North Korea Summit and the Elephant in the Room

North Korea Summit and the Elephant in the Room

Haeryun Kang
Haeryun Kang

Just two days remain before the two Korean heads of state meet by the inter-Korean border. North Korea’s Kim Jong-un recently announced that Pyongyang would “discontinue nuclear testing” and that no ICBMs would be tested after Apr. 21, 2018. Telephone lines were established between Kim and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in. South Korea has turned off its propaganda loudspeakers by the border. Suffice to say, there’s a lot happening. 

Moon and Kim’s summit on Apr. 27 will be the first meeting between two Korean heads of state in 11 years. It’s also seen as an important stepping stone for the Trump-Kim summit, which hasn’t yet been scheduled. What are the unspoken agendas here? Human rights is a big one. Money may also be another — what’s the possibility that North Korea may ask for financial compensation in return for denuclearization? 

“Denuclearization needs to happen fast,” said Dr. Cheong Seong-chang at an event hosted by Korea Exposé on Apr. 20. Cheong, director of the Unification Strategy Studies program at the Sejong Institute, spoke to a group of foreign journalists on what may be at stake in the upcoming summits.

Cheong is also a member of the policy advisory committee at the Ministry of Unification, and has served on the policy advisory committees at the Ministry of National Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His insights into North Korea’s agenda aren’t conclusive, but raise interesting questions for Korea watchers.  

Below are our highlighted excerpts from the discussion, translated and edited for clarity. 

(Source: Flickr, CC by 2.0)

Se-Woong Koo, Korea Exposé: On one hand, it’s true that this is a significant moment with a lot at stake. South Korea has a lot to accomplish to facilitate the conversation. But that also implies South Korea isn’t an essential player. It’s a side player. What can the government possibly do to show that it matters?

Kurt Achin, TBS eFM: Let me be even more blunt. Why have this summit [with South Korea] first?

Dr. Cheong Seong-chang: The distrust between the U.S. and North Korea is tremendous. If they were to meet without having established a point of contact, it would be less likely that the U.S.-North Korea summit would succeed.

The South Korean government is showing great willingness to establish good relations with Pyongyang. It also has an intimate alliance with the U.S. That means South Korea has the ability to mediate the differences between North Korea and the U.S. If the inter-Korean summit can create a working draft that can be finalized at the Kim-Trump summit, the latter is more likely to proceed successfully. 

Kim Gamel, Stars and Stripes: What is Moon Jae-in’s role in all of this? Would it have been possible to talk to North Korea if President Park hadn’t been ousted and if Moon hadn’t been elected? Moon came to office campaigning on this issue — can you talk about what stake he has, personally?

Cheong: If Park hadn’t been ousted and was still president, it would’ve been realistically impossible to improve inter-Korean relations. South Korea would’ve been a direct threat, an ideological competitor. Waiting for North Korea to collapse and rejecting diplomacy [like Park had] wouldn’t have left Pyongyang with much else to do but continue clinging to nuclear development.

Dr. Cheong Seong-chang, center left, with Korea Exposé moderator Se-Woong Koo, center right. (Ho Kyeong Jang/Korea Exposé)

Fabian Kretschmer, freelancer: There has been a lot of talk about even signing a peace treaty. South Korea isn’t a member of the armistice agreement. From a legal perspective, to what extent can South Korea actually sign a peace treaty?

Cheong: You’re right, South Korea wasn’t directly involved in the armistice agreement. But in 2000, the two Koreas agreed to cooperate to create a peaceful system.

[Editor’s Note: In 2000, the June 15th North-South Joint Declaration was adopted by the Korean leaders at the time, president Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il. It was the first ever deal made directly between the heads of state of the two Koreas. The declaration included a pledge to “restrain from activities that threaten the other.” Six years later, Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test.]  

If there are talks for peace, the key participants must be South Korea, the U.S., China and North Korea. 

There is currently a lot of research within South Korea about establishing peaceful Korean systems, while the U.S. is mainly interested in denuclearization. So it’s highly likely that the South Korean government will be the one to provide solutions for creating a peaceful political system on the Korean Peninsula, and cultivate a consensus among neighboring countries.  

Nemo Kim, freelancer: Do you foresee the human rights situation in North Korea becoming better after the summits? Or will it deteriorate? Do you think the actual holding of the summits itself is a success?

Cheong: If Pyongyang’s summits with Seoul and Washington proceed, tensions will be relieved and the human rights situation in North Korea can also improve. 

In the past, human rights conditions improved significantly after North Korea’s summits with South Korea. If inter-Korean relations improve, I think this will have a positive impact on North Korea’s human rights problems. An environment can be created in which South Korea and the international community can actively persuade North Korea to change. 

Read Human Rights Watch’s 2017 report on North Korea’s human rights violations

Meet a former journalist from Pyongyang, who highlights how impossible it is to do ‘journalism’ in North Korea. 

