The Mystery at the Heart of North Korea Talks

The parties have yet to agree on what exactly should be "denuclearized." But one South Korean official has a plan to close the gap.

U.S. President Trump and North Korea's Kim meet at the start of their summit in Singapore (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

In recent days, Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed that Kim Jong Un agreed in Singapore to the denuclearization of North Korea. But Kim agreed to no such thing. What he actually agreed to during his summit with the U.S. president was to “work toward” the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. This isn’t some trivial semantic distinction. Reconciling these two goals may well be what everything—resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis, establishing peace and economic exchange between North and South Korea, even determining the future geopolitical order of Northeast Asia—depends on. And the path to doing so remains utterly mysterious.

In May, however, I heard one detailed vision from a top aide to South Korean President Moon Jae In, who has played a critical role in steering international diplomacy with North Korea over the past several months. Chung In Moon, a special adviser for foreign affairs and national security, suggested that the two Koreas, the United States, and possibly China could declare an end to the Korean War, which concluded with an armistice in 1953, by the end of this year—notably before the denuclearization of North Korea has been completed.

As we sat in his office in Seoul, Moon walked me through what might come next: a years-long process of “reciprocal exchanges” involving nuclear concessions from North Korea and political, security, and economic concessions from the United States and its partners, with the end result a peace treaty that would be finalized alongside the North’s full nuclear disarmament. He proposed a novel idea for how to provide the Kim government with security assurances that went beyond “a piece of paper”: allow American investors to start doing business in North Korea. If there are “Americans working in North Korea, then there is very little chance that the U.S. will take military action against North Korea,” Moon argued. “There’s got to be a real American presence.”

Then Moon turned to what is perhaps the most sensitive issue of all, since it cuts to the core of how the United States guarantees the security of South Korea: What exactly do North Korean leaders mean by the “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula”? Could it entail retracting the “nuclear umbrella” that the United States extends to the region by deterring South Korea’s adversaries and committing to defend its ally if necessary with the American nuclear arsenal? The North has called for the “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” ever since George H.W. Bush withdrew U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from South Korean territory in the early 1990s. While the United States no longer stations nuclear weapons in South Korea, it still has multiple ways to launch a nuclear attack against North Korea, and the North Koreans know it.

In any case, North Korean leaders don’t believe the United States removed its nuclear weapons from the South any more than American officials would believe it if the Kim government suddenly declared they had no more nukes but didn’t permit that declaration to be verified. The North Koreans want proof of denuclearization in South Korea in exchange for denuclearization in North Korea, according to Moon, and that’s not all: They have said they want no more deployment of American nuclear-capable vessels and aircrafts during training exercises with South Korean forces, a non-aggression pledge from the U.S., and eventually a normal diplomatic relationship with America.

“Here comes my own idea,” added Moon. (Moon is also a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul and often speaks in that unofficial capacity.) “North and South Korea and other concerned parties should sign a treaty that declares a nuclear-weapon-free zone on the Korean peninsula,” prohibiting nuclear weapons, facilities, and materials in both North and South Korea. There are five such internationally recognized nuclear-weapon-free zones, in Latin America, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Central Asia.

What makes it a difficult sell in the case of Northeast Asia is the presence of two countries with nuclear weapons—China and North Korea—and the nuclear dimensions of America’s military alliances with South Korea and Japan. Under a UN-backed nuclear-weapon-free zone on the Korean peninsula, Moon said, “North Korea will not have nuclear weapons, [and] South Korea will not be under [the] American nuclear umbrella.” Nuclear-weapons states that are parties to the treaty—the United States, China, Russia—would therefore need to offer the Koreas certain guarantees. They could, for example, promise not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against states that don’t have them, or at least not to use them first in a conflict.

To some, this looks like a plan to walk right into North Korea’s trap. Cheon Seong Whun, a national-security official in the conservative administration of former South Korean President Park Geun Hye, recently pointed out that North Korean leaders have for decades spoken of the “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” and a “nuclear-weapon-free zone.” Their objective is not peace, he argued, but to trick the Americans and South Koreans into abandoning their alliance in the false hope of eliminating the North Korean nuclear program—whereupon the North will attempt to reunify the peninsula by force. While North Korea is “lying in the same bed” as the U.S. and South Korea when it comes to denuclearization, Cheon has written, they “are dreaming two different dreams.”

But Peter Hayes, a Korea expert and the director of the California-based Nautilus Institute, doesn’t see it that way. Moon’s is not a “peacenik proposal,” he told me. It’s “a standard legal instrument that already exists in many regions of the world.” (Hayes believes the U.S. nuclear umbrella could still operate in a Korean nuclear-weapon-free zone to protect South Korea from nuclear states outside the peninsula, though other scholars disagree.) “If I was [the North Korean leader], I wouldn’t accept anything less” than a multilateral treaty, Hayes said, since a UN-backed nuclear-weapon-free zone means binding security guarantees not just from the United States, but from other nuclear powers. “The last political agreement on non-hostility that they had with the United States, which was with President Clinton in 2000, George Bush Junior used for toilet paper the day after he was elected.”

Ultimately, Hayes said, North Korean leaders seem to define the “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” not rigidly in terms of any particular policy but more flexibly as about fundamentally transforming their hostile relationship with the United States. He recalled what Kim Yong Chol, now Kim Jong Un’s right-hand man and point person for talks with the Trump administration, told him when Hayes traveled to Pyongyang in 1991: Kim “emphasized that there are no permanent enemies, no permanent friends for a small- or medium-sized power, and that there was no reason for the United States forever to be an enemy of North Korea.” (Incidentally, “No Friends, No Enemies” is how one senior Trump administration official recently summarized the Trump Doctrine to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg.)

What the North Koreans are really after is not booting U.S. troops from Korea, establishing normal relations with the United States, or securing economic aid, Hayes argued. “They want an authentic, cooperative, collaborative relationship with the United States. And that starts at the top. That’s why it was actually a stroke of political genius by Trump to break out of the conventional mold and agree to meet with Kim Jong Un. That was a radical and heretical move, and only Donald Trump could have done it.” Hayes cited the Korean saying “sword to sword, rice cake to rice cake”—essentially, “we’re willing to make peace with you or we’re willing to go to war with you,” as he explained. “I think [the North Koreans are] now putting their swords on the table. They’re saying, ‘What swords are you going to put on the table in the territory that matters to us? And then we’ll put our rice cake up. What rice cakes are you putting up?’”

And once again, the North Koreans have a big ask: In the long run, Hayes said, they may see the United States as a better great-power partner than China, which has its own aspirations to assert influence over Korea. If it sounds bizarre that North Korea, which has raged against its sworn American imperialist enemy for decades, is really considering the U.S. as a patron, Hayes says: “They’ve been hammering on our door for two decades.”

There is serious risk to this approach, however, and it could radiate far beyond the peninsula, Hayes said. “If the way that the Korean peninsula is made nuclear-free results in the United States effectively enlisting North Korea as its security partner in its regional strategy to put political and military pressure on China, it will deepen the bifurcation of Northeast Asia and East Asia as a whole and result in more, not less, conflict in the long run,” he predicted. But this outcome can be avoided if China is instead enlisted as a partner in remaking Northeast Asia’s security architecture through institutions like a nuclear-weapon-free zone. “The whole region is actually at stake here,” Hayes said.

“What worries me is that … we’re not going to notice that we’re crossing a crossroads”—that “we’ll just bulldoze right through it,” Hayes told me. “There’s a left turn here and a right turn here. And going ahead could just be a precipice.”