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North Korea nuclear crisis

Unless the US addresses North Korea’s legitimate security concerns, Trump’s ‘big deal’ with Kim Jong-un could become a ‘truly sad’ story

Zhang Chi says the Singapore summit will be futile if the US and the international community do not offer North Korea security assurances

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 June, 2018, 11:03pm
UPDATED : Friday, 08 June, 2018, 10:18pm

It is hoped that the US-North Korea summit, scheduled for June 12 in Singapore, will produce a historic outcome. But a critical question that remains unanswered is whether the international community, including the United States, is well prepared for the summit. In other words, is Washington ready to negotiate an agreement with Pyongyang for the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula?

The answer, perhaps, is “no”. The reason is pretty simple: so far, the US has not figured out an appropriate way to address Pyongyang’s legitimate security concerns.

Hence, although President Donald Trump and leader Kim Jong-un have sincere hopes for the summit, there are uncertainties and challenges over whether it can yield a historic prize.

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Denuclearisation and North Korea’s security concerns are closely related. They must be taken seriously, and given equal attention.

While denuclearisation is a worthy goal, laying to rest Pyongyang’s legitimate security concerns is a precondition for it

While denuclearisation is a worthy goal, laying to rest Pyongyang’s legitimate security concerns is a precondition for it. If denuclearisation is the “big deal”, to use Trump’s words, that the US wants to achieve, it should work with the international community to provide North Korea with security assurances.

If we put ourselves in North Korea’s shoes, it’s not difficult to understand Pyongyang’s security worries. Thus, the international community needs to take substantial steps to guarantee the security of the North Korean regime if it wants the country to denuclearise.

To date, regrettably, the US has requested “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation” but only paid lip service to addressing Pyongyang’s security concerns. This will not dispel North Korea’s misgivings.

For a long time, there has been a serious lack of mutual trust between Washington and Pyongyang. Moreover, the US has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Iran nuclear deal, further reducing America’s credibility worldwide. If Washington easily abandons agreements it has officially signed, what of its spoken assurances? From Pyongyang’s perspective, therefore, if Washington wants to negotiate on denuclearisation sincerely, it should take more concrete action to address North Korea’s reasonable security worries.

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However, providing security assurances is difficult. Denuclearisation can be easier, relatively, as it involves specific actions such as handing over nuclear weapons, disabling nuclear facilities and allowing in International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.

In contrast, providing a security guarantee involves many factors and can be difficult to implement. To begin with, a peace treaty needs to be signed by the countries concerned, which is essential for ending the state of war on the peninsula. Further, the US, Russia, China, North Korea, South Korea, Japan and the United Nations need to engage in effective negotiation and collaboration to establish a multilateral security institution to ensure lasting peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and even Northeast Asia as a whole.

More importantly, the international community has to consider how to ensure North Korea’s safety after it has dismantled its nuclear facilities and makes progress with nuclear disarmament. Specifically, how can the international community offer protection, so Pyongyang does not have to worry about a military invasion by the US and its allies? This is of vital importance, and will determine whether denuclearisation can be realised.

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In his letter to Kim on May 24 announcing the cancellation of the summit, Trump described the so-called “missed opportunity” as “a truly sad moment in history”. In fact, if North Korea’s security concerns are not properly addressed, it might be difficult to achieve any substantive results in the summit.

If this is not achieved, the international community would have truly lost a historic opportunity to solve the North Korea nuclear issue peacefully, maintain the global nuclear non-proliferation system and bring peace and prosperity to the peninsula. Worse, failure could foreshadow conflict across the peninsula, producing a disappointing outcome.

It is time to consider how to prevent “a truly sad moment” from becoming “a truly sad story in history”.

Lieutenant Colonel Zhang Chi is an associate professor at the Centre of Strategic Studies at the National Defence University of the People’s Liberation Army in Beijing. The views expressed here are those of the author