Kim Gamel, Stars and Stripes: What are the short-term and long-term implications for the U.S.-South Korea alliance? President Trump has said that in the short term there will be no removal of troops from South Korea…. But how about in the long-run?

Cheong: In the past, at times of hostile relations, North Korea had demanded that the U.S. remove its troops from South Korean soil. But when talks proceed [like now], Pyongyang does not make such demands. It knows that South Korea cannot accept such a request, and as long as Pyongyang insists, negotiations will not proceed. 

We haven’t got long before the North Korea-U.S. summit. [Editor: Still unscheduled] Nowhere in North Korea’s main newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, can you see demands to get rid of the U.S. military from South Korea.

Perhaps North Korea is looking for a definite guarantee that the U.S. will not attack. This guarantee, which will be a separate agenda item from negotiating peace on the Korean Peninsula, could turn into a fiery discussion.  

On the other hand, the South Korea-U.S. alliance doesn’t exist simply to deal with North Korea.

The alliance can play a stabilizing role in the region. China is rapidly expanding its military influence; Japan is becoming militarized. There’s a limit to how much South Korea can respond to these changes by itself. When considering the security environment surrounding the Korean Peninsula, the alliance must continue. Even if there are partial adjustments, the large picture most likely will not change. 

Read more about the South Korea-U.S. alliance in “South Korea’s Looming Choice

Haeryun Kang, Korea Exposé: Denuclearization and peace treaties seem like very long-term, broad agendas. To turn to more practical matters, what role do you think money plays in determining the outcome of the denuclearization negotiations? What is the likelihood North Korea will demand money — through official and backdoor channels — to the U.S. and South Korean governments?

Cheong: There’s no possibility that Pyongyang will demand money in return for denuclearization. Ending the international sanctions alone will be economically beneficial to North Korea. It’s not possible that the North will make monetary demands advantageous to itself that South Korea and the U.S. won’t find acceptable. 

Neither the U.S. nor South Korea can accept a gradual, long-term denuclearization. Past processes won’t work. Both governments agree that denuclearization must happen within a year. It must happen soon. It’s advisable to achieve denuclearization before Donald Trump’s term ends in the summer of 2020. 

Kurt Achin, TBS eFM: Who verifies that process of denuclearization?Cheong: If Kim Jong-un meets with Trump and decides to proceed with a denuclearizing plan, over the next six months, for example, the U.S. can attempt to understand Pyongyang’s nuclear program. It’s possible that North Korea will report 20 nuclear weapons, even though it has 23. But even if it did, it couldn’t start a war with the three hidden weapons. They couldn’t only be used as a defense mechanism.

[Editor: It’s not clear how many nuclear warheads North Korea owns. The Institute for Science and International Security, a U.S. think tank, predicted that the North may have had 13-21 nuclear warheads as of June 2016.] 

Se-Woong Koo, Korea Exposé: Can we have more specific information about who would do the verification, besides the U.S. and South Korea in general?

Cheong: It’s likely that the U.S. will perform analysis on the weapons that North Korea reports. The International Atomic Energy Agency will participate actively, but China will probably play a key role in eliminating North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ICBMs. It will be difficult for U.S. itself to go to nuclear storage sites in North Korea. It’s more realistic for China to do that job, since North Korea feels less threatened by Beijing.  

It’s possible there will be a lot of petty conflicts during the verification process. Parties might suspect North Korea of hiding nuclear weapons and ask to inspect key facilities, which the North may reject. What’s different from the past is that Kim Jong-un has agreed to establish a direct telephone hotline with President Moon Jae-in. I believe it’ll be possible to overcome any difficulties that may arise during the denuclearization process. 

(Ho Kyeong Jang/Korea Exposé)

Ben Jackson, Korea Exposé: North Korea has one of the biggest standing armies in the world. If there’s a peace treaty in place in the future, do you think the soldiers would be discharged? What effect do you think will have on the system?

Cheong: More North Korean soldiers are being deployed for economic projects. Pyongyang holds onto these young people to cut the costs of construction and development. If you hire regular laborers, you must pay them and guarantee housing, etc. But if you use troops to build apartments, for example, they’re much cheaper than regular workers. 

I predict that if a peaceful political system is established on the Korean Peninsula, the number of soldiers in North Korea’s military will decrease compared to now, but many will continue to be used for North Korea’s economic development and construction projects. 

Fabian Kretschmer, freelancer: If Moon Jae-in re-opened Kaesong Industrial Complex, would this be against UN sanctions?

Cheong: Closing the Kaesong complex was the South Korean government’s independent decision. But since it closed [in February 2016], the international community has become more unified in imposing sanctions on North Korea. This means South Korea can no longer independently decide to re-open Kaesong. The complex can only re-open when UN sanctions are relaxed. 


The event was organized by Korea Exposé. Beer was sponsored by HiteJinro. 

Cover image: The North Korean flag. (Source: Max Pixel, CC0 Public Domain)

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