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Shoveling sand against the tide

July 24,2018
Kwon Man-hak
The author is a professor of international relations at Kyung Hee University.

The first high-level denuclearization negotiations in Pyongyang attended by U.S. State Secretary Mike Pompeo and Kim Yong-chol, a vice-chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of North Korea, ended without progress. U.S. President Donald Trump recently said there is “no rush” in denuclearization talks, placing the hopes from the June 12 North-U.S. Joint Declaration at a crossroads. Will the North head toward a new path of a big deal or will it repeat the deception tactics from the past?

Despite pessimistic evaluations that the June 12 accord had no roadmap and its contents were weaker than the Sept. 19, 2005 agreement, it still presented a bold resolution of complete denuclearization in return for regime security. Until now, U.S. administrations demanded denuclearization of the North as the first step, with a view that it needed to punish the North as a criminal. Past leaders have all demanded the North first denuclearize, trying to use the Libyan model, which ignores the North’s concerns for security.

But Trump treated the issue as a deal and demonstrated one of the techniques he illustrated in his book. He used leverage by presenting a peace regime — something that the negotiating party desperately desires. The exchange of compromise is reasonable enough for both sides to accept and provides a basic foundation for successful denuclearization negotiations. Since the high-level talks, the two leaders have reconfirmed their goal.

It was not just the United States that changed. Kim Jong-un’s North assumed a low-profile to revive a canceled summit, after the Trump administration made clear that it would not allow another failure. The new attitude of the North indicates that its change is more than desperation to resolve the maximum pressures of the United States.

Today, North Korean markets are offering up to 80 percent of the goods necessary for people’s lives, according to analyses. Markets are exerting pressure to improve the people’s lives. Even the Workers’ Party was forced to adopt a policy line to strengthen the economy. Modernization of the North Korean economy requires Pyongyang to scrap its dual-track policy of nuclear arms and economy and to improve its relations with Washington. The North’s desperate economic needs and unconventional leadership of Trump met timely to facilitate the summit.

Exchanging denuclearization for regime security is a reasonable resolution, but Pyongyang and Washington see the specifics differently. There is a possibility that the details will emerge. Although it was an international talk based on goodwill, no negotiator will give up the interest of his own country. That is why the first high-level negotiation between the North and the United States failed to meet an agreement, as they both made the most demands possible.

It is still unclear if the North has made a strategic decision for complete denuclearization. But if the North’s offers are fake, the possibility is high that the United States will use a military option, taking into account Trump’s way of praising a partner enthusiastically but retaliating ruthlessly for a breach of trust.

Furthermore, there is skepticism that Washington will only make sure the dismantlement of the inter-continental ballistic missiles — a direct threat to the United States — while accepting Pyongyang’s incomplete denuclearization.

If it is the North’s strategy to delay denuclearization or make it incomplete, the biggest weapon of the United States is sanctions. The United States wants to lift sanctions as late as possible, while the North wants them to be lifted as soon as possible. Although China and Russia are supporting the early lifting of sanctions, the United States has the power to reject it — unlike the process of adopting the sanctions. If North Korea wants sanctions lifted quickly, it must accelerate denuclearization.

Another sensitive issue is the withdrawal of the U.S. Forces from Korea, which China and Russia support. The Trump administration is treating the stationing of troops as a money issue, making it more complicated. But it won’t be easy to reverse the mainstream opinions of Washington and Seoul that the U.S. troops must stay in the South until denuclearization and peace are established on the Korean Peninsula.

Finally, there is an issue of economic cooperation expenses. Trump has said he won’t spend a dime from the U.S. budget, pushing South Korea, China and Japan to pay for the cost. When the North fully starts the modernization and produces profits like China and Vietnam did after opening their economies, paying for the cost as a first-step investment won’t be a waste. But the problem is that South Korea is different from China and Japan. For the North Korean regime, allowing free passage and investments of the South Korean people and companies are a shortcut to its collapse. The South may become overwhelmed by brotherly love and passion and end up paying the most and gaining the least. In this critical moment of history, we need to have realistic prudence on top of creative imagination.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 23, Page 29