North Korea’s invitation to President Moon Jae-in to visit Pyongyang for a summit with Kim Jong-un was not unexpected. North Korea seized the opportunity to attend the Winter Olympics in South Korea as part of a unified Korea Team. Sending the leader’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, to accompany the North’s nominal head of state, Kim Yong-nam, was a gracious gesture to the South and a masterful political decision. Kim Yo-jong captured the attention of the South Korean media and carried herself very well — smiling, attentive and modest.
The year 2017 was a good year for Kim Jong-un. With 25 missile launches, to include an Intercontinental Missile capable of reaching the whole of the U.S. and a nuclear test of a claimed hydrogen bomb, North Korea now claims to have nuclear weapons that could threaten the whole of the U.S. This is the North’s so-called nuclear deterrent
Achieving this nuclear deterrent capability was costly, however. The sanctions imposed by the United Nations and the U.S. were brutal, affecting North Korea’s ability to accrue the revenue, primarily through illicit means, to sustain its nuclear and missile programs. Moreover, these and previous sanctions were being implemented, even by North Korea’s allies, China and Russia.
So, a more isolated North Korea, very concerned about the joint military exercises and the introduction of strategic military assets in these exercises, decided to change tack and reach out to South Korea. And the Winter Olympics provided the perfect opportunity to relieve the pressure, while the North could still pursue its goal of being accepted as a nuclear weapons state.
Credit has to go the South Korea, with critical U.S. support, for its willingness to invite North Korea to the Olympics as participants in a joint Korea Team, despite understanding that Kim Jong-un’s decision to reach out to the South was to relieve some of the pressure North Korea was experiencing and, possibly, to put a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea, something the North has been pursing since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
The invitation to President Moon to visit Pyongyang for a summit with Kim Jong-un is an opportunity, if it’s handled properly. The two previous summits of South Korean leaders with Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, in 2000 with President Kim Dae-jung and 2007 with President Roh Moo-hyun, were not successful. The excitement in the South during those two summits was dashed when North Korea continued with its nuclear and missile programs and its egregious human rights abuses.
A summit in 2018 could be productive if in addition to bilateral humanitarian issues (reuniting separated families), issues dealing with the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula are also discussed.
In that context, President Moon could mention the September 2005 Joint Statement that Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, signed, committing North Korea to the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of its nuclear programs, in exchange for security assurances, a peace treaty, economic development assistance and the provision of civilian Light Water Reactors when North Korea returned to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapons state.
Six years of hard negotiations, to include initial efforts at the actual dismantlement of North Korea’s Plutonium reactor at Yongbyon, with DOE monitors on site to observe the dismantlement, were invested in this Joint Statement. The process ended in 2009 when North Korea refused to sign a protocol to permit monitors to inspect suspect nuclear sites outside of the Yongbyon complex.
Ideally, the subject of reconstituting the Six Party Talks process, that includes the U.S., South Korea, Japan, Russia and China, the host, should also be discussed. In short, a summit that includes these critical bilateral and multilateral issues could be productive, especially at this critical juncture with North Korea.
If this is truly a summit, then President Moon and Kim Jong-un can discuss any issue of their choosing. Any effort on the part of the North not to permit any discussion of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula should, in my view, be a show stopper. The nuclear issue is an integral part of issues that divide the two Koreas. And any meaningful follow-on discussion of the nuclear issue eventually must also include, at a minimum, the U.S., Japan, China and Russia. In short, Kim Jong-un should not be permitted to dictate the agenda for the summit, which should include the denuclearization issue.
In preparation for the summit and as South Korea engages with the North, and consults with the U.S., on issues dealing with the proposed summit, the planned military exercises should proceed, as should the diligent implementation of the sanctions imposed on North Korea. Once the summit commences, then issues dealing with the joint military exercises obviously will be handled in line with prior agreements established between South and North Korea.
A summit between South and North Korea, if handled well, could be the beginning of a dialogue that eventually brings peace to a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.
• Joseph R. DeTrani was the former special envoy for negotiations with North Korea. The views are the authors and not any government agency or department.
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