That is the phrase that senior South Korean officials are using for what they hope to see resulting from coming summits, which they now envisage as involving, after the North Korea-US meeting, a tri-partite summit between the two Koreas and the US, in turn to be followed by a four-party summit of those three plus China. But where’s Japan? And do we really expect North Korea to give up its nuclear missiles, acquired at such a cost in resources? If so, in return for what benefits and assurances? And what would it ask the US to do in the cause of “denuclearisation”? Even if both the US and North Korea are thinking of a “grand bargain”, are their concepts of it compatible?
The astonishing series of events to do with the Korean Peninsula that began with the Winter Olympics has reached its most unlikely high point yet, with Kim Jong Un applauding South Korean K-Pop stars performing in Pyongyang. Events before – Kim’s meeting with Xi – and to come – his meetings with Moon and Trump – have had and will have more substance of an accustomed kind, but the videos and photos of his and his family’s welcome of the South Korean performers could not form a more astounding contrast to the shots of Kim at nuclear tests and missile launches that we have all become accustomed to. On 30 March, after high-level talks between South and North Korean officials, Ri Son-kwon, chairman of North Korea’s reunification committee, said that “many theoretical things that had never existed before in inter-Korean relations have taken place in the last 80 days”.
What factors have made such a remarkable turn of events possible? White House officials give the credit to the recently tightened sanctions regime, and that certainly seems logical. After all, the two official policy goals of the Kim regime are to master nuclear weapons and to provide North Korea with a strong economy. Both are made much more difficult by the sanctions, so diplomatic moves with the eventual aim of having the sanctions lifted make sense.
But the moves – declaring willingness to meet with Trump, visiting Beijing and now hosting South Korean K-Pop musicians – are so major in the context of the former frozen and even threatening state of affairs on the peninsula that I think some credit must certainly go to the South Korean administration of President Moon. Some aspects of the welcome given to the North’s participants, delegation, and very senior representatives to the Pyeongchang Games must have struck a chord or chords, and encouraged the North, and Kim in particular, to embark on his series of mold-shattering moves.
(It’s also worth remembering that some Korea-watchers have commented that the North has a deserved reputation for playing weak hands well.)
Once the offer of talks with Trump had been made and accepted, the rationale for Kim’s visit to President Xi in Beijing was clear enough. From Kim’s side, it showed that North Korea is not alone, and indeed is on friendly terms with the regional super-power. From Xi’s side, it emphasised that China has not been dealt out of the regional diplomatic game suddenly being played at such a high speed. But what did the visit produce?
We don’t know whether Xi gave Kim any assurances, for example about clandestine economic support, efforts to have the sanctions lifted, or military support in a “last resort” situation. Nor do we know what Kim might have said to Xi about his bottom lines on nuclear and missile weaponry. However, we do know that “denuclearisation” featured prominently in public statements and accounts that emerged after the meeting, as it apparently had in Kim’s message to Trump via the South Korean intermediaries.
This was certainly very surprising, since most North Korea watchers, including me, had come to the conclusion that, after investing such a huge proportion of its national resources in acquiring credible nuclear weapons and means of delivering them, North Korea would never give them up. Indeed amendments to the preamble of the North Korean Constitution made in 2012 are widely interpreted as referring to North Korea as a “nuclear-armed country” (although there are less specific translations, simply “nuclear”, for example).
So what happened? One has to conclude that the sanctions have indeed had a significant effect. US shows of naval and air power around the Korean peninsula may have also contributed. And perhaps the advocacy of South Korea, China and other interlocutors such as Sweden was more influential than beforehand seemed likely.
At any rate, Kim said in Beijing that denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula would be in line with the wishes of his late predecessors, and he was ready to discuss it. So we come to the semantic question, “what does he mean by denuclearisation”? It seems highly probably that he means denuclearisation of the whole Korean peninsula, and how he and others interpret that and its ramifications will determine what progress can be made.
A formula which emerged from the Beijing meeting, “the gradual and simultaneous implementation of peace and denuclearisation”, has been the subject of debate in South Korea, with some questioning whether it is compatible with the South’s goals of denuclearisation, peace, and the development of inter-Korean relations. However a senior Blue House (South Korean Presidency) official has denied that it represents a problem, saying that “the Blue House believes that, since the issues of denuclearisation and a security guarantee for the North Korean regime are inextricably tied together, they will ultimately have to be resolved in stages, even if North Korea and the US reach a sweeping agreement about them. For this reason, Kim’s remarks about “gradual and simultaneous denuclearisation” do not clash with President Moon’s plan for denuclearisation and a peace treaty.”
There are any number of possible outcomes from the coming meetings. A minimum positive outcome could involve a verified freeze on North Korean nuclear activity and cessation of missile launches in return for significant easing or removal of sanctions and a reduction in the US-ROK military exercises that cause such a neuralgic reaction in the North.
But such an outcome would scarcely respond to President Moon’s emphasis on peace and inter-Korean relations. One can certainly see the theoretical possibility of a “grand bargain” involving North Korean denuclearisation in return for a peace treaty and security guarantees. As the South Korean official said, this would not happen quickly (and might not happen at all if the US reneges on the nuclear agreement with Iran). But it seems very likely that North Korea would also want such a bargain to involve a reduction in the US military presence and capability on the peninsula, some “denuclearisation” on the US side as well. It’s not easy to see agreement on that. There are no US nuclear warheads in South Korea, so there aren’t any to remove. And one would expect the US to be most reluctant to see the withdrawal of its conventional armed forces from South Korea, though one would also expect North Korea to seek it (and some of Trump’s earlier rhetoric about allies, their inadequate contributions and the burdens thus placed on the US can be seen as making a US withdrawal not inconceivable). The fact is that whatever forces are withdrawn from South Korea the US, through its naval and air power, will always in be able to pose a nuclear threat to North Korea. If negotiations get to this stage it will be fascinating to see what emerges.
Geoff Miller is a former Australian diplomat and Ambassador to South Korea.