The East Asian Landscape After the Trump-Kim Summit

Is Complete Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula an Unattainable Goal?


At their recent summit in Singapore, the leaders of the United States and North Korea agreed on the general ideas of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the provision of a security arrangement for the North. But their joint statement included nothing about concrete steps; achievement of these two goals will be extremely difficult.

Disappointment at the Lack of Specifics

On June 12, 2018, President Donald Trump of the United States and State Affairs Commission Chairman Kim Jong-un of North Korea held the first-ever summit between their two countries in Singapore. The main item on the agenda was denuclearization of North Korea, and people around the world were watching to see how concrete an agreement the two leaders would be able to reach on this point. This attention was based on the hope that their meeting might bring an end to North Korea’s nuclear development program, which has presented a threat to Northeast Asia’s stability over the decades since the end of the Cold War.

The joint statement issued by the leaders at the end of the summit, however, fell far short of expectations. While declaring, “President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, i.e., North Korea], and Chairman Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” the statement contained nothing specific about how these commitments were to be implemented. The initial media reports on the outcome largely dismissed the meeting as having been a mere diplomatic show.

Here, though, I would like to raise a question: Do we truly understand the difficulty of the bilateral negotiations on denuclearization? First we must grasp the basic structure of the talks. North Korea began its nuclear development program in earnest following the end of the Cold War, when it lost the “nuclear umbrellas” previously provided by the Soviet Union and China. Among the underlying factors that have motivated it to seek a nuclear weapons capability are the international isolation that it has faced in the post–Cold War period and the strong fear and distrust that it has felt toward South Korea and particularly toward the military colossus of the United States—countries with which it has been in confrontation ever since the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950.

Given these factors, in order to persuade the North Koreans to abandon their arsenal of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, it will be necessary to eliminate their strong distrust of the United States. It is for this reason that the joint statement quoted above referred to “security guarantees for North Korea” in parallel with “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” And it will be even more important from the North Koreans’ standpoint that the security guarantees be stable and lasting.

The Lesson of Libya

A key point to note in this connection is the existence of the “Libya model” of denuclearization. In 2003, while the Iraq War was underway, Libya agreed to abandon the nuclear development program it had been conducting since 1980. Libya’s long-ruling Muammar Gaddafi took this move in hopes of receiving guarantees for his regime. Economic sanctions against the country were lifted, and it was welcomed back into the international community. But the situation changed following the outbreak of civil war in 2011. As the fighting intensified, international public opinion coalesced behind the rebel camp opposing Gaddafi, and a multilateral force composed mainly of contingents from the United States, Britain, and France intervened in support of the rebels. The government forces were defeated, Gaddafi was executed, and his regime toppled.

The lesson that can be drawn from this set of developments is that even if the international community provides security arrangements of some form to a regime that denuclearizes, it may go back on this commitment later. It will be hard to get Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear arsenal unless this suspicion can be overcome.

In other words, while Washington is seeking “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization”—CVID for short—from Pyongyang, the latter wants Washington to provide it what we might call a “complete, verifiable, and irreversible security arrangement,” or CVISA. The structure of the bilateral talks takes its shape from this pair of mirroring demands. But the problem is that nobody knows what such a security arrangement would consist of or how it would be provided.

Declaring the end of the Korean War and concluding a peace treaty would certainly reduce the tensions relating to North Korea. But it would leave North Korea still facing the mighty alliance between South Korea and the United States. So a peace treaty alone will not be sufficient to motivate the North Koreans to shed their nuclear armor. And the Libyan experience shows that the lifting of sanctions and normalization of diplomatic ties do not have much meaning as security guarantees for the existing regime. Even if Washington were to accede to Pyongyang’s long-standing desire for a nonaggression pact, it is not certain how effective this would be in easing the North Koreans’ concerns.

Complete Denuclearization: Impossible in Practice?

Similar problems apply to the talks about denuclearization, the original focus of attention. In Libya’s case, the nuclear program was still at the development stage. So it was possible to declare the achievement of CVID by admitting inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency and handing over all the materials and documents relating to nuclear weapons development. The physical elimination of the materials and facilities required for the development of nuclear weapons is sure to bring a halt, at least for a certain period, to such a development program.

Today’s North Korea, however, is much further advanced in its nuclear program than Libya was in 2003, and it is presumed that it has reached the stage of actual deployment of nuclear warheads. It is extremely easy to move individual nuclear weapons, so it would be very difficult for inspectors to find them all without the active cooperation of the North Koreans. The same is true of the enriched uranium and plutonium used to make the weapons, and if North Korea were to stash away a certain amount of these materials, it could resume nuclear weapons production with relative ease.

