, adding that these two Plan Bs would be “polar opposites.”
The South Korean diplomat, who also served as the country’s chief nuclear envoy and the counterpart of North Korea’s Kim Kye Gwan and the U.S.’s Christopher Hill, said the “fundamental reason” for the current nuclear negotiation deadlock is Kim Jong Un’s lack of will to abandon his nuclear weapons.
However, Kim Sook said the international community should “keep the current amount of pressure” on the North Korean leader, warning that sanctions relief should not be considered at this point in time.
“We will not get satisfactory results in the short-term,” the veteran diplomat said. “We need to be strategic and stick it out for the long haul.”
In a wide-ranging interview on the sidelines of the Jeju Forum last month, Kim Sook discussed ways to break the stalemate, prospects for nuclear negotiations, and the effectiveness of a top-down approach to diplomacy.
“I envied the top-down approach when I was the chief negotiator in 2008 for the South Korean side at the six-party talks because I was very much disappointed and frustrated by the way the North Koreans were negotiating.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and readability
NK News: What do you think Kim Jong Un would most like to gain from denuclearization negotiations?
Kim Sook: His strategic objective is paradoxical: he wants to continue strengthening his nuclear capabilities and be recognized by the international community as a nuclear power, while at the same time he wants to get economic assistance from the outside world.
It’s a tough situation. His objective of maintaining nuclear weapons while receiving recognition as a regular country from the international community is very difficult.
NK News: One of Kim’s goals is to gain recognition as a nuclear state, but there are various ways that Pyongyang can go about this. Former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho said the DPRK wants the Pakistani model, but what do you think?
Kim Sook: Whether Kim Jong Un pursues the Pakistani model or others is not the most important thing here.
But as for the Pakistani model, Pakistan currently possesses about 100 warheads or nuclear weapons, and I think that is, among other things, something Kim Jong Un would also like to achieve. And he may wish to deploy these nuclear weapons on the field – towards South Korea, towards Japan, or towards the United States.
NK News: There could be many reasons why nuclear negotiations have reached a stalemate, including Kim Jong Un’s pursuit of two goals that cannot both be achieved. What do you think is the fundamental cause of the current deadlock?
Kim Sook: The reason why recent negotiations have not resulted in any tangible progress is not the fault of the U.S. or international side, but of the North Korean side.
The fundamental reason for this failure is that Kim Jong Un is not willing to give up his weapons. Our objective is to force him to give up these weapons. We still need to find out what the most effective way of pressuring North Korea is, like we did eleven years ago on the Banco Delta Asia case and so on.
“Kim Jong Un is not willing to give up his weapons”
NK News: What are some potentially effective ways to put pressure on North Korea and the country’s leader?
Kim Sook: Well, I think we are on the right track. We first put pressure on with economic sanctions, and then the next step would be more massive pressure in other areas, short of military pressure.
So that’s why we need not consider the lessening or lifting of sanctions as of now. We need to maintain our current path of pressuring North Korea until they show some sincerity and take action towards denuclearization.
NK News: Kim Jong Un has reportedly expressed his commitment to achieving the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula if the security of his country is guaranteed. Are you skeptical about the genuineness of his claim?
Kim Sook: Over the last 12 months or so we have learned that there is a big gap in understanding of the definition of denuclearization. We maintain it means CVID or FFVD, but North Korea wants to turn this into an arms reduction of both North Korea and the U.S., and also turn Northeast Asia into a nuclear-free zone.
This is a big, serious gap that cannot be filled, for the time being. It shows how reluctant Kim Jong Un is to give up his nuclear weapons.
The Hanoi summit broke down because he wanted to only give up future nuclear weapons while retaining past and present nuclear weapons. In short, I would summarize his position as, “okay, we agree on denuclearization, but we’ll keep what we have right now.”
NK News: Do you think that the disagreement between North Korea and the U.S. over the definition of the denuclearization stems from the fact that negotiating parties adhere to the top-down approach?
Kim Sook: I don’t agree with that assessment, based on the September 19th agreement made during the sixty-party talks in 2005: during these, the North Koreans insisted on the wording ‘the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.’ From then on they mixed the concept of denuclearization with South Korea, the Korea-U.S. alliance, and U.S. troops in South Korea. So I don’t think the top-down nature of recent negotiations has caused the differing definitions of denuclearization.
“I envied the top-down approach when I was the chief negotiator in 2008”
NK News: Do you agree that a top-down approach or summit driven approach is an effective way to achieve the goal of the complete denuclearization of the peninsula?
Kim Sook: Well, actually I envied the top-down approach when I was the chief negotiator in 2008 for the South Korean side at the six-party talks, because I was very much disappointed and frustrated by the way the North Koreans were negotiating, especially North Korean chief negotiator Kim Kye Gwan.
