Ahead of summits between South and North Korea and between the US and the North, a war of nerves over how to denuclearize the North seems to be accelerating after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un offered a “phased” approach.
His step-by-step method unveiled during his summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping on March 26 runs counter to a Libya-style approach hard-liners in Washington reportedly consider, which calls for the dismantlement of a nuclear program before compensating for it.
US President Donald Trump said on March 29 that he may hold up the free trade agreement with South Korea until a deal is reached with North Korea. “You know why? Because it’s a very strong card,” Trump said.
The US and North Korea are sort of testing the waters before holding their summits, but Trump’s remarks are confounding the government in Seoul. It is not clear whether Trump wants more concessions regarding the free trade agreement or whether he said so with something on his mind about the summits with the North. One certain thing is that South Korea should cooperate with the US to produce a satisfactory deal or it will be disadvantaged trade-wise. It is a silent pressure on President Moon Jae-in who is scheduled to hold his summit with Kim on April 27 in the truce village of Panmunjeom. The government in Seoul needs to grasp Trump’s real intention behind his remarks.
“I think it is impossible to apply a Libya-style approach to North Korea,” an official of the South Korean presidential office said on Friday. Though this comment was made as a personal opinion, it seems to have some impact.
Viewed in light of what has come to light so far, the situation over the method of denuclearizing North Korea looks chaotic, and it seems difficult to find common ground on the matter.
Though Trump has not yet clarified his idea on how to denuclearize the North, hawks in Washington suspect a step-by-step approach as a tactic to buy time and ease sanctions as Pyongyang did in its past negotiations over its nuclear program.
The thing is that Cheong Wa Dae seems to be getting into line with Kim’s approach.
Before Kim offered a ‘phased’ approach, the presidential office had mentioned “cutting the Gordian knot” or “a package deal.” Then after Kim’s proposal came out, it began to keep chime with the North, though Cheong Wa Dae seems to reject a “salami-slice strategy” used by the North in its past negotiations.
Cheong Wa Dae views it realistic and reasonable to divide and complete the process of dismantling the North’s nuclear program.
Considering that Trump’s remarks tying the trade deal with his summit with Kim came against the backdrop of these developments, they sound like a warning message intended to prevent cracks in the US-South Korea relations over their denuclearizing strategy ahead of summits.
The government in Seoul is expected to try to persuade Washington and Pyongyang to agree on denuclearizing the North and guaranteeing its regime as quid pro quo and then to propose a two-step denuclearizing process -- freeze before dismantlement. But prospect for such persuasion to produce an outcome as desired is not bright.
Dismantling its nuclear program is all about summits with the North. They will be pointless without a feasible plan to scrap the nukes. Denuclearizing the country is a difficult goal requiring the US and its allies to act as one. Moon must heed the perils of the ‘phased’ approach, which will cause sanctions to crumble step by step. But this process has a risk of Kim stopping the process midway after gaining considerable compensations.
It is understandable that the Moon administration is fretting about inducing Kim to keep his promise to denuclearize his country. The South seems to side with Kim, but that can be viewed as an inevitable move to narrow differences to actualize the summits. Be that as it may, the South must be vigilant against the perils of a phased approach and try to hold fast to the denuclearizing principle that it must be complete, verifiable and irreversible.