After South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un confirmed their commitment to the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” the ball is now in the court of US President Donald Trump, who is planning to meet Kim in the coming weeks.
In what is seen as another bold step by the North Korean leader, Kim pledged to shut down the North’s nuclear site in Punggye-ri in May and “transparently” demonstrate the process to the international community during the summit, South Korea’s presidential office said Sunday.
It is the first action taken by North Korea since it signed the Panmunjeom Declaration in which the two Koreas pledged to work to completely rid the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons on Friday, further boosting expectations for a breakthrough at the upcoming North Korea-US summit.
“The shutdown is different from dismantling nuclear weapons programs. It is the most basic measure to freeze the North’s nuclear weapons development,” said Kim Dong-yub, professor at Kyungnam University’s Far East Institute. “But it is a meaningful first step of denuclearization.”
Kim also told Moon during the summit that he hoped trust could be built with the US and reiterated that there would be no need for him to maintain a nuclear arsenal if they formally ended the war and signed a nonaggression pact, according to presidential spokesperson Yoon Young-chan.
US President Donald Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (Yonhap)
The announcement comes amid lingering skepticism over the North’s willingness to fully relinquish its nuclear weapons programs, despite the agreement reached at the historic inter-Korean summit Friday.
The Panmunjeom statement was short on detailed measures on how to achieve the goal of “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” There was also no mention of the definition of “complete denuclearization” or a timetable for the process.
As the inter-Korean summit set a positive tone, it seems to be up to Kim and Trump to agree on concrete steps for the most contentious part -- North Korea’s denuclearization -- at their summit that Trump has said would take place over the next three or four weeks.
Experts warned the path to North Korea’s denuclearization is still riddled with challenges, as the inter-Korean summit fell short of confirming that North Korea is on the same page as the US about what denuclearization means.
The US and South Korea have demanded the North give up its nuclear weapons in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner within a short period of time before any incentives -- such as the easing of sanctions or normalization of relations with the US -- are given to North Korea. North Korea, on the other hand, has suggested South Korea and the US take “phased and synchronized” measures as it take steps to denuclearize.
“It remains to be seen what Kim Jong-un’s commitment to denuclearization means in concrete terms: whether it foreshadows agreement to President Trump’s demand for the rapid and verifiable elimination of the North’s nuclear weapons, delivery systems and infrastructure; or whether the North envisages a drawn-out process tied to potentially unacceptable demands that the US withdraw its forces from the South or provide immediate sanctions relief, while the North’s nuclear threat remains in place,” said Alexander Vershbow, a distinguished fellow at Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and former ambassador to South Korea.
“Hopefully, this will become clearer before a firm date is set for the US-North Korea summit.”
And the phrase “a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula” could imply that the North wants the South to be free from nuclear weapons, too. Concerns persist that the North could demand a withdrawal of US troops and strategic assets from South Korea, as well as the end of the US nuclear umbrella over South Korea, in return for abandoning its nuclear arsenal.
“Controlling the pace of declaration of end to the Korean War and denuclearization is very important,” said Shin Beom-chul, senior researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in a report released Sunday.
“Unilaterally pushing for ending the Korean War and establishing a peace regime without coordination with the US or a progress in the North’s denuclearization, it could cause a crack in the South Korea-US alliance,” he added.
It also remains to be seen to what extent North Korea would agree to an inspection of its known and unknown nuclear facilities by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The prospects for accomplishing the historic South-North declaration would depend on whether or not Trump and Kim reach a deal to dismantle Kim’s nuclear weapons.
Other than affirming the two Koreas’ will for the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” they agreed to declare an end to the 1950-1953 Korean War within the year, establish a cross-border hotline, pursue phased arms reduction, cease hostile acts and expand inter-Korean exchanges.
Signing a peace treaty would involve more than the two Koreas, as the US and China are direct signatories to the armistice that has left the country divided and in a technical state of conflict since 1953.
Any resumption of projects for economic cooperation could also be in violation of the multilayered international sanctions against North Korea and undermine the US-led maximum pressure campaign on the reclusive regime.
Now, Moon is left with the pressing task to play a mediating role between North Korea and the US and draw a realistic plan to reconcile possible differences in understanding of denuclearization between the countries before they hold a summit.
“The South Korean government’s role is to deliver what has been discussed without being made public during Moon’s meeting with Kim to the US. South Korea should closely adjust with the US to prepare concrete measures for the North’s denuclearization before the US sits down for talks with North Korea,” said Park Won-gon, a professor at Handong Global University.
Pyongyang and Washington could agree on their broad goal of denuclearization and simplify steps for the North to denuclearize quickly, and the US could simultaneously take measures to guarantee the North Korean regime’s security, suggested some analysts.
Another round of diplomacy is expected to play out in the coming weeks, with Moon considering meeting with Trump before the North Korea-US summit. He is also expected to meet with his Japanese and Chinese counterparts at a trilateral summit in early May.
US officials are still deciding when and where to hold the talks between President Trump and Kim, according to media reports, with Mongolia and Singapore thought to be two countries on the shortlist.