At the time I thought, “we need those at the top to be engaged in order to make some kind of breakthrough.” But we have seen the weaknesses of the top-down approach in the recent negotiations.
Top-down is okay and sometimes advisable, but on one condition: it should be supported by the working level process as well. Top-down negotiation supported by the working level officials. This is ideal.
NK News: Is there any way that the U.S. and North Korea can break the deadlock? Or are you skeptical about the chances of unraveling the current stalemate?
Kim Sook: The deadlock is not the result of a lack of strategy, it is because, as I have said earlier, of the lack of will on the part of Kim Jong Un. So how do we force him to accept a negotiated solution and give up his nuclear weapons?
For the time being, put pressure on him and play the long game. We will not get satisfactory results in the short-term. We need to be strategic and stick it out for the long haul, keep the current amount of pressure, and keep the economic sanctions for the time being.
NK News: Have you considered the possibility that the situation on the Korean peninsula could be worse than in the past if North Korea engages in a game of chicken under this increasing pressure?
Kim Sook: Yes, I have. I think North Korea is considering Plan B. I suspected this when Kim Jong Un went to Vladivostok to meet with President Putin, even though it seems that he did not get the result he wanted.
So, I think we have to prepare our own Plan B. I think there are two possibilities for our Plan B, two versions that are polar opposites. One is to lower your expectations and agree with North Korea on an interim agreement, accepting most of North Korea’s positions. That is one Plan B.
The other is to put on more pressure, more than we currently are. I’m a little pessimistic about the short-term prospects of the current situation.
“I think from now on, we have to fasten our seatbelts”
I’m quite skeptical about seeing a third round of summit meetings between the U.S. and North Korea being realized within this year. And Kim Jong Un set the deadline of negotiation until the end of this year, around about when he gave his speech at the Supreme People’s Assembly on April 12.
So he is slowly preparing for coming events – you can call this his Plan B or whatever. I think the situation is more likely to get worse than better. And if things worsen in the future, it will be quite similar or worse than the way things were in 2017.
We’ve recently seen the repeat of a certain kind of cycle – for example, in 2013 and 2014, there was one year of tension followed by a year of negotiation and dialogue. 2017 was a very tense year, due to both rhetoric and real-world actions taken.
Last year, 2018, was full of hope for a brighter future, with the prospect of inter-Korean relations and the resolution of the nuclear situation in North Korea. This year is in-between. I think from now on, we have to fasten our seatbelts.
NK News: Could you elaborate on your comment about Kim Jong Un looking for new ways forward through his meeting with Putin?
Kim Sook: Well, after being frustrated with dealing with the U.S., he might have thought he should seek some assistance from traditional friends and allies so that he could get some strong backing for his negotiation stances. This is what I mean when I refer to Kim Jong Un considering his future options.
NK News: Can we put all this in the context of when the North Korean leader that his country “may be compelled to find a new way for defending the sovereignty of the country and the supreme interests of the state” in his New Year’s speech?
Kim Sook: Yes, I would say so.
NK News: Inter-Korean relations have been going through a cooling-off period after the breakdown of the second DPRK-U.S. summit. Do you see any room for the Moon Jae-in government to play a role in nuclear negotiations?
Kim Sook: If the South Korean government wants to play some sort of constructive role, then it needs to find a middle ground the space between the U.S. and North Korean positions.
But their positions are very far apart, and, quite frankly, since there is very little chance that both sides can reconcile, I don’t think the South Korean government has much chance of bringing them to this middle ground.
“There is little room for the South Korean government to play the role of mediator”
NK News: How can Seoul overcome these obstacles and strengthen its strategic position in nuclear negotiations? For example, Seoul could strengthen its position by resuming inter-Korean economic cooperation.
Kim Sook: That contradicts the U.S. policy that, until the world sees substantial progress on the denuclearization front, nothing will happen in terms of relieving sanctions and economic cooperation or assistance. You can ask government officials and they might have quite a different answer.
But if you ask me, I’m not that optimistic about what the South Korean government can do. If the South Korean government make a mistake, then they will lose credit from their ally, and they will also be dismissed by the North Koreans as well. That’s why I think there is little room for the South Korean government to play the role of mediator.
NK News: There were some signals showing Washington’s distrust of Seoul: during his visit to Blue House in May, U.S. Special Representative on North Korea Stephen Biegun did not meet with Chung Eui-yong.
Do you think there could be a lack of trust in Seoul as a result of Washington’s disappointment with the South Korean government’s role as mediator?
Kim Sook: Quite simply, there is a difference in the strategies of the U.S. and South Korea. South Korea’s priority was inter-Korean relations and economic cooperation, the U.S.’s priority was denuclearization. This difference in strategic goals makes it difficult for the two allies to work together closely.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: Korean Central News Agency (KCNA)