- China announced that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made a trip to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
- Kim Jong Un reportedly made several comments about the possibility of denuclearizing.
- But Kim suggested there may be strings attached.
- Foreign policy experts are lowering expectations for an immediate outcome from the upcoming US-North Korean summit.
While China’s announcement of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s visit to the country was promoted as a positive step toward peace on the Korean Peninsula, Kim’s remarks took a different tone.
“It is our consistent stand to be committed to denuclearization on the peninsula, in accordance with the will of late President Kim Il Sung and late General Secretary Kim Jong Il,” Kim reportedly said, according to China’s Xinhau News Agency.
But what Kim reportedly said next indicates what his expectations are ahead of a summit with the South and the US.
“The issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved, if [South] Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realisation of peace,” Kim continued.
Kim’s statement suggests that North Korea’s path toward denuclearization depends on how South Korea and the US respond to its overtures of peace. But as many North Korean hawks in the foreign-policy community would point out, the North has backed out of diplomatic efforts and has reneged on agreements before.
North Korea has a documented history of excusing itself from talks and agreements, such as the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003, in which North Korea agreed to forgo developing or acquiring nuclear weapons, according to the Arms Control Association.
In the past, North Korea has also used United Nations sanctions and US-South Korean military exercises as justification for an uptick in provocative acts.
Mintaro Oba, a former US State Department diplomat involved in Korean affairs, says it’s too soon to get excited about North Korea’s latest overtures.
“I wouldn’t interpret this as a substantive change to denuclearization,” Oba told Business Insider. “Kim is signalling that he has a lot of options. He wants to seem like he’s acting in good faith as much as possible right now.”
The idea that North Korea might allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to verify the complete dismantlement of its nuclear weapons may seem improbable, considering how important they are to the regime’s domestic and international political clout. North Korea revised its constitution to tout its nuclear ambitions in 2012, and announced its plan of “mass producing nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles for operational deployment” in January.
Kim’s statement, that the US should take “progressive and synchronous measures for the realisation of peace,” also reflects the complexity of such an effort. Some experts estimate that the process of denuclearizing could take at least 10 years to achieve, and although some reports suggest that North Korea could have as many as 20 nuclear bombs, the exact number isn’t widely known.
“It’s going to take a lot of time and negotiation to see how flexible North Korea will be on this question,” Oba said. “That should be something to probe for after the summit rather than the summit itself. There’s many more meetings, many more talks, to find out common ground and see where there can be flexibility.”
The need for sustained talks and a verification process lowers the expectation for substantial progress from the proposed summit between President Donald Trump and Kim. This could irritate Trump, who previously hyped the news about the meeting and has touted his ability to produce quick results on all matters of negotiation.
“The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years,” President Donald Trump tweeted in August. “Talking is not the answer!”
Trump’s nomination of his latest national security adviser, former US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, also presents a challenging question for the fate of the summit and a path to denuclearization.
Bolton’s hawkish statements about war and military conflict in general have raised worries among foreign-policy experts who remain skittish about what the Trump administration may do on the peninsula. In an interview three days before his nomination, Bolton indicated that he might not have the patience for a lengthy negotiation process with North Korea.
“I think it’s a mistake to treat this like a normal summit meeting, with months and months of preparation by lower-level people,” Bolton said to Radio Free Asia. “We know what the subject is here, at least from the US point of view: It’s North Korea eliminating, dismantling its nuclear weapons program and, as I say, we’d be happy to store the program in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.”
“That’s what the conversation ought to be about,” Bolton continued. “If it’s about anything else, it’s a waste of time.”
Oba, the former US State Department diplomat, offered a different take: “If the US’s goal heading into the summit is to see a substantive change, it’s going to be a failure,” Oba said.
“If the US frames the talks as the ‘end all be all,’ then there is going to be a cost to the summit failing,” Oba continued. “But the easy way to avoid that is to make sure we’re talking about the summit not as a high-stakes negotiation, but as the beginning of a longer process.”