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North Korea Said it is Willing to Talk about Denuclearization…But No One Noticed

By
12 July 2016


Railroad  track pointsThere was a train wreck last week, but not a lot of people noticed, swooning as they were over the July 6 announcement that the US Department of Treasury had designated Kim Jong Un by name on a new list of individuals sanctioned for human rights violations. In the dance of jubilation, few had the time or inclination (to borrow a line from Irma La Duce) to pay attention to a DPRK government spokesman’s statement released earlier the same day. That statement made clear what the North Koreans have been hinting at for some time—yes, they were willing to talk about denuclearization.

Notice I did not just say that the North has declared that it would completely give up its nuclear arsenal. Instead, Pyongyang has taken a major, long-term step of defining the scope of denuclearization in terms that potentially brings the discussion back down to earth, reintroducing concepts that both Seoul and Washington had previously accepted. Those concepts? At their core, they are not those of the September 2005 Six Party joint statement, but the January 1992 North-South Denuclearization Declaration.

It is important to pay attention to the vehicle Pyongyang used to convey the latest position—a DPRK Government spokesman’s statement, among the highest on the North’s ladder of authority. Statements at this level are generally used to signal important new policies. They are not employed to spread pixie dust, but neither are they entirely straightforward. They need to be—dare I use this language in mixed company—parsed.

Let us parse.

Definition. Most fundamentally, the statement redefines “denuclearization,” or to be more precise, revives a definition of “denuclearization” that the North had long used (going back as far as the 1980s) but had appeared over the past few years to abandon, or at least to posture as if it were abandoning, in favor of something much more sweeping and unattainable. Specifically, the statement says:

The denuclearization being called for by the DPRK is the denuclearization of the whole Korean peninsula and this includes the dismantlement of nukes in south Korea and its vicinity.

For Pyongyang that definition provides a better, more realistic, more salable, and more defensible starting point—that is, if there is to be “denuclearization,” it will pertain very specifically to the Korean peninsula. At this point, there is no need to stumble over what is meant by “and its vicinity.” This is an accordion term, and will doubtlessly end up being expanded or contracted were negotiations ever to get started. If “vicinity” raises flags, that’s only natural, and the North Koreans know it.

Pedigree. To provide the firmest, most unassailable rationale for this stated willingness to consider the question of denuclearization, the statement recalls that denuclearization was the “behest” of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. The last time central DPRK media mentioned this denuclearization behest of the leaders was in an important—but largely overlooked—June 2013 National Defense Commission statement. Actually, the current formulation goes a step beyond that by specifically linking Kim Jong Un to the issue, asserting that denuclearization is “the steadfast will of our party, army, and people who are advancing under the leadership of the respected and beloved Comrade Kim Jong Un.”

Rationale. The statement then wades into the tricky question of how to justify this new position. In recent years, the North has reserved wriggle room for itself. It has claimed that US actions and hostility had forced the DPRK finally to move to acquire nuclear weapons, while routinely hedging its stated determination to keep and develop these weapons with qualifiers such as “as long as,” e.g., as long as the US continued to threaten the North. Now, with a long-practiced ability to leap out of a corner, Pyongyang has switched the use of the qualifier from a barrier to a springboard. If the US caused the problem, then the US must also help resolve it, and here, precisely, are the things the Americans can do.

But wait! In the middle of this discussion, up pops the following:

This is precisely the fundamental reason that the denuclearization of the North—which the United States, the puppet gang, and its other following forces are persistently demanding—can never work under any circumstances.

Read quickly, that sentence looks to be a negation of what the statement is otherwise supposed to accomplish. Read carefully, however, and in the context of what follows, it becomes clear that the argument in that passage that the North is not retreating into accepting the US definition of denuclearization but is advancing with its own. It is the particular definition of denuclearization that the US advances that “can never work,” but with change in the definition of denuclearization, the statement suggests, something can be accomplished.

Sequence. The issue of sequence, which has always been key in US-DPRK talks, rears its head.

