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Experts: US, North Korea Heading for Collision Over Meaning of ‘Denuclearization’


FILE - A South Korean soldier walks past a television screen showing pictures of U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a railway station in Seoul on March 9, 2018.

A difference in how the United States and North Korea define denuclearization could potentially derail the summit scheduled for May between President Donald Trump and Kim Jon Un, according to experts.

Last week, Trump accepted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s summit invitation, which was conveyed by South Korean envoys who had met with Kim in Pyongyang.

If the U.S. military threat to North Korea is removed and the safety of the Kim regime is guaranteed, the “North side clearly affirmed its commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” said South Korean National Security Chief Chung Eui-yong after meeting with Kim. Days later, Chung delivered Kim’s proposal to Trump.

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What is denuclearization

But the fate of the summit scheduled could hinge on the definition of denuclearize, which the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as “to remove nuclear arms from or prohibit the use of nuclear arms in” — in this case, North Korea.

In the past, Pyongyang has interpreted denuclearization as the removal of what it perceives as threats, including the U.S. nuclear umbrella over the Korean Peninsula, the U.S.-South Korea security alliance, and the presence of the U.S. troops in the South, according to experts, while Washington interprets denuclearization as the complete dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

“A rift in views of denuclearization could make Trump-Kim summit difficult and possibly even be canceled,” said Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

FILE - A U.S. soldier is seen during decontamination exercises in Yeoncheon, about 65 km north of Seoul, May 16, 2013.
FILE - A U.S. soldier is seen during decontamination exercises in Yeoncheon, about 65 km north of Seoul, May 16, 2013.

Evans Revere, a former State Department official who was involved in previous talks with North Korea, warned that Trump should not expect denuclearization to be the topic that Kim wants to discuss at the summit.

“A very complicated situation has just gotten a lot more complicated primarily because the invitation seems to have been accepted on the premise or with the assumption that the North Korean leader is interested in denuclearization, even though I see no evidence whatsoever that he’s actually interested in discussing denuclearization,” Revere said.

North Korea's focus

North Korea will most likely attempt to shift the focus from dismantling its nuclear program to demanding the U.S. remove what North Korea perceives as threats posed against its regime as a condition for giving up its nuclear program, according to experts.

Withdrawing its military from the South, “will be unacceptable to the U.S.,” Manning said.

Ken Gause, director of the International Affairs Group at the Center for Naval Analyses, thinks divergent demands resulting from the differing views of denuclearization will prevent the U.S. from finding “a common ground to begin negotiations.”

Former State Department official Revere believes diplomatic progress will be severely impeded if Trump and Kim have different outcomes in mind.

“There is a rule in diplomacy that you never agree to a summit unless you understand the outcome that you are seeking in the summit, and your adversary also understands and agrees with the outcome that both parties are seeking. That doesn’t seem to be the case here,” Revere said.

FILE - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shakes hands with Chung Eui-yong, who led a special delegation of South Korea's president, in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency, March 6, 2018.
FILE - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shakes hands with Chung Eui-yong, who led a special delegation of South Korea's president, in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency, March 6, 2018.

North Korea's commitment

North Korea’s commitment to denuclearize is highly deceptive, according to Revere.

“What Ambassador Chung, whom I have a lot of respect for, … heard from the North Koreans is not a commitment to denuclearization,” Revere said. “It’s a commitment to North Korea’s vision of the end of the U.S.-South Korean alliance and the end of the U.S. military presence. And that’s not an acceptable condition.”

North Korea has not made an official public pledge to give up its nuclear weapons program. The message that Pyongyang is willing to denuclearize was conveyed by the South Korean envoys who met with Kim. Without a direct statement from Kim, there is room to misinterpret North Korea’s definition of, and willingness to denuclearize, according to experts.

Manning warned that possible clashes over denuclearization at the summit could potentially lead to a diplomatic breakdown and raise the possibility of U.S. military action.

“There is a danger that if there is a Trump-Kim summit and President Trump feels played or betrayed, military action might be more likely,” Manning said.

“If diplomacy fails, the voices in the U.S. calling for military strikes will gain momentum,” Gause said. “The voices for diplomacy will be drowned out.”

Trilateral diplomacy

The trilateral diplomatic move began when South Korean envoys traveled to Pyongyang early in March at Kim’s invitation. Their trip was followed by the announcement of the inter-Korean summit to be held in April. The delegation then visited Washington to deliver Kim’s invitation for the U.S-North Korean summit that Trump agreed to have by May.

Youngnam Kim from VOA Korean Service contributed to this story.


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