Unlike Germany and Japan, which were vanquished in World War II, and Iraq, which was also utterly defeated in war and placed under occupation, North Korea is not a country that has lost everything. The various procedures involved in denuclearization would be conducted under the sovereignty of the existing government in Pyongyang. This would pose limitations on the process, which is thus fated to be “incomplete, unverifiable, and thus reversible.”

The United States Dials Down Its Objectives

So we can see that it will be difficult both technically and diplomatically to reach a deal on the CVID that Washington seeks and the CVISA that Pyongyang desires. This raises a major question: Do the United States and North Korea truly intend to bring this extremely difficult set of negotiations to a successful conclusion?

The United States’ original target was for complete denuclearization by the end of this year, but US officials have since retreated considerably, calling for “major disarmament” by the end of President Trump’s first term in office (January 2021). And according to a recent study from Stanford University, the denuclearization process may take up to 15 years to complete, in which case even the January 2021 target will be impossible to achieve.

Surely Washington and Pyongyang are aware of the extreme difficulty of achieving their respective goals of CVID and CVISA. Cynics might suggest that the bilateral talks are simply a gesture undertaken for show, with no expectation that they will produce concrete results. They may be dismissed as a ceremony designed (1) to let the United States show that it has jettisoned the earlier policies that allowed North Korea to advance its nuclear development program and is now working to fix the damage, and (2) to free North Korea from the sanctions imposed on it by the international community in response to its provocative international posture and its development of nuclear weapons, missiles, and other weapons of mass destruction.

Another point to note is that the United States is now using the term “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” (as opposed to “denuclearization of North Korea”). This is the term that the North Koreans have been using, and it includes the message that Pyongyang is seeking a reduction in the menace it feels from the South Korean and US military presence on the peninsula. And the fact that Washington has adopted the same term means that some significant matters relating to the US forces in South Korea are now on the agenda for the bilateral talks between the United States and North Korea. This seems to be clearly indicated by the indefinite suspension of large-scale joint military exercises by the United States and South Korea.

The Collapse of Japan’s “Maximum Pressure” Scenario

The future course of the US–North Korean negotiations is unknown; they may proceed in line with the outlook I have expressed above, serving as just a diplomatic show, or they may take a different direction, developing into a patient, long-term process aimed at true denuclearization. In either case, however, we will be facing the harsh reality of a nuclear-capable North Korea for some time to come.

President Trump has repeatedly referred to Kim Jong-un as a talented leader who can be trusted. Meanwhile, China and South Korea have already begun preparing for the lifting of the sanctions against North Korea. And as seen in Trump’s decision to call off joint military exercises with South Korea, the United States has turned away from the policy of applying “maximum pressure” on the North.

Up to now, the Japanese government has trusted in the scenario of forcing North Korea to yield by applying maximum pressure on it, and it has been conducting discussions on the assumption that North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is an inconvenient reality that can be eliminated in the near future. But the outcome of the Trump-Kim summit has shown that it will be extremely difficult to eliminate this inconvenient reality anytime soon. Tokyo must now come up with a strategy for the future in line with this recognition.

The current situation regarding North Korea may have a major impact on the nature of the US commitment to Northeast Asia. If the United States were to reduce the level of its involvement on the Korean Peninsula, the front line of US-China confrontation might move from that peninsula to the Japanese archipelago in the near future. President Trump has been talking about reduction of America’s military commitment not just to South Korea but also to Japan and urging both countries to rely mainly on their own defense capabilities. So South Korea’s situation has a direct bearing on Japan’s.

It will be essential for Tokyo to talk head-on with Washington and Seoul about the future shape of Northeast Asia’s security setup. If the United States slips away from this region while North Korea continues to have a nuclear capability and China becomes an even greater military threat, its absence will have a grave impact both on Japan’s security and on the stability of the region as a whole.

Japan now faces a crucial diplomatic task that it must undertake in order to maintain a stable order in Northeast Asia. In Washington, Trump is leading an administration that is highly isolationist, and in Seoul, President Moon Jae-in heads a progressive-camp administration that seeks reconciliation between the two Koreas. Tokyo must strive to convince both of these counterparts that the US commitment to Northeast Asia is of crucial importance to the region. Our country must implement a diplomatic strategy based on a broad vision lest the negotiations aimed at North Korea’s denuclearization end up bringing not peace but heightened instability in this part of the world.

(Originally published in Japanese on June 22, 2018. Banner photo: President Trump and Chairman Kim walk together to the meeting room in a Singapore hotel where they will hold the first-ever US–North Korean summit on June 12, 2018. Photo courtesy of the White House, UPI, and Aflo.)

United States nuclear security East Asia North Korea