The Korea Herald


[News analysis] North Korea needs to back down for nuke talks to yield results: experts

By Park Han-na

Published : Oct. 8, 2019 - 16:33

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Neither North Korea nor the US adopted a new stance at their recent working-level denuclearization talks, and the road ahead appears rough unless the North comes to the table with substantial concessions, experts said.

North Korea said Sunday’s talks with US counterparts in Sweden had “not fulfilled our expectations and broke down,” blaming Washington for not coming up with a new approach to negotiations.

US President Donald Trump meets North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Feb. 27, 2019, in Hanoi. (AP-Yonhap) US President Donald Trump meets North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Feb. 27, 2019, in Hanoi. (AP-Yonhap)

The US State Department called the talks, meant to end a stalemate on the denuclearization of North Korea, “good discussions” and said it hoped the two sides would meet again in the coming weeks.

Although the US and North Korea were willing to sit down for face-to-face talks, they have hardly changed their stances from those taken in the second summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in February.

At the Hanoi summit, the North offered to shut its Yongbyon nuclear complex, the centerpiece of its nuclear program, in return for sanctions relief. Trump turned down the offer.

“The US may have stuck to its position that it cannot provide sanctions relief of the level the North wants because the US is maintaining its principle of achieving verified denuclearization of Yongbyon (nuclear facilities) plus alpha. North Korea had no intention of laying out bold denuclearization measures in the early stage of the talks,” said Cha Du-hyeogn, a visiting research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

There is no common definition of what that “alpha” may be, but dismantlement of additional uranium enrichment facilities, partial discarding of the intercontinental ballistic missile system and a freeze on weapons of mass destruction programs have been seen as potential options.

Yongbyon not enough

For the nuclear talks to make progress, it is important for the North to bring more to the table, beyond the scrapping of the Yongbyon facility, according to analysts.

The closure of test sites and suspected uranium enrichment facilities as well as the North’s demonstrated commitment to the “end state” of denuclearization are what the US wants to achieve, said Kim Jina, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.

“The US will continue to demand the North show what the final state of denuclearization would look like. In that sense, the nuclear talks will face a bumpy road without North Korea’s substantial concessions,” Kim said.

Pyongyang hopes to use salami tactics and delay tactics by starting the deal with the Yongbyon facilities, but Washington wants to set an ultimate goal and carry out disarmament in a phased manner.

The US Congress and the related departments have a strong consensus on what the US should pursue: elimination of North Korea’s entire weapons of mass destruction program, including its nuclear warheads and long-range missiles.

“Trump is able to create a better mood for dialogue or modify the timeline for the nuclear talks but he can’t change the content (of the deal) by ignoring Congress’ demand,” Kim said.

Complexity of security guarantee

After walking away from the meeting in Sweden, the North’s chief negotiator, Kim Myong-gil, said the regime would not engage in serious negotiations until the US turns its rhetoric into actions.

He also said the denuclearization process would happen “when all the obstacles that threaten our safety are cleared completely.”

His remarks raised speculation that the key obstacle may be US-South Korea military drills, which were mentioned in his statement.

Experts warned against oversimplifying the meaning of security guarantees or equating them with the termination of the joint military exercises.

“Commenting on the drills means that they will raise issues about United States Forces Korea. Eventually, they want the US troops to pull out from here,” Cha said.

The military alliance between Seoul and Washington would lose significance without the joint military exercises, he added.

“A security guarantee is not simply the concept of stopping military training, but stopping myriad hostile policies, including the deployment of US strategic military assets around the Korean Peninsula,” Kim said.

The South Korean government should take the issue seriously, as talks related to the South Korea-US alliance are underway, including a military cost-sharing deal and the transfer of wartime operational control from Washington to Seoul, she added.

Sanctions relief for textile and coal exports?

Along with the security guarantee, North Korea renewed its call for the lifting of sanctions.

After the Stockholm meeting, the US said it had brought “creative ideas” to the table, but didn’t elaborate.

US media outlet Vox reported Oct. 2 that Washington was set to suspend for 36 months sanctions that prevent the North from exporting textiles and coal, in return for the decommissioning of the Yongbyon nuclear facility and another measure -- most likely the end of North Korea’s uranium enrichment program.

Experts here downplayed the possibility that the US delegation actually made that offer during the meeting, saying it could have been just one of many options.

“The purpose of sanctions is cutting the cash flow into the regime. The US could push to relieve sanctions (concerting quotas of) refined petroleum products that the North imports. But allowing exports of coal is unlikely,” Cha said.

Suspending sanctions so as to permit textile and coal exports wouldn’t enable the North to resume trade with other countries because Pyongyang lost access to the international financial system under other sanctions that would remain in place.

Even if the US proposed the suspension of certain sanctions, that decision would require approval from the UN Security Council’s sanctions committee. Russia and China would probably accept such a proposal but European countries, especially the UK and Germany, would oppose it, Kim said.

South Korean broadcaster JTBC reported Monday that the US had prepared detailed and systematic plans for North Korea's economic development to present at the meeting, citing an unidentified diplomatic source. 

The content included an investment plan involving international financial organizations, development of the North’s Wonsan-Kalma zone as a tourism center and a growth model based on the experience of Vietnam, which undertook economic reforms after normalizing relations with the US.