The Denuclearisation Diplomacy

Hira Bahadur Thapa


As the US President Trump looks forward to his meeting with the North Korea’s leader Kim, speculations are rife whether the two parties will interpret denuclearisation from same perspectives. Their landmark encounter is focusing on how North Korea’s nuclear arsenals will be dismantled. Normalisation of bilateral relations followed by peace treaty and lifting of economic sanctions all hinge on how the sides agree to achieve denuclearisation in the region. Nuclear-free Korean peninsula is the broader goal. Worryingly, the two sides differ sharply as to how best to attain that lofty objective. North Korea’s complete renunciation of all its nuclear weapons is not necessarily leading to that goal an opinion firmly held in Pyongyang.

North Korea argues for “Denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula” rather than focus on “Denuclearisation of North Korea”. To North Korea, denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula is a preferred diplomatic option. It believes that nuclear weapon-free Korean peninsula would also mean the removal of nuclear umbrella that South Korea and Japan enjoy as the US allies. Stationing of American forces in South Korea and Japan is an irritant issue for Pyongyang.
Denuclearisation and arms limitation are two distinct concepts. There are vital differences between them. Erroneously sometimes these terms are used inter changeably. In trying to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis, indications are emergiing that the two negotiating parties understand the process of denuclearisation in a different way. This is true if we analyse statements coming from both North Korea and the US.
North Korean officials have said that denuclearisation should take place in a phased manner. They rule out complete denuclearisation in the foreseeable future. On the contrary, the American officials, including John Bolton, the national security adviser to president Trump, have explained that denuclearisation should be complete and immediate. It should be attainable within a short time frame.
Washington has demanded that North Korea should completely denuclearise. In presenting this demand the Trump administration contends that there should be complete, verifiable, and irreversible disassembly of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Happily that position is changing induced by recent developments in the Korean peninsula. This has happened in the wake of negative reaction from North Korea last week when it protested against the continuation of joint US-South Korea military drills. Consequently, North and South Korea meetings (May 16) were cancelled. North Korea’s leader Kim even threatened to call off the Singapore meeting on June 12.
In response to that, president Trump has displayed flexibility with regards to US approach to negotiations on nuclear weapons. At his recent meeting with president Moon Jae-un of South Korea in Washington, he has disavowed his national security adviser, who previously insisted on immediate and total dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
Many analysts have interpreted this as president Trump’s strong desire to preserve his much anticipated summit meeting with Kim. Nuclear talks are crucial to attaining peace in the region of northeast Asia, where tensions over North Korea’s nuclear programme have prevailed for decades. Despite several attempts of resolving nuclear crisis in the past, there has been no tangible progress on this front.
The 1994 Agreed Framework struck by former US president Clinton with Kim Jong-il, the deceased father of Kim Jong-un is often cited as an example of US-North Korea agreement on nuclear weapons, which for various reasons failed to achieve its desired goal. This is why both sides this time are eager to tread very carefully so that a workable deal is hammered out which can deliver fruits. They favour the removal of nuclear weapons, the dismantlement of which may occur in a reasonable period of time. Demanding unilateral renunciation of nuclear weapons from North Korea with emphasis on completeness, irreversibility and immediacy sounds unrealistic. Against this reality the change of mind by the US president on this issue is anything but welcome news.
North Korea has all but completed its quest for nuclear weapons with likely capability to miniaturise them to fit atop a missile in the opinion of Robert Jervis and Mira Rapp- Hooper whose essay “Perception and Misperception on the Korean Peninsula” has been carried by Foreign Affairs (May-June 2018 page 103). Having accomplished this feat it is very important to observe North Korea’s interpretation of the signals coming from Washington. US’s mixed signals like complete dismantlement of nuclear arsenals and phased denuclearisation would rarely contribute to negotiations.
North Korea is serious in diplomacy for resolving nuclear standoff this time. One of the reasons is the economic bite due to severe US sanctions. Victor D. Cha, a professor of government in Georgetown University and Katrin Fraser Katz, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (Foreign Affairs, May-June 2018 page 90) have argued that cutting oil imports and coal exports, depleting hard currencies and commodity price spike have pushed Kim to the negotiating table.
North Korea has remained obsessive for nuclear weapons because of some conviction. This is related to their perception of the US. The North Korean leaders work hard to perpetuate the belief that Americans are always on the brink of invading their country. Additionally, they believe that their nuclear weapons ensure their survival. It has been proved that they have the nuclear deterrence, which has made it possible for their leader to meet with a sitting US president, the first in history. President Trump’s decision to have summit meeting with him could make a courageous step forward for the de-escalation of tensions in the Korean peninsula.

Kim is only willing to negotiate with the US as a fellow nuclear power. It sees Americans as an existential threat. Therefore, expecting North Korea to denuclearise without being incentivised like security guarantees is impractical. Denuclearisation diplomacy should be pursued to make it a win-win game for both. When diplomacy fails, the military has to step in to compensate as predicted by Brian Bennett in his article “Trump’s Risky Game of Deal or No Deal”. (Time May 21, 2018).

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