Denuclearization Process of Korean Peninsula Started, MutualTolerance between US and North Korea Key to Progress

Liu Ming

1. The easing of tensions on the Korean Peninsula is the result of a combination of positive factors. 

The year 2017 was the most unforgettable and exciting one and witnessed the most ups and downs for the Korean Peninsula. On the American side, this is due to the fact that Donald Trump is the most strong-minded, aggressive and straightforward president in American history, often making unfathomable decisions that take people by surprise. In the early days of his presidency, Trump adopted the strategy of “applying maximum pressure” on North Korea: sending two aircraft carriers on two missions to the sea adjacent to North Korea to exert pressure on the country, flying strategic bombers B-1, B-2 and B-52 over the military demarcation lines, and keeping disclosing military strike plans. North Korea, on its part, reached a new height in developing integrated nuclear missiles. On September 3, 2017, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test. In June and September of the same year, it successfully tested Hwasong-10 and Hwasong-12. In November, North Korea launched Hwasong-15, marking its possession of intercontinental ballistic missiles with a range that is capable of reaching the whole of the United States. Since 2006, the UN Security Council has adopted 10 sanctions on North Korea, among which resolutions2356、2371、2375、and 2397were passed in 2017. 

When the world was anticipating nervously a possible collapse on the Korean Peninsula in 2018, a ray of light shone through the dark clouds hanging over the peninsula, portending a major turnaround. The situation has since embarked on a track of fast and positive development, which defies people’s imagination. Such a shift is, first and foremost, attributed to the changing judgement and policy on the part of North Korea. Secondly, the new South Korean President Moon Jae-in keeps sending signals of peace to the North. He used the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics as a platform to create conditions for the North to present its new policy and new image. Thirdly, President Trump, by taking stock of the changing circumstances, responded to Kim Jung-un’s peace gesture. Fourthly, the Chinese leaders are steadfast in their support for North Korea’s strategic decision to denuclearize. With sincerity and warmth, they welcomed two visits by the North Korean leader to Beijing. The two sides exchanged views on the denuclearization plan, the establishment of a peace regime on the peninsula, and the friendly relations between the two parties and two countries. This lays an external political foundation for North Korea’s denuclearization talks with the US in the next stage.

2. The Panmunjom Declaration marks a new stage for inter-Korean relations.

The sign of change on the Korean Peninsula first appeared on November 29, 2017 when Kim Jung-un declared that North Korea realized the goal of becoming a missile power and the historic cause of completing the state nuclear force. While he stressed the need to improve the quality of nuclear weapons, the strategic focus of his country will enter a new phase of adjustment and development, as it has achieved, in form, the strategic goal of obtaining a nuclear status alongside nuclear powers such as China, the US and Russia. Undoubtedly, the America’s maximum pressure strategy severely undermined the three lifelines that sustain the North Korean system: funding chain (finance), oil pipeline (energy) and maritime trade. This is also an external reason that compelled North Korea to adjust its policy.  

It goes without saying that South Korean leader Moon Jae-in is the man who continued the “sunshine policy” by facilitating North Korea’s efforts to shift its strategic focus and providing the most opportune conditions. After assuming presidency, he proposed to establish a South-North joint team at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and, once again, brought up the “Berlin Initiative” to ease inter-Korean tensions. On the first day of 2018, Kim Jung-un announced in his new year address that North Korea would participate in the Winter Olympics to celebrate thegreat national event in a splendid manner, demonstrate the dignity and spirit of the nation, and improve the frozen inter-Korean relations.

After the North-South joint team appeared at the Winter Olympics, the North Korean leader Kim Jung-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in held a historic meeting at Panmunjom on the North-South border on April 27th. After the meeting, the two sides released thePanmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula, which lays out six measures to improve inter-Korean relations: holding high-level dialogue and negotiations in various fields; establishing a joint liaison office with resident representatives of both sides in the Kaesong region; convening the Inter-Korean Red Cross Meeting to discuss and solve various issues including the reunion of separated families and proceeding with reunion program for the separated families; connecting and modernizing the railways and roads on the eastern transportation corridor as well as between Seoul and Sinuiju; completely ceasing all hostile acts against each other that are the source of military tension and conflict, including broadcasting through loudspeakers and distribution of leaflets, in the areas along the Military Demarcation Line, and eliminating their means; holding frequent meetings between military authorities, including the Defense Ministers Meeting.

The declaration is of more symbolism than substance. It is largely within the realms of the North-South Joint Declaration issued during President Kim Dae-jung’s visit to the north in 2000 and the Declaration on the Advancement of South-North Korean Relations, Peace and Prosperity released by President Roh Moo-hyun and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il in October 2007. The core of the declaration is that the two sides agreed to, during this year that marks the 65th anniversary of the Armistice, declare an end to the War, promote the transition from armistice to peace, establish a permanent and solid peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, and pursue trilateral meetings involving the two Koreas and the US, or quadrilateral meetings involving the two Koreas, the US and China. The two Koreas confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. 

