The Korea Times -By Kim Yoo-chul
If the United States and South Korea can reach an agreement on the “definition of complete denuclearization,” President Moon Jae-in’s efforts toward dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program could get momentum, according to a North Korea expert.
“With an agreement on the definition of complete denuclearization, it will be possible to do much more with greater confidence that we [South Korea, North Korea and the United States] are working toward the same goals,” Scott A. Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea studies and director of a program on Korea-U.S. policy at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations, said in a written interview, last week.
“Until there is a convergence in the United States-South Korea and North Korean understanding and definition of what constitutes complete denuclearization, it will be hard to have confidence that enticements offered to North Korea, large or small, would deliver the desired result,” Snyder said.
A key rationale is that while South Korea’s framing of its approach to North Korea as a “denuclearization-embedded peace process” and Washington’s, a “peace-embedded denuclearization process,” are different in emphasis, they are not “substantially different” from each other in terms of the desired outcome.
“But there remains a clear difference between those views and the North Korean view, which has not yet embraced an understanding of what is meant by complete denuclearization.”
Since the breakdown of the summit in Hanoi between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un due to stark differences on the specific terms of “denuclearization,” talks aimed at dismantling the North’s nuclear arsenal have been stalled.
As a desperate move to possibly break the impasse, President Moon flew to Washington recently for a summit with Trump. Their talks resulted in Trump’s support for the South providing humanitarian food assistance to North Korea via international organizations.
But the North launched what appeared to be short-range missiles to protest Washington’s reluctance in lifting wider economic sanctions. Countries are not prohibited from sending humanitarian aid to North Korea, though some dual-use items such as farming machinery, industrial and medical equipment “should be granted” a sanctions exemption from the United Nations Security Council.
Snyder said an improvement in inter-Korean ties will “likely continue to face limits” without evidence of Pyongyang’s commitment and progress on denuclearization, though last year’s joint declaration in the North Korean capital contributed to discussions on denuclearization and marked progress in inter-Korean efforts to constructively address the issue.
Still hopeful but time-consuming process
Snyder remained quite positive about Seoul and Washington’s efforts, and the U.S. insistence on verifiable denuclearization.
“There is room for South Korea to help the United States and North Korea to understand each other’s positions in an effort to support a continued narrowing of the denuclearization gap between the two countries,” the expert said.
“President Moon facilitated communications between the United States and North Korea and conducted a successful intervention with Kim Jong-un several weeks prior to the Singapore summit to keep planning on track for the first ever meeting between the United States and North Korea,” he added.
President Moon’s role in the denuclearization process has evolved according to the situation and nature of the relationship between the United States and North Korea.
“I see several points at which President Moon’s efforts played critical roles or were well-rewarded. For example, Moon successfully played a catalytic intermediary role in averting the pathway to a United States-North Korea confrontation, using the PyeongChang Olympics to halt the march toward confrontation, and reopening a diplomatic pathway toward peaceful denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula,” Snyder noted.
But one prerequisite required of Moon is for him to maintain “good communications channels” with Washington and Pyongyang and to question either side in a search for a way forward. “But Moon ultimately does not control the agenda or willingness of either side to compromise, so there are limits to what he can do.”
Regarding the main issue to be discussed at the upcoming summit to be held in Seoul in June, the expert said, “coordination on North Korea and the United States-South Korea security coordination.”
Assuming that President Moon’s role as a “facilitator” in the nuclear diplomacy goes smoothly, Snyder expects that a third U.S.-North Korea summit could happen. But he remained negative about any “substantial results” from a third Trump-Kim meeting.
“It will be difficult to achieve. At present, each side is expecting the other side to make concessions in order to make possible a Trump-Kim agreement at a third summit, but there is no evidence to date that either side is willing to bend to the other,” he said.
The deepening trade friction between the United States and China is pushing North Korea down the list of priorities in Washington-Beijing relations. Yet, any coordination between the United States and China on North Korea is a “factor that may influence how the North responds to the current situation.”
“Russia has also emerged as a player that supports North Korea’s denuclearization, but it will not sacrifice its mercantile interests on the peninsula in order to support that objective,” Snyder said.
Russia is North Korea’s strongest backer on the economic front. President Vladimir Putin recently held a summit with Kim Jong-un in Vladivostok. While their talks didn’t produce any joint statements, political analysts viewed the summit as the North sending a message to the United States that the regime needs a security guarantee and economic support.
Unlike Putin, Kim’s stake is much higher given the prospects for ending the economic isolation of the North vastly dimmed after the failure in Hanoi. Political analysts say Russia is one of the very few remaining options for the North to get some relief and survive a difficult period.