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Denuclearization could come down to semantics

Mar 09,2018
When the Blue House announced last Sunday it would send a 10-member delegation to North Korea to discuss an inter-Korean summit and broker a meeting between Pyongyang and Washington, the question in local media was whether the South Korean officials would have the guts to tell Kim Jong-un to denuclearize to his face.

Chung Eui-yong, head of the South’s National Security Office, promised to do just that before departing the country, leading nine others for what would become the first meeting between the North Korean leader, who rose to power six years ago following his father’s death, and South Korean government officials.

The North is well-known for its vitriolic knee-jerk responses to any calls for denuclearization, making dialogue with the United States even more difficult as the Donald Trump White House refuses to engage in any official talks with the regime unless it does just that. Last year, as the North made significant leaps in its missile and nuclear development programs, bringing it closer to reaching the U.S. mainland with a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the pariah state made clear it would never agree to give up its arms.

But when Chung announced a six-point agreement on Tuesday night upon returning to Seoul, which he said was shared with Kim Jong-un, it left many shocked around the world because, for the first time, the young leader agreed to “candidly” discuss denuclearization with Washington.

At first glance, it was a moment of victory for President Moon Jae-in, whose cardinal goal during his five-year term is to resolve the North Korea nuclear crisis. For many analysts and conservatives, however, the agreements triggered only anger because of what denuclearization means to the North. According to Chung, Pyongyang “clearly stated its willingness to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula,” adding it “had no reason to possess nuclear weapons if the military threat against North Korea was eliminated and its security guaranteed.” But Evans J.R. Revere, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs under the George W. Bush administration, told the JoongAng Ilbo that the meaning of “denuclearization” differs between the North and the South-U.S. allies.

Recalling an instance when he once asked a North Korean official to define his country’s meaning of the term, Revere said that the official told him Washington’s nuclear umbrella over South Korea and Japan would have to be removed and American soldiers stationed in the South would have to be withdrawn before the North would consider denuclearization. Further grievances held by conservatives stem from speculation about the outcome of a hypothetical U.S. withdrawal.

South Korea’s Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, who oversees inter-Korean ties, told the legislature last October that North Korea’s ultimate goal for developing nuclear weapons was survival - and to reunify the Korean Peninsula under North Korean rule. For that to work, analysts say North Korea would use its ICBMs to deter the United States from coming to the aid of the South.

“Every agreement [announced by Chung] had preconditions,” said Rep. Chang Je-won, a spokesman of the main opposition right-leaning Liberty Korea Party. “The part where [North Korea] says it would give up its nuclear weapons if the security of its regime was guaranteed and the military threat eliminated is feared to be analogous to saying American forces stationed in South Korea should leave.”

Kim Young-soo, a political science professor at Sogang University, pointed out that the South-North agreements were announced in a press statement format, which in diplomatic terms, carries with it far less accountability than an agreed framework officially signed by both countries. This, said Kim, could allow the North more elbow room if it later decides it wants to renege on any settlements.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN, YOO JEE-HYE [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]