The United States, which is attempting to realize its ambition to invade our Republic at any cost by maintaining its nuclear superiority, and the puppet gang that has been completely following it, should seriously reflect on their past riddled with the crimes of systematically obstructing our struggle for the peace and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, before they talk about somebody’s nuclear abandonment.

Instead of blabbering about the North’s unilateral denuclearization, while absurdly blaming us for making nuclear threats and provocations, they ought to take the path of using their own hands to untie the nuclear knot they made by their actions. That path should start with the complete elimination of the source of nuclear threats and blackmail against us, not with the North’s denuclearization first. (Emphasis added.)

A vexing problem in dealing with the North typically is not just who does what, but equally important, who goes first. For the North Koreans, sequence is a form of substance. It is organic to a solution, not simply for its practical implications but also for the deeper symbolism in a situation where neither side trusts the other, not one bitty iota. In the context of the July 6 statement, with the assertion that the US must go first, Pyongyang is opening the door to the expectation that theirs is a next move and, at least notionally, the North can take steps that it might previously have rejected.

Specifics. In a number of ways, it is the specific demands the statement lays out that wake the ghosts of the January 1992 North-South denuclearization declaration. In broad terms, of the five demands, the US has previously met or at one time agreed in principle to four of them. Let’s take them as the North presents them:

  1. “Firstly, all nuclear weapons of the United States, which it has neither confirmed nor denied after bringing them into South Korea, must be publicly disclosed.” (Comment: This is similar to what the North called for in 1992. Since we don’t have, and the North Koreans know we don’t have, nuclear weapons in the South, this first point would seem to be a stage-setter.)
  2. “Secondly, all the nukes and their bases should be dismantled and verified in the eyes of the world. (Comment: In 1992, the US generally accepted—with trepidation on the part of some—the idea of opening a few of its bases in South Korea to North Korean inspections.)
  3. “Thirdly, the U.S. should ensure that it would never bring again the nuclear strike means to south Korea, which the U.S. has frequently deployed on the Korean peninsula and in its vicinity.” (Comment: By speaking of “nuclear strike means” and not just the introduction of nuclear weapons, this appears a step beyond what was in the 1992 declaration.)
  4. “Fourthly, it should commit itself to neither intimidating the DPRK with nukes or through an act of nuclear war nor using nukes against the DPRK in any case.” (Comment: The US already promised a negative security guarantee to the North in the 1994 Agreed Framework though never followed through, and finally gave it to Pyongyang in the September 2005 Six-Party joint statement.)
  5. “Fifthly, the withdrawal of the U.S. troops holding the right to use nukes from south Korea should be declared.” (Comment: The wording of this point would seem to touch few, if any, US troops. Even if it is actually meant to apply to all US forces, the formulation is tortured—why not simply say in the normal way that US troops be withdrawn; why say only that their withdrawal “should be declared”?)

Reciprocal steps. The government spokesman’s statement, not surprisingly only includes the North’s demands, which if experience is any guide, are not Pyongyang’s bottom line but rather an opening public position. Left for the future are those things the North will offer in return. Since reciprocity is a bedrock principle in DPRK negotiations, one might suppose that Pyongyang is signaling that it is prepared to discuss parallel (if not exactly identical) measures on its part. In fact, the statement asserts:

If such security guarantees are actually made, we will also take corresponding measures, and an epoch-making breakthrough will open in realizing the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Of course, no one will know what “corresponding measures” might be unless someone asks.

The obvious—and hardly accidental—similarities between the North’s current proposal and the 1992 North-South denuclearization declaration are noteworthy, not least because Pyongyang knows that document included a ban on reprocessing and enrichment. That the 1992 N-S joint declaration didn’t work is beside the point; in fact, it never even got through the stage of setting up implementation arrangements, the fault of both sides. The key point now is that someone in Pyongyang has apparently decided that the North’s approach over the past several years has not given it the flexibility it needed to deal with the issue, whereas a more realistic concept, based on ground already plowed, might do that.

