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Foreign Policy

Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula: Possible but Time-consuming

Jul 24, 2019
  • Fan Gaoyue

    Guest Professor at Sichuan University, Former Chief Specialist at PLA Academy of Military Science

The third Trump-Kim meeting took place in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on June 30, 2019. US President Donald Trump crossed the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) and stepped into North Korea, making him the first incumbent US president to enter North Korea, and sending the world a positive signal for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Historic denuclearization efforts in the Korean Peninsula

The past year and a half saw various countries deploying summit diplomacy, dialogues, and negotiations to resolve contentious issues in the Peninsula. The leaders of both Koreas, the US, China, and Russia should be given considerable credit for creating today’s unique opportunity to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. Moon and Kim have met four times and produced the inter-Korean Panmunjom and Pyongyang Declarations, which stand as the foundation to advance the peace process on the Peninsula. Trump and Kim have met three times and produced the Singapore Joint Statement, agreeing to establish new US-DPRK relations and build a lasting and stable peace regime in the Korean Peninsula. Xi and Kim have met five times and opened a new chapter in China-DPRK relations, with Kim saying that “the DPRK remains unchanged in its main stand to keep the goal of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” and Xi pledging that “the Chinese side would, as ever, play a positive and constructive role for the defense of the fundamental interests of both sides and the stability of the situation on the Peninsula.” Putin and Kim have met once and decided to promote and deepen mutual understanding and enhance strategic cooperation on regional peace and security. In addition, the DPRK dismantled its nuclear and missile engine test facilities and exercised restraint on nuclear and missile developments. The US and the ROK, meanwhile, have indefinitely suspended select exercises including the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise and other training exercises. These diplomatic efforts have laid a solid foundation for complete denuclearization and, at this point, all parties concerned should make use of the momentum and try to make faster and greater progress in fully denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.

Obstacles for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula

Considering that the DPRK has already adopted a new strategic line that prioritizes economic development and requires a stable regional environment and that the US requires absolute security from North Korean nuclear threats, it is clear that both Kim and Trump are serious about denuclearization. However, there remain several obstacles.

First, the DPRK and the US understand the expression “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” differently, with the US envisioning the complete denuclearization of North Korea and the DPRK envisioning denuclearization of the Peninsula, including the US’s nuclear umbrella over the ROK. Second, the DPRK proposes a staged denuclearization and demands step-by-step sanctions relief, but the US maintains that sanctions relief should not be granted until the DPRK is denuclearized. Third, the DPRK demands a declaration to end the Korean War but the US has not agreed. Fourth, Trump officials are split in their approach to North Korea talks, putting Trump in a difficult position. Fifth, the US and the ROK lack coordination in the peace process, with the inter-Korean process moving too fast and the US-DPRK process advancing too slowly. Sixth, the US and the DPRK lack faith in one another, with the DPRK feeling disappointed at not being rewarded after it dismantled its Punggye-ri and Tongchang-ri nuclear and missile engine test sites and the US suspecting the DPRK would not abandon its nuclear weapons.

A clear path forward: steps to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula

Based on the summits between international leaders and the joint declarations they have produced over the past year and a half, the sincerity of both Koreas, the US, China, and Russia should not be doubted. To advance the process of denuclearization further, however, some concrete measures should be adopted.

(1) Clarify the definition of denuclearization. The US and the DPRK will have to agree on a definition of “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” as well as on a shared understanding of the steps that each needs to take to advance that process.

(2) Increase strategic mutual trust and confidence. Strategic trust and confidence between the US and the DPRK, and between the ROK and the DPRK, are cornerstones to advance denuclearization. The three sides should increase mutual trust and confidence by dismantling nuclear facilities and lifting economic sanctions.

(3) Enhance coordination among parties concerned. The US and the ROK should coordinate their efforts in the process of denuclearization and peace regime building. The DPRK, China, and Russia should coordinate their efforts in denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and ending the Korean War.

(4) Make a road map for denuclearization and peace regime building. The US, the ROK and the DPRK have already set up working groups on denuclearization and peace regime building. They should also work together to lay out concrete steps, stages, and timetables for denuclearization and peace regime building.

(5) Organize an international inspection team. As the DPRK no longer trusts the inspection team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN Security Council should organize another international inspection team that includes nuclear experts from IAEA, the US, China, Russia, the EU, the ROK and the DPRK to supervise the process of denuclearization.

(6) Apply lessons from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The JCPOA process presents many innovative features of a successful denuclearization model, including an intrusive and layered verification regime, calibrated trade-offs for targeted sanctions relief, and oversight mechanisms. Most of these can be adapted to the Korean Peninsula case.

From the analysis above we can see that denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is a shared goal among all the parties concerned and that it is possible to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula in the future. However, under the conditions of the long-term strategic competition between the US and China, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula might take a much longer time than expected.

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