World News

Trump and Kim May Define ‘Korea Denuclearization’ Quite Differently

Posted June 9, 2018 6:28 p.m. EDT

When President Donald Trump meets Kim Jong Un, the first face-to-face encounter between leaders of the United States and North Korea after nearly seven decades of hostility, they will talk about denuclearization and maybe even a peace treaty.

What do those terms mean? Are they even defined the same way by everyone? Which one would happen first and why is the sequence important?

The mistrust between North Korea and the United States, mixed with the unpredictability of their leaders, has made the diplomacy behind the summit in Singapore on Tuesday especially complex.

“It’s pretty clear that there is a strong inclination by both leaders to have a good show, a good PR opportunity, and this is where it gets risky and dangerous,” Duyeon Kim, a senior research fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum, told a panel discussion at the Heritage Foundation in Washington this past week. “My concern is that the two leaders — especially Trump — would want to declare peace, because it sounds good and it’s historic and unprecedented.”

Here is a look at some of the basic issues behind the terminology of the summit:

What exactly is meant by ‘denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula’?

The dictionary definition of denuclearization is the removal and prohibition of nuclear weapons. But whether denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula means the same thing to Trump and Kim goes to the crux of their meeting and could ultimately shape its success or failure.

Trump said in a Twitter message in late April that Kim had made a huge concession by agreeing to unilateral denuclearization in a meeting with South Korean emissaries.

Many North Korea experts said Kim did no such thing, and Trump has since tempered his public expectations. But the confusion over denuclearization’s meaning has not been resolved.

Disarmament experts say the confusion is at least partly traceable to how the United States historically has defined denuclearization in the context of the Korean conflict.

The U.S. military deployed nuclear weapons in South Korea in the aftermath of the 1950-53 Korean War, but withdrew them in the early 1990s, part of an attempt to persuade North Korea to allow nuclear inspections. The U.S. definition of denuclearization has since referred to the demand that North Korea relinquish its nuclear arms capabilities, making the entire peninsula nuclear-free.

In the view of Trump’s national security adviser, John R. Bolton, North Korea’s denuclearization would include much more, applying also to ballistic missiles, chemical and biological weapons, the means to produce them, and verifiable ways to ensure North Korea is not hiding anything.

North Korea’s use of the term, on the other hand, has never explicitly applied to its own weapons. Disarmament experts say North Korea has used denuclearization to refer to what it views as the U.S. military’s strategic capability to strike North Korea with nuclear weapons from afar, and to the U.S. protection of South Korea and Japan under a nuclear umbrella from bases in the Pacific.

Evans J.R. Revere, a former State Department diplomat who specializes in North Korea, said that to Kim and his subordinates, denuclearization “means the removal of the threat, as they define it.”

In Revere’s view, that has created a dangerous basis for misunderstanding, perpetuated in part by South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, who has been eager for the Trump-Kim summit to succeed. Moon has told Trump that the North Koreans are showing more flexibility now.

“The mantra has been that the North Korean leader has committed himself to denuclearization,” Revere said. “There’s an element of wishful thinking, an excess of optimism, and maybe even a misjudgment.”

Why has North Korea insisted first on a peace treaty with the U.S.?

North Korea has long demanded a permanent agreement that would supersede the temporary 1953 armistice that halted but did not formally end the Korean War, which basically pitted an alliance of the United States and South Korea against an alliance of China and North Korea. By some estimates, 5 million soldiers and civilians died in the conflict.

In the North’s view, a formal peace treaty with the United States would help to ensure that the Americans do not attack and topple the government. A U.S.-led military assault always has been the fear of North Korea’s ruling Kim family and a prime justification for what North Korea’s state media has called its nuclear “treasured sword of justice.”

A peace treaty also would put pressure on the United States to withdraw its military presence from South Korea, which is exactly what the North Koreans want — especially if the denuclearization issue can be negotiated later.

“If you end the state of hostilities, then questions start to arise. Why do we have forces there? Why do we have a missile defense? How does it impact our relationship with South Korea and Japan?” said Victor D. Cha, a Georgetown University expert on North Korea. “We all think peace is a good thing, but peace is more complicated than you think.”

Cha, whose nomination to be ambassador to South Korea was aborted after he criticized the Trump administration’s North Korea policy, said a peace treaty before denuclearization would be a tremendous victory for the North Koreans: “They would basically see that as accepting them as a nuclear weapons state.”

Would Trump seek a peace treaty with Kim?

U.S. officials, including Trump’s top aides, have contended that a peace treaty cannot be discussed until the North denuclearizes, among other conditions. In a further complication, China, a signer of the armistice, could assert that it has rights to be part of any peace treaty discussion.

But Trump has relished his role as an unconventional president, raising the possibility he would dangle the prospect of a peace treaty to Kim. For both leaders, who less than a year ago threatened each other’s country with nuclear annihilation, there are compelling reasons to talk peace.

Trump, who has basked in the positive publicity over the summit, needs to show he accomplished something with North Korea — especially if it is an outcome that had eluded previous presidents.

Kim, whose isolated country needs relief from the punitive economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations, also has raised expectations of progress to his home audience.

What is North Korea’s incentive to relinquish its nuclear weapons?

This is the question that skeptics of North Korea’s sincerity constantly raise. In their view, Kim’s diplomatic outreaches to South Korea and the United States, the precursors to the summit, are part of a beguiling ploy to gain strategic leverage over both. For that reason, they say even talking about a peace treaty is dangerously premature.

“A peace treaty sounds very nice, but when you think about it, a peace treaty can be a canard or a ruse between hostile parties,” said Sung-Yoon Lee, a Korea scholar at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

He cited as a historical example the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 between Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany, in which both pledged not to attack each other, right before the outbreak of World War II.

Even if the North Koreans do not expect a peace treaty anytime soon, Lee said, they see an advantage in entering negotiations that would make North Korea’s status as a nuclear-armed state a “fait accompli.”

What about negotiating denuclearization and a peace treaty at the same time?

That is a possible area of discussion at the summit, which some analysts said could yield a joint declaration of progress even without a peace treaty.

“We have to think about a spectrum of peace outcomes,” Cha said. While a peace treaty could come in the future, he said, “short of that is some sort of peace declaration — not a treaty, but a political statement, with the United States and North Korea expressing an intent to end hostilities.”

Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor and a diplomat who has negotiated with North Korea many times, said the United States might offer North Korea security guarantees and a reduced military presence in South Korea, in return for verifiable steps taken by the North to disarm over a period of perhaps two to three years.

As for a peace agreement that could replace the armistice, Richardson said it would be a mistake for Trump to offer that now.

“A peace agreement indicates a signal to the North Koreans,” he said. “You hold that to the end.”