Whether the July 6 proposal itself, or even just some of its key components, will survive to emerge again after the dust from recent US actions settles is impossible to say. It is often the case that when the North sets a new fundamental policy position, it may be temporarily obscured and seemingly abandoned, only to be reoccupied in the future (albeit sometimes in the very distant future). Of course, when they put this particular position together signaling a willingness to discuss denuclearization, it is unlikely that anyone in Pyongyang realized that just hours after its release, it would be flattened by an onrushing State-Treasury express going at full throttle into a dark and foggy night.

 

For those interested, here is the text of the Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula:

The South and the North,

Desiring to eliminate the danger of nuclear war through denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and thus to create an environment and conditions favorable for peace and peaceful unification of our country and contribute to peace and security in Asia and the world,

Declare as follows;

  1. The South and the North shall not test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons.
  2. The South and the North shall use nuclear energy solely for peaceful purposes.
  3. The South and the North shall not possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities.
  4. The South and the North, in order to verify the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, shall conduct inspection of the objects selected by the other side and agreed upon between the two sides, in accordance with procedures and methods to be determined by the South-North Joint Nuclear Control Commission.
  5. The South and the North, in order to implement this joint declaration, shall establish and operate a South-North joint Nuclear Control Commission within one (1) month of the effectuation of this joint declaration.
  6. This Joint Declaration shall enter into force as of the day the two sides exchange appropriate instruments following the completion of their respective procedures for bringing it into effect.

Signed on January 20, 1992.

Chung Won-shik
Prime Minister of the Republic of Korea;
Chief delegate of the South delegation to the South-North High-Level Talks

Yon Hyong-muk
Premier of the Administration Council of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea;
Head of the North delegation to the South-North High-Level Talks

Reader Feedback

8 Responses to “North Korea Said it is Willing to Talk about Denuclearization…But No One Noticed”

  1. Peter Hayes says:

    Dear Bob, comments on your comments after each specific below. Best Peter

    “Firstly, all nuclear weapons of the United States, which it has neither confirmed nor denied after bringing them into South Korea, must be publicly disclosed.” (Comment: This is similar to what the North called for in 1992. Since we don’t have, and the North Koreans know we don’t have, nuclear weapons in the South, this first point would seem to be a stage-setter.)

    In 1992, President Bush said he had no beef with ROK President Roh’s statement that all nuclear weapons were out of South Korea, effectively confirming removal of US nuclear weapons from the ROK. However, the US withdrawal statement of September 28, 1991 did not exclude re-introduction and nor did the 1992 Denuclearization Declaration. Moreover, Sec State Powell stated publicly in 1991 that the US could introduce them in 24 hours in a contingency, the same position the US held re Japan (the so called “secret” memo, the text of which finally surfaced a few years ago). [“General Powell said it would take only 24 hours to reverse the order, if ever needed, as he and Mr. Cheney provided additional details on Mr. Bush’s surprise announcement on Friday night in which he outlined the most one-sided nuclear arms cuts taken since the onset of Soviet-American nuclear rivalry in the postwar years.” From ERIC SCHMITT, “Bush’s Arm Plan; Cheney Orders Bombers Off Alert, Starting Sharp Nuclear Pullback,” New York Times, September 29, 1991, at: http://www.nytimes.com/1991/09/29/world/bush-s-arm-plan-cheney-orders-bombers-off-alert-starting-sharp-nuclear-pullback.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm ]
    Moreover, on September 28, the issue of gravity bomb withdrawal from the ROK was not settled in the USG and was the subject of a policy struggle in the White House. This was resolved after about a week, and the decision to remove all nuclear weapons was leaked, followed by furious “consultations” with the ROK after the fact. The first leak, that they would stay, was via Don Oberdorfer in WP; the second leak, about a week later, that they were to go with the rest, was via…Don Oberdorfer in the WP. The NKs were monitoring this issue like eagles which I know because I was communicating by fax from Tokyo the first week of October 1991 with General Kim Yong Chol and Kim Yong Sun while consulting with folks in DC to clarify exactly this point.
    The key to this issue is inspection rights. As you note, this issue was disputed in the USG, but ultimately the US took the position in the inter-Korean talks that such inspections would be acceptable (with obvious quid pro quo in terms of frequency, challenge inspections, etc). The ROK dissimulated on this issue in its talks with the DPRK (basically, it lied to them), and told the DPRK that such were not on the table, which was bs. Galluci addressed this issue with NKs in the Agreed Framework talks in 1994 and told them explicitly that the US would entertain inspections in the ROK in a mutually acceptable inspection arrangement.
    The correct form for a Korean Peninsula-wide only nwfz (lower case deliberate to distinguish it from an zone created under international law), which would be a domestic, intra-Korean non-treaty based political agreement, not a treaty based NWFZ under international law with NWS protocols attached, would be a simple statement by all NWSs that they will respect the zone, similar to what the P5 gave to Mongolia, and the US gave to the 1992 Denuclearization Declaration.

