SEOUL — The White House is gearing up for President Trump to discuss denuclearization with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at their much anticipated summit next month. But what does “denuclearization” mean?
Well, it depends on who you’re asking. To some in Washington, “the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” as Trump tweeted late last month, means Kim handing over his nuclear weapons and missile systems, and allowing international inspectors to check that the regime is keeping its word.
But to Pyongyang, it means something very, very different. It means mutual steps to get rid of nuclear weapons, including requiring the United States to take down the nuclear umbrella it has put up over South Korea and Japan.
That is a difference in definition that could toll a death knell for the summit before it even starts.
“The danger is entering into negotiations with unrealistic expectations that Kim is just going to hand over the keys to his nuclear kingdom. He won’t,” said Vipin Narang, an expert on nuclear non-proliferation at MIT.
At the very least, Kim would agree to relinquish his weapons only if the United States agreed to end its military alliance with South Korea, in place since the 1950-53 Korean War, Narang said. He would also likely insist that the United States end its commitment to “extended deterrence” in South Korea and Japan – its threat of nuclear retaliation if its allies in Asia come under attack from North Korea.
North Korea has for decades viewed the American military presence in South Korea as part of a “hostile policy” aimed at bringing about its collapse. It has kept alive the memories of the Korean War, when the United States waged a devastating bombing campaign that flattened most of the North, as part of its efforts to help the Kim family maintain its totalitarian grip on the state.
“The surest way for the summit to end in disaster is if President Trump enters with the false belief that denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula means Kim Jong Un unilaterally surrendering his nuclear weapons,” Narang said.
Indeed, North Korea laid this out very clearly in the middle of 2016, calling Washington’s insistence that it dismantle its nuclear program first an “absurd precondition” for entering talks, and instead listed five conditions of its own. Among them, Pyongyang demanded that the United States declare it will not launch American nuclear weapons from South Korean soil.
North Korea has said nothing to suggest that it has dropped its demands. But some South Korean analysts advising President Moon Jae-in ahead of his own summit with Kim, to be held at the end of this month, say Kim knows that insisting on them is unrealistic.
Instead, he might ask for other concessions, perhaps a reduction in the American military presence on the peninsula, said Koh Yu-hwan, professor of North Korean studies at Dongkuk University and one of Moon’s advisers.
The United States military currently has about 28,000 troops stationed in South Korea and has built a huge base south of Seoul partly to get out of range of North Korea’s conventional artillery.
The Pentagon agreed to postpone annual spring exercises with the South Korean military until after the Winter Olympics.
They appear, however, to be much more low-key this year. The field training exercises, called Foal Eagle, involve 11,500 American troops, down from 15,000 last year. The Ssangyong amphibious landing exercises, which lasted for two weeks last time, continued for only one week this year, ending on Sunday.
All of this appears designed to create the right environment for the inter-Korean summit to be held on April 27 in the “peace village” on the border between the North and South, and then Kim’s summit with Trump the following month.
But many in Washington seem to have another misguided assumption about those talks, analysts here say.
Trump has said that Kim is suddenly interested in talking with the outside world because of his “maximum pressure” campaign against the North Korean leader.
He’s at least partly right, say analysts running the gamut from those who would engage to those who would invade, but that’s not the full story.
The other part is the fact that Kim, a 34-year-old who has consistently defied low expectations over the past six years, is feeling more confident than ever.
“Kim Jong Un seems to feel secure domestically and he has nuclear weapons now, so he feels like he’s entitled to be treated like a world leader,” said Kim Seok-hyang, a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul and an adviser to the South Korean president about his own summit.
“Kim Jong Un is ready,” she said after Kim met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. “Now his dreams are coming true.”
There is no doubt, analysts say, that Kim is talking because he’s worried about the effect of crippling sanctions, led by the United States, on the North Korean economy.
“Maximum pressure is having an impact,” said Lim Eul-chul of Kyungnam University’s Graduate School of North Korean Studies, using Trump’s preferred phrase for his approach.
But rather than “maximum pressure,” it’s more like “optimum pressure,” said John Delury, an international relations professor at Yonsei University in Seoul.
“The pressure is real and has increased, and I do think that it has frustrated Kim Jong Un’s ambitions,” he said, referring to Kim’s “simultaneous push” policy of developing the nuclear program and the economy at the same time.
“He’s done with the first half of his plan,” Delury said. “He feels confident that he can keep doing what he’s doing.”
Indeed, at the end of November, the last time it tested a missile, North Korea declared it had built a new intercontinental ballistic missile “tipped with super-large heavy warhead” that marked “the completion of the rocket weaponry system development.”
Delury said that the U.S. should want Kim to feel confident going into these talks, rather than feeling cornered. “We have him in a good spot right now,” Delury said.
Lim agreed that the North Korean leader, having declared success with his nuclear efforts, was now feeling strong and ready to deal with the economic side of his “simultaneous push”
“Kim Jong Un decided to go to the negotiating table because he judged that once he became a nuclear power,” he said, “the U.S. would be much more interested in talking to him.”
Whether he’s feeling confident enough to strike a deal remains to be seen.