Nevertheless, it is of greater historic significance than the June 15th Joint Declaration in 2000 and the October 4th Declaration in 2007, as it is consistent with the spirit of the two resolutions adopted at the Third Plenary Meeting of the Seventh Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea: On Proclaiming Great Victory of the Line of Simultaneous Development of Economic Construction and Building of Nuclear Force and On Concentrating All Efforts on Socialist Economic Construction to Meet Requirements of New High Stage of Developing Revolution. Moreover, Kim Jung-un demonstrated an unusual passion about meeting with Trump, which, from a different angle, shows his sincerity in resolving the nuclear issue and establish normal relations with the US.

Nine hours after Trump announced the cancelation of the Singapore meeting on May 24th, Kim Kye-gwan, North Korea’s First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, made a mild statement, “we, broad-minded and open all the time, have the willingness to offer the US side time and opportunity”; “We would like to make known to the US side once again that we have the intent to sit with the US side to solve problems regardless of ways at any time”; "We inwardly hoped that what is called the ‘Trump formula’ would truly help solve the problem and would be a wise way of substantial effect for settling the issue.”On the afternoon of the 25th, the Blue House received the request from Kim Jung-un for an inter-Korean summit, another one less than one month after the first Panmunjom meeting on April 27th. Such an urgent meeting request shows that the North Korean supreme leader took his meeting with Trump very seriously and that he is resolved to end the history of confrontation through the DPRK-US summit. In addition, he recognized Moon Jae-in as an indispensable “intermediary” to bring back to life the DPRK-US summit. Given the mass joint military excise conducted by South Korea and the US on May 16th, North Korea cancelled the high-level meeting with the South scheduled for that day, and set up barriers for South Korean journalists to attend the dismantling ceremony at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. However, the North’s dissatisfaction about some of South Korea’s actions does not reduce the important value of the latter in making the DPRK-US summit possible. 

Throughout the turnaround on the situation of the Peninsula over nearly four months, North Korea is fully aware of the importance of South Korea as a facilitator and the need to use it as a mediator to ensure progress on nuclear negotiations with the US. More importantly, South Korea is much needed as the North shifts its focus onto economic development. Hence Kim Jung-un, in return or for stabilizing relations with the South, agreed to hold the high-level North-South meeting on June 1st. The two sides reached agreement on promoting mil-to-mil and Red Cross talks. In the meantime, he gave South Korea the most-desirable gift, the assurance of positive cooperation to establish a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. 

3. The back-and-forth on the plan for a Trump-Kim meeting underscores the difficulties in the denuclearization process. 

Thanks to the behind-the-scene efforts by South Korean leaders and Moon Jae-in’s sincere talks with Kim Jung-un, there have appeared signs of the US and North Korea moving closer. Nuanced changes are also seen in President Trump’s attitude toward the North Korean leader. He instructed State Secretary Pompeo to make two visits to Pyongyang and meet with Kim Jung-un, which speaks to his genuine desire to make substantial results at the Singapore summit scheduled for June 12th. 

However, Trump announced the cancellation of the meeting between May 24th and 25th, anddeclared it would take place as scheduled 59 hours later. This is rarely seen in international politics. It not only casts a shadow on the meeting and its results, but also lays bare the serious differences between the two countries on the path to denuclearization. Although Trump and Kim Jung-un both have high hopes for the result of their meeting, the two sides have entrenched distrust that has built up in the pursuit of a settlement of the nuclear issue over the past 20 years, and haveboth tried to dominate the approach and process of denuclearization in a tough way. 

In an interview on May 13th, John Bolton brought up the denuclearization model, which is tantamount to or transcends the “Libyan model”. Such a comprehensive package of denuclearization includes North Korea abandoning nuclear materials such as plutonium and highly enriched uranium, dismantling nuclear and missile facilities, and, more importantly, shipping the dismantled nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee for destruction. At the same time, North Korea must transfer nuclear researchers to other jobs, give up programs that can be used for nuclear development, and turn in biological weapons. Only after denuclearization is completed will the US offer security assurances and economic assistance.

Obviously, North Korea, a country which has completed the development of nuclear weapons and the test of nuclear launch vehicles and has acquired military power in East Asia, is unlikely to submit itself with humiliation to the Libyan model for denuclearization, because that amounts to giving in to a powerful country. North Korea wants to denuclearize in a dignified way through negotiations based on reciprocity, and adopt a phased approach in exchange for compensation from the US. It is also unlikely to accept examination and verification like the invasion of Iraq. Still less does it want to see the US delays compensating due to the indefinitely prolonged examination and verification.

