The two Koreas’ Panmunjom Declaration announced on Friday led to much international disappointment about the vagueness of the remarks regarding denuclearization. It would have been ideal if the declaration were more specific, but the simple reality is that the document was never intended to be a denuclearization agreement, nor contain any specifics about rolling back the North’s nuclear weapons programs. From the start, the declaration was intentionally designed to serve two very different purposes: One was to chart a new era for peace on the Korean Peninsula. The other was to keep the diplomatic door open to allow the leaders of the United States and North Korea to meet face-to-face.
In this sense, the Panmunjom Declaration succeeded in its mission. That is why the denuclearization language left out details and was mentioned only at the end of the list instead of at the top. Anything more would have stolen President Donald Trump’s thunder.
It was an open secret ahead of this third inter-Korean summit that denuclearization would be included in a resulting document. But the questions were to what degree denuclearization would be a part of the statement, and whether the word “denuclearization” itself would even be included in the text—along with what definition would be used. And there was also the closely related question of what specific agreements (if any) would be made on ways to dismantle Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programs. All this left aside what many analysts said was the biggest question of all: What does the denuclearization really mean, given the definitional differences between North Korea on the one hand, versus the United States and South Korea on the other? And what other conditions can be divined to be on North Korea’s mind, by parsing the Kim regime’s official statements?
It should be quite easy for Kim Jong-un to sign off on this controversial term because of the regime’s