North Korea nuclear crisis

Why Kim Jong-un’s promise of a nuclear-free North Korea should not be trusted

Deng Yuwen says Kim has rightly calculated that he needed to make some concessions to ease international pressure on his regime, but he will never totally give up the nuclear programme that North Korea has invested so much in

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 May, 2018, 1:31pm
UPDATED : Friday, 04 May, 2018, 6:16pm

The historic summit between North and South Korean leaders ended as they signed the “Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula”. Denuclearisation on the peninsula is the top concern of the international community, but the issue is mentioned only in the fourth point of the third article in the declaration.  

According to this third article, the two Koreas agree on the urgent historic task of ending the “current unnatural state of armistice” and pledge to build an enduring peace mechanism on the peninsula. As part of this larger goal, point No 4 says the two Koreas “confirmed the common goal of realising, through complete denuclearisation, a nuclear-free Korean peninsula”. In other words, the peace process could proceed even if denuclearisation efforts stall. 

It was not out of negligence that the declaration was written this way. North Korea intends to make denuclearisation only a sub-item to consider when it comes to peace-building – a far cry from what the outside world expects. 

Vague pledges underscore challenges to peace on Korean peninsula

Certainly, denuclearisation isn’t the only issue of concern in North-South relations, but it should top the list of priorities. 

Indeed, ahead of the summit, South Korea listed three key issues for discussion: denuclearisation was the first, then came the possibility of setting up a permanent peace-building mechanism, and building sustainable inter-Korea relations. 

Practically speaking, denuclearisation is the most important issue because only a nuclear-free peninsula could ensure the sustainable development of inter-Korean relations. If North Korea does not abandon its nuclear programme, the other two items on the agenda cannot be realised. Even if some progress could be made, it would not guarantee long-lasting stability. 

If Seoul had its way, denuclearisation would most certainly have been listed as a standalone issue in the Panmunjom Declaration. That it was not probably means the South gave in to pressure from the North to downplay the issue. 

Thus, although Kim Jong-un had said he is willing to give up his nuclear weapons, it will remain an empty promise without a clear road map of how it is to be done. 

Why Korean denuclearisation hangs on trust between North Korea and US

Of course, under pressure from the international community, Kim is likely to make some concessions on denuclearisation, but they will be limited. This is likely to be his plan – promising “complete denuclearisation” while taking limited steps towards it. 

The calculations that went into Kim’s strategy are not hard to work out. 

The inter-Korean summit this time was vastly different from the previous two because the global context has changed. For one, North Korea today is believed to possess missiles that could reach the US mainland. Second, crippling United Nations sanctions targeting the North Korean economy – unprecedented in their severity – have tightened Pyongyang’s room for manoeuvre. 

Logically, it does not make sense for Kim to completely abandon his nuclear arsenal, after having invested huge amounts of North Korea’s limited resources on its development in defiance of international pressure. Furthermore, even if President Donald Trump were to promise that the US would not attack his regime, Kim would never believe it. 

Iran warns Koreas about ‘provocation, interference’ from US

And, yet, Kim is well aware of the serious consequences for his country if the UN sanctions – backed by both the United States and China – were to continue for, say, three to five years.   

If Kim does not want the sanctions to destabilise his regime, he knows he must make some effort towards fulfilling the international community’s demand for denuclearisation. This is why Kim is trying to make the international community believe he will abandon his nuclear programme. 

To achieve this, Kim first stopped threatening war on the world. To demonstrate sincerity, the North toned down its aggression while taking action to improve North-South relations.

Moon Jae-in’s election as South Korean president has also given Kim a golden opportunity. As the leader of a reform-leaning, progressive government, Moon has inherited from Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun the “sunshine” foreign policy towards Pyongyang. Like his two predecessors, Moon, who was the chief coordinator for Roh’s trip to Pyongyang in 2007, is sympathetic towards the North. 

When the inter-Korean summit went off script and tensions surfaced

As North Korea has repeatedly failed to keep its promises in the past, the international community has become more cautious about Kim’s peace overtures. There is also a view, however, that this young man is a new face, after all, and he might not act like his father. It is also thought that Kim could succumb to the strong UN sanctions.  

Thus, the international community is divided over whether Kim’s intentions are sincere this time. I believe he is sincere in trying to ease tensions on the peninsula and build a stable mechanism for peace, if only because it is under these circumstances that the North Korean economy could be developed. For North Korea to improve its people's livelihoods, there must be peace on the peninsula. Otherwise, foreign investment would not be drawn in, and North Korea's economy would remain sluggish. 

However, it is doubtful whether Kim is sincere in completely abandoning nuclear weapons.  

It is highly probable that Kim is putting on a show over the issue. The more sincere he looks, the more the world will believe he will abandon his nuclear programme.  It is why he agreed at the inter-Korean summit to add the clause about "complete denuclearisation" to the declaration.

To showcase his “determination” to end North Korea’s nuclear programmes, Kim, during his upcoming talks with Trump, might express a willingness to do so and to take some measures, such as disabling nuclear facilities and destroying some less powerful nuclear missiles. Wowed by his "sincerity”, the UN would in turn relax or lift sanctions, and international aid and investment would flow into the country.  

No matter how Kim appears to have changed, his ultimate purpose is to have the nuclear abandonment plan delayed or simply dropped. His new strategy, however, has divided the international community. 

To make him abandon his nuclear programme, a clear-cut timetable must be laid out to force him to do so once and for all, rather than in stages, so that he can have no room to negotiate on the issue.

Deng Yuwen is a researcher at the Charhar Institute think tank. This is translated from Chinese