“A new era of peace has begun” and “complete denuclearization” is on the horizon, according to the joint declaration issued by Kim Jong Un and his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-In, at the conclusion of their summit in Panmunjom last Friday. Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, made similar pledges on multiple occasions, yet returned invariably to the aggressive pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Prior to the summit, President Moon’s national security adviser said that North Korea was prepared to give up his nuclear weapons “if the security of its government is guaranteed.” Similarly, Kim’s father insisted on a so-called “security guarantee” in exchange for progress toward denuclearization. In practice, this amounted to a demand for the expulsion of U.S. forces from South Korea, thereby undermining the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Notably, one week before the summit, President Moon told journalists that Pyongyang would make no such demand this time around, although it remains to be seen whether Kim will bring this up later.
The latest pledge from Pyongyang resembles those it made as part of the 1994 Agreed Framework and the Joint Statement in 2005. In 1994, Pyongyang affirmed its commitment “to achieve peace and security on a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.” The 2005 Joint Statement saw the North Koreans pledge to “abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs” in exchange for the U.S. reaffirming “it has no intention to attack or invade the DPRK with nuclear or conventional weapons.” Soon after the conclusion of the Agreed Framework, Pyongyang initiated an illicit uranium enrichment program to generate fissile material for nuclear warheads. Just one year after approving the Joint Statement, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test.
The lesson of these disappointments is that the U.S. and its allies must insist that North Korea demonstrate its commitment to denuclearization with concrete and verifiable actions. Otherwise, the U.S. risks falling into the trap of a long, drawn out diplomatic entanglement that prevents the imposition of additional sanctions on Pyongyang while enabling Kim to continue his charm offensive and secretly advance his weapons programs. Another lesson of previous negotiations is that the U.S. and South Korea have a dangerous habit of offering incentives just to keep Pyongyang at the table. Therefore, dragging out talks may give Kim more opportunities to extort economic concessions. It is likely that Kim will exploit talks for this specific purpose, as U.S. and UN economic sanctions take a significant toll on North Korea’s economy.
President Trump’s impending summit with Kim Jong Un represents a critical opportunity to hold Kim accountable to his promises and test the sincerity of his commitment to denuclearization. Washington and its allies should continue and intensify their maximum pressure campaign unless North Korea commits to specific denuclearization measures along with an aggressive timeline for their implementation. Anything less would amount to a replay of the failed negotiations that helped pave North Korea’s path to the bomb.
Mathew Ha is a research associate at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, focused on North Korea. Follow him on Twitter @MatJunsuk.
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