Jenny Town is a Research Analyst at the Stimson Center and the Managing Editor and Producer of Ploughshares Fund grantee 38 North, a web journal that provides policy and technical analysis on North Korea. We recently asked her about denuclearization talks and the September meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang.
Q: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the US wants to immediately resume talks. Does this mean negotiations are back on track?
A: At the very least it means that both Trump and Kim still think there’s a way forward and there seems to be a renewed enthusiasm to figure out what that roadmap looks like. It is unclear whether the US position on the prospects of a political declaration ending the Korean War has really changed, or if they will continue to ask for some level of reciprocity beyond what North Korea has already done in order to grant this. I think it’s clear though that both Koreas feel this declaration is critical for taking the next steps on denuclearization. Until this issue is resolved, the stalemate is likely to continue.
Q: What are you most hoping will result from the upcoming second summit between Kim Jong Un and President Trump?
A: There really has to be concrete resolution of the terms of issuing an end of war declaration at the next summit—whether that means issuing it on the spot or at least written and signed terms for what will need to happen in order to get there. Hopefully the “how we resolve” that impasse will become clearer from Pompeo’s trip to make it simply a formality at second Trump-Kim summit, leaving room for the two to start to address into next steps.
Q: Mike Pompeo claims that Kim Jong Un has offered to denuclearize by the end of Trump's current term, which ends in early 2021. In your view, is denuclearizing North Korea by 2021 realistic?
A: It depends on how you define denuclearization. North Korea has an extensive and complex WMD program, of which, a lot that is still unknown or uncertain regarding their full capabilities and infrastructure. Taking steps like stopping fissile material production and missile manufacturing could be done within this timeframe or even taking such measures as shipping fissile material stockpiles and nuclear devices out of country could be done if North Korea cooperates. But technical experts suggest matters such as verification would take several years to complete with any level of confidence.
Q: Kim Jong Un suggested shutting down two main sites, the Yongbyon and the Tongchang-ri facilities, as part of a possible trade. Is this a generous offer or could he do more?
A: To be clear, Kim Jong Un formally committed to unilaterally dismantling the engine test stand and launch pad at the Tongchang-ri facility in the Pyongyang Declaration. He only suggested that measures “such as” shutting down Yongbyon were possible under an action for action arrangement, which still needs to be negotiated. Of course there is a great value in shutting down the North Korea’s main – and known – fissile material production facilities including its plutonium production capability, possible tritium and lithium production facilities, and at least part of its enriched uranium program. This is an important start. The question becomes whether agreement can be achieved on what the corresponding measure the US should take will for this step, and then how to move beyond that to address suspected facilities and other parts of the program that affect the North’s core WMD capabilities.
Q: How much should President Moon Jae-in be credited for reviving the diplomatic process?
A: A lot of credit goes to Moon for being open to diplomacy with North Korea and actually seizing the opportunity despite the criticism and skepticism that came with it. There was real concern last year that we were one miscalculation away from conflict, one that the two Koreas would bear the brunt of. Similarly, Moon clearly knows that there needs to be progress on the US-DPRK front, that is, on denuclearization, for the inter-Korean peace process to move forward in any substantive way—both from a military and an economic standpoint. Moon’s efforts on these matters has helped keep Washington, however reluctantly, to focus on this issue and to keep working to find sustainable solutions.
Q: What is the relationship between inter-Korean reconciliation and denuclearization? Do the two diplomatic tracks go hand-in-hand? Are there any potential pitfalls in having them proceed simultaneously?
A: The two processes are intimately linked – as lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula cannot be achieved without cooperation from the US. However, during the past two conservative administrations in South Korea, Seoul was not eager to start any kind of inter-Korean dialogue. There were times that the South Koreans were actually concerned that the US would move forward with North Korea directly and be willing to do more on the peace front than South Korea was ready to accept if it meant progress could be made on denuclearization. Now that the Moon administration is ready to talk about what a peace regime and reconciliation looks like and is actively working to achieve it, it does compel the US to take this more seriously.
But I am also concerned that, due to his own personal stake in this process, Moon tends to oversell what has been accomplished in the inter-Korean summit process in order to urge US-DRPK talks through bumps in the road. While Kim Jong Un may very well have expressed a willingness to take certain measures toward denuclearization, these measures still need to be negotiated, especially to establish what the “corresponding US actions” will be. Overselling political will as commitments raises expectations unrealistically high as it implies that negotiations will be easy or that North Korea will start taking steps unilaterally. These things still need to be negotiated and while it’s good to have a sense of what is possible, there needs to be better expectation management for how difficult the negotiation process will likely be.
Thank you for your time, and all you do to create a safer future, free from the threat of nuclear weapons.