    ***

    “Secondly, all the nukes and their bases should be dismantled and verified in the eyes of the world. (Comment: In 1992, the US generally accepted—with trepidation on the part of some—the idea of opening a few of its
    The loose use of “base” by the NKs is something that presumably State and DOD would address…the term implying US supranational jurisdiction over the location. That used to be the case under the old SOFA, but not under the current SOFA. Mort will know much more about this than I, but the correct term would be US facilities in the ROK, not bases. Thus, the ROK would agree to open its bases hosting US facilities for inspection, not the US. Thus, the ROKG must be party to this agreement.

    ***

    3. “Thirdly, the U.S. should ensure that it would never bring again the nuclear strike means to south Korea, which the U.S. has frequently deployed on the Korean peninsula and in its vicinity.” (Comment: By speaking of “nuclear strike means” and not just the introduction of nuclear weapons, this appears a step beyond what was in the 1992 declaration.)
    This specific goes back to the first item, and has two separate dimensions:
    a) transit; and
    b) nuclear capable delivery systems, ie B52s, B2s, submarines, missiles.

    Transit is dealt with differently in the various UN-style treaty based NWFZs (eg not referred to at all in the South Pacific NWFZ; is explicitly controlled by parties to the SEA NWFZ, which is a large part of why the NWSs have not ratified that treaty); thus it would be up to the parties to determine how to treat it in the Korean context (and a key consideration will be consistency with the US reservation of right to transit by air and ship in Japan up to now, as well as emergency reintroduction of nuclear weapons themselves into Japan).

    In my view, the US’ asserted prerogative to reintroduce nuclear weapons in a contingency is not consistent with nor sustainable in a regional treaty based NWFZ and doing so would render the treaty moot. (this is different to how the US might respond to other NWSs transgressing a regional treaty-based NWFZ).

    There is no verifiable and therefore meaningful way to commit to not transiting nuclear weapons. This, the North Korea’s willingness to accept the ambiguity arising from the transit issue is political and rests on developing a broader security relationship.

    New Zealand is the appropriate model where the US reiterates that its surface aircraft and surface ships are not carrying nuclear weapons, and the NZG states that it accepts that this is the case. As the security relationship improved, the transit issue receded to a non-issue in NZ.

    What each might insist upon in a non-legally binding, purely political Korean-only nwfz would be up to the parties, but might be a show-stopper for the NKs.

    ***

    “Fourthly, it should commit itself to neither intimidating the DPRK with nukes or through an act of nuclear war nor using nukes against the DPRK in any case.” (Comment: The US already promised a negative security guarantee to the North in the 1994 Agreed Framework though never followed through, and finally gave it to Pyongyang in the September 2005 Six-Party joint statement.)

