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Verification before trust, unity among stakeholders key to NK denuclearization

South Korea, the US and other countries seeking denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula must verify North Korea’s denuclearization before trusting the regime, experts at The Korea Herald’s “Korean Peninsula at a Crossroads” forum said.

The forum, held on Thursday, brought together some of the country’s leading experts on North Korea in a discussion about the upcoming inter-Korean and US-North Korea summits. The forum was moderated by Asan Institute for Policy Studies Vice President Choi Kang, with presentations from Seoul National University Professor Kim Byung-yeon, Sogang University Professor Kim Jae-chun, Korea National Diplomatic Academy Professor Kim Hyun-wook and former UN Undersecretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Kim Won-soo. 

The panel engages in a discussion at the Korean Peninsula at a Crossroads forum held at Herald Square in Seoul on Thursday. From left: Choi Kang, Kim Won-soo, Kim Hyun-wook, Kim Byung-yeon and Kim Jae-chun. Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald
The panel engages in a discussion at the Korean Peninsula at a Crossroads forum held at Herald Square in Seoul on Thursday. From left: Choi Kang, Kim Won-soo, Kim Hyun-wook, Kim Byung-yeon and Kim Jae-chun. Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald

Kim Jae-chun, an expert on international security, called for caution and stakeholder countries to be wary of possible attempts by North Korea to disrupt these countries’ cooperation.

“It is difficult for the stakeholder countries, to stay united on North Korea,” he said, explaining that South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the US have different relationships with Pyongyang, citing reports of China-North Korea trade being revived to some extent.

He added that the mention of six-party talks in communications between Pyongyang and Beijing hint that their idea of denuclearization may differ from that held by Seoul and Washington.

“(It may be that) their perception of denuclearization isn’t as strict as ours, and there will be a time that China, Russia and North Korea will say ‘this is pretty good, so take it’ but that’s not good enough to us. That will be one of the key factors that could derail the negotiations.”

In his presentation, Kim Jae-chun assessed President Moon Jae-in’s engagement policy to have been a catalyst, but fell short of being the driving force that brought about the current atmosphere of dialogue. Instead, he pointed to the so-called campaign of maximum pressure for bringing about the apparent change in North Korea’s attitude.

Until January, North Korea had taken a hard-line stance against Seoul and Washington, rejecting any form of discussion regarding denuclearization.

Such assessment was backed by Kim Byung-yeon, who delved into the impact sanctions are having on the North’s economy.

Kim Byung-yeon, a North Korean economy expert, pointed to North Korea’s high trade dependence.

He said that the North’s trade dependency in terms of gross domestic product peaked at about 52 percent in 2014, about 8 percentage points behind the world average. However, the SNU professor argues, that North Korea’s figure is likely to be higher than the global average if informal economic activities are taken into account. He estimates that as much as 90 percent of North Korea’s household income is dependent on informal activities -- those not regulated by the state.

According to Kim, North Korea’s heavy trade dependency has made the country more vulnerable to international sanctions.

“This year, if sanctions are fully implemented, North Korea would lose about 90 percent of trade,” Kim Byung-yeon said. According to Kim Byung-yeon, such changes are likely to have pressured Kim Jong-un to change his stance on dialogue with Seoul and Washington.

Saying that Kim Jong-un’s “byongjin” policy is his “survival code” the economist argued that the marginal benefits of having nuclear weapons and economic growth must be weight against the marginal cost of sanctions. According to his calculations, the latter is likely to have begun to far outweigh the two former elements some time towards the end of last year.

The term byongjin refers to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s plans for strengthening military capabilities with the focus on nuclear armament along with the country’s economy.

During the discussions at the forum, Kim Hyun-wook emphasized that whatever agreement reached between the two Koreas should show that the North is undertaking the denuclearization process on its own accord, thereby showing the world that Pyongyang is serious this time.

He also argued that a peace treaty in itself would have little implications for the future, and that the Koreas should push for more tangible results, such as agreement to reduce military tension.

The American studies professor also stressed that the outcome of the upcoming talks is dependent on Kim Jong-un’s true intentions.

“There are many hurdles, but the most important is whether Kim is serious about giving up nuclear weapons,” Kim Hyun-wook said, adding that it is possible that the North Korean leader may now have changed his views on nuclear weapons.

“If that is the state of Kim’s mind, more positive but that is yet unclear, maybe he has nuclear capabilities, but now turning his objectives of the so called byongjin policy.”

While many factors remain unpredictable, Kim Won-soo pointed out that there are major differences that set the current developments apart from past failed attempts to denuclearize North Korea.

“This time, the process is different. It is significant (that the process) started from top down, started at the very beginning of the South Korean presidential term, which coincides with the US presidential term,” Kim Won-soo said. He went on to say that past attempts at resolving North Korean not only started late in a president’s term, but also at a time when Seoul and Washington had policy disparity on the issue.

“(Now) South Korea and the US share the same sense of strategic purpose (and) decided to start the process from the very top,” he said, adding that once leaders are directly involved, their “personal interest will be there until the end.”

Adding “the devil is in the details,” Kim Won-soo went on to say that challenges will begin after the inter-Korean summit.

By Choi He-suk (