A neo-conservative hawk in the George W. Bush administration, Bolton set a tone that goes far beyond the commitment made by Pompeo during his visit to Pyongyang. Pompeo made a relatively positive and flexible statement, “If North Korea takes bold action to quickly denuclearize, the US is prepared to work with North Korea to achieve prosperity.” Therefore, North Korea is worried that once negotiation gets started, Bolton will intervene in the talks in a tough way, raise doubts about North Korea’s intention, bring interferences to Trump’s decision-making, and weaken Pompeo as a pragmatist negotiator. If that happens, North Korea would be an ultimate loser. 

As such, Kim Kye-gwan made a statement on May 16 to refute Bolton, “If the Trump administration is trying to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such dialogue and cannot but reconsider our proceeding to the DPRK-US summit.” On May 24, Choe Son Hui, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs of North Korea, made another tough statement in response to US Vice President Pence’s inappropriate remarks, “We will neither beg the US for dialogue nor take the trouble to persuade them if they do not want to sit together with us.”“Whether the US will meet us at a meeting room or encounter us at nuclear-to-nuclear showdown is entirely dependent upon the decision and behavior of the United States.”

In response to Kim Kye-gwan’s statement, Trump used the “Trump formula” to play down the “Libya model”, saying that the US commits to provide security assurances for North Korea, if it reaches a denuclearization agreement with the US. Yet the divide between the two sides on the process and approach of denuclearization is visible. It was after Choe Son Hu’s outspoken statement that Trump cancelled the Singapore meeting on May 24th. While Trump has restarted preparations for the negotiation with Kim Jung-un, questions remain as to what kind of an agreement will be reached in Singapore, especially how the officials of the two sides at the working level will maintain cooperation and trust in implementing the roadmap going forward. 

4. China supports the easing of tensions and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. 

Over the past years when tensions escalated on the Korean Peninsula and the denuclearization process stalled, China has upheld its own principles and based its policy toward North Korea on facts. First, China is opposed to North Korea developing nuclear weapons in defiance of the trend of the times and the rules and norms of the international community; Second, after the Six-Party talks were suspended, China and the US maintained thorough cooperation in response to North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests. China has engaged in close communication and cooperation with the US and Russia during UN Security Council consultations and the adoption of resolutions to sanction North Korea; Third, the Chinese government has faithfully implemented UN resolutions; Fourth, China has been emphasizing that the US must fully accommodate North Korea’s security concerns in the hope to use it as an opportunity to steer North Korea toward denuclearization. 

To break the standoff, China has proposed on many occasions the “suspension for suspension” and “dual track” approaches. Even though neither North Korea nor the US accepted China’s proposal for various reasons, China has never ceased in its diplomatic efforts. As inter-Korean relations improve, North Korea and the US started to explore direct talks, of which China is supportive. China believes that the key to resolving the Korean nuclear issue is negotiation between the US and North Korea, as the US still has 28,000 troops and mass aggressive weapons on the Peninsula. The US and North Korea have no diplomatic relations, and the armistice is maintained by the US and the two Koreas. The US is also the key country which can determine whether North Korea can be fully integrated into the international community and enjoy all the rights thereof. 

China also welcomes and supports North and South Korea in acting in the spirit of dialogue, reconciliation and cooperation enshrined in the Panmunjom Declaration to implement the consensus of the two meetings of their leaders, promote reconciliation and cooperation, build trust through dialogue and consultation, and improve their relations. This way, they will play a positive role in sustaining and consolidating the momentum in easing tensions on the Peninsula. 

China and North Korea maintain traditional friendship. The China-DPRK Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance is still valid. During Kim Jung-un’s two visits to China, the two sides had full consultations on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the establishment of a peace regime. In the future, China and North Korea need to communicate and have strategic coordination on North Korea-US negotiation on denuclearization and the peace regime, as well as inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation. This will, to some extent, ensure North Korea maintains a balanced position when negotiating with the US. 

As the two largest countries in Northeast Asia, China and the US were involved in the Korean War and signed the armistice agreement. The two sides have the obligation to consult on the approach to denuclearization, the sharing of its responsibility and cost, and its oversight and management. As the US and North Korea are divided on how to settle the nuclear issue: a packaged solution or a synchronized approach, China may well be a participant and mediator to assist the US and North Korea in finding a solution that is fair, effective and with a timeline. 

When it comes to the establishment of a peace regime in the future, China is a direct party both historically and in terms of international law. It is also an external supporter for the peaceful co-existence of the North and the South and an important neighbor of the Peninsula. It is reasonable and natural for China to be part of the process of establishing the peace regime. China hopes that the US and North Korea and North Korea and South Korea could sign a treaty of non-aggression respectively. On that basis, China, the US and Russia, the three big countries, should provide political assurances for permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula. The six Northeast Asian countries should also build a regional security cooperation mechanism, so as to put in place complementary structures for the security of the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia, and rid the region of the Cold War pattern.

Liu Ming is Research Fellow of the Institute of International Relations, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.