Sun, Jun 10, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Arriving at yes with Kim Jong-un

Successful denuclearization of North Korea would require a combination of bold political decisions — say, formally ending the Korean War, opening liaison offices or relaxing some sanctions — and realistic prudence

By Yoon Young-kwan

Has North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made a strategic decision to trade away his nuclear program, or is he just engaged in another round of deceptive diplomacy, pretending that he will denuclearize in exchange for material benefits for his impoverished country?

This is, perhaps, the key question in the run-up to the summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump in Singapore on Tuesday. Until then, no one will know the answer, perhaps not even Kim himself.

Optimists tend to believe that Kim’s declared intention to denuclearize is sincere. They highlight that North Korea’s economy has changed since he succeeded his father, Kim Jong-il, in 2011. It is now more open, with foreign trade accounting for almost half of GDP, the result of a gradual marketization process that began in the mid-1990s.

However, with this openness comes vulnerability, which explains Kim Jong-un’s active diplomatic efforts to prevent serious economic disruption from the existing international sanctions regime.

Unlike his father, the 34-year-old Kim has been active in pursuing pro-market economic growth and might be aiming to emulate former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), the architect of China’s reforms in the late 1970s.

Kim Jong-un’s recent sacking of three senior old-guard military officials might hint that he is ready to offer some important concessions to prepare a favorable diplomatic environment for concentrating on economic development. The key question remains whether Trump is now ready to embrace Kim’s North Korea as former US president Richard Nixon did with Deng’s China.

However, pessimists caution against believing that Kim Jong-un is serious about denuclearization. There is no evidence, they argue, that he is different from his father (and grandfather Kim Il-sung), when it comes to adhering to international agreements. For example, they are skeptical that North Korea would cooperate fully on three major issues.

First, despite Kim Jong-un’s declaration, it remains unclear whether he is agreeing to “complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement” (CVID) of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. His commitment remains aspirational and lacks substance or operational content.

Second, given North Korea’s bad track record, the pessimists think it unlikely that Kim would permit intrusive nuclear inspections, which is a critical component of CVID.

Finally, North Korea has not yet clarified the terms of its denuclearization. Its past official position — withdrawal of US troops from South Korea and an end to the bilateral alliance, would be a non-starter.

However, there might be a way to achieve denuclearization that satisfies both optimists and pessimists.

To find it requires taking a step back and considering the most fundamental reason for the diplomatic failures of the last three decades: the high level of mutual distrust, which has made a small and weak country such as North Korea, surrounded by big powers, paranoid about its own security.

To address this problem at its root, the US should have taken a political approach, rather than focusing repeatedly on concluding a narrowly defined military-security deal.

For example, former US president George H.W. Bush’s administration declined North Korea’s offer to establish diplomatic relations in 1991 to 1992, when the fall of the Soviet Union heightened Kim Il-sung’s sense of insecurity.

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