South Korean officials, for example, have claimed that Kim Jong Un is no longer demanding that the United States halt its military exercises with South Korea and withdraw American troops from South Korea in return for the North giving up its nuclear weapons. But North Korea’s furious objections to this week’s drill suggests that its willingness to compromise on these key issues may not hold up to scrutiny.
South Korean President Moon Jae In, a pro-engagement progressive who has played a lead role in orchestrating the frenzied diplomacy with North Korea since the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, “keeps acting like North Korea’s spokesperson” and casting North Korea’s positions in “the best light,” said Han Sung Joo, a former South Korean foreign minister. The Kim government, we’re told, is prepared to remove its cherished nuclear program for transformed relations with South Korea and the United States. But Kim may simply be interested in obtaining sanctions relief to boost the North Korean economy and some form of acceptance of his nuclear weapons as a “fait accompli.”
The statement on Wednesday by North Korea’s deputy foreign minister, in fact, exposed the giant chasm that exists between his government’s definition of “denuclearization” and America’s, with less than a month to go before Kim and Trump are supposed to meet and strike a grand bargain.
Whereas U.S. officials hope Kim Jong Un has made the strategic calculation that he’ll be more secure without nuclear weapons than with them, the North Korean statement noted that Kim had made a “strategic decision” to merely “put an end to the unpleasant history” of North Korea–U.S. relations and even described North Korea as a “nuclear weapon state.”
Whereas U.S. officials view the Trump-Kim summit as a means of disarming North Korea of weapons of mass destruction, the North Korean statement characterized the meeting as an opportunity for “catalyzing detente on the Korean peninsula.”
Whereas U.S. officials such as National-Security Adviser John Bolton have advocated a kind of big-bang denuclearization—in which North Korea would speedily ship its whole nuclear program out of the country, like the former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi did with his far more rudimentary program in the 2000s, before receiving economic assistance and other rewards from the United States—the North Korean statement called Bolton repugnant. It dismissed the Libya model as a good way to end up dead as a result of a U.S.-led military intervention, the way Qaddafi did during the Arab Spring.
Whereas U.S. officials insist on the “complete, verifiable, and irreversible” dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, the North Korean statement ruled out such “unilateral nuclear abandonment.”
North Korea favors a step-by-step formula, whereby it would receive compensation each time it takes incremental action to roll back its nuclear program, the North Korean defector Jung Gwang Il told me. Such an approach allows Kim, who expects to rule North Korea for the rest of his life, to play a long game and outlast Trump and Moon, both democratically elected leaders with term limits. But he predicted that even this gradual form of denuclearization “will never happen.”