    I don’t think you are fair to the North Koreans on this score. The NSGs in the 1994 AG and the September 2005 were non-binding; and were rendered moot by the Warsaw Clause until 2010 (whereby a US nuclear NSG applies only to states engaged in aggression in good standing with NPT and not in alliance with a NWS, ie, the DPRK would only get the NSG if it terminated the DPRK-PRC security treaty, which was absurd; see The DPRK and the Warsaw Clause: An Unnoticed Change in US Nuclear Policy”, NAPSNet Policy Forum, July 28, 2011, http://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-policy-forum/the-dprk-and-the-warsaw-clause-an-unnoticed-change-in-us-nuclear-policy/).

    If the DPRK wants a legally binding NSG, guaranteed by the other NWSs, and we want what the NKs have to put on the table that meets our bottom line, then the USG and ROKG need to go for a regional treaty-based NEA NWFZ, not a Korean-only domestic nwfz.

    ***

    “Fifthly, the withdrawal of the U.S. troops holding the right to use nukes from south Korea should be declared.” (Comment: The wording of this point would seem to touch few, if any, US troops. Even if it is actually meant to apply to all US forces, the formulation is tortured—why not simply say in the normal way that US troops be withdrawn; why say only that their withdrawal “should be declared”?)
    This is a strange and as far as I know, new formulation. It’s not the standard US troops go home by the old hardliners; and it hasn’t been made in the context of nuclear weapons withdrawal, to my knowledge. “Holding the right” is the key phrase. It could refer to delegation or pre-delegated authority to use nuclear weapons, the NKs being fully aware of historical pre-delegation of nuclear use authority to US CINCs of USFK in past crises, eg August 76.

    In this context, it might be helpful in the course of actual dialogue with the NKs to have STRATCOM or a retired STRATCOM CINC brief the NKs on the current regional nuclear planning arrangements, which is centralized almost completely at STRATCOM and removed almost completely from unified and regional commands.

    The only way to find out what they are getting at is to ask them.

    ***

    Finally, here’s a question for Bob. I agree that the DPRK was making a serious and realistic pitch.
    Unlike the US unilateral financial sanctions, which once unleashed are a market-based irreversible act of economic warfare aimed at the DPRK regime itself, I assume that the USG can reverse a US sanction on an individual leader should it prove politically desirable, provided there is no corresponding UNSC resolution, which there is not. So can the US reverse the imposition of sanctions on KJU in person calibrated to progress on the nuclear issue? Is this correct?

  2. Kostadinov says:

    My speculation is that this proposal include dismantlement of all tactical nuclear weapons and strike means in the peninsula and vicinity and not include intercontinental strike means and weapons the number of which may be negotiated and limited.
    This not include also all nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
    North Koreans are well aware that proposal will not be accepted at this stage but it is mainly aimed at the population of the DPRK and show consistency with previous leaders and desire for peace.

  3. I think that they have been working on this formula for some time, as every expert explained lately to them “denuclearization of DPRK along with the whole world” is unacceptable. However, the issue of nuclear weapons in existence is so far avoided

  4. Andray says:

    What do nos. 2 and 3 mean, when the US has B52s and B2s (and ICBMs)? Inspections of southern bases and a promise for no overflights of the peninsula of heavy bombers? The former would have to be way, way down the list of sequenced events. What would the U.S. expect in return for a promise for no overflights, assuming this is what they want.

  5. Michael says:

    An alternative interpretation of this line, “The obvious—and hardly accidental—similarities between the North’s current proposal and the 1992 North-South denuclearization declaration are noteworthy, not least because Pyongyang knows that document included a ban on reprocessing and enrichment,” could be that these are not mentioned because they are, from the North’s point of view, no longer up for negotiation.

  6. jakob says:

    It is not so much that no one cared. It has more to do that no one cares what the DPRK put forth.

  7. Liars N. Fools says:

    “That the 1992 N-S joint declaration didn’t work is beside the point”

    Actually, it is right on point.

  8. Bill McKinney says:

    Bob, well done. Hope State/NSC catches on to it.

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Credit for photo of young North Korean girl: T.M. All rights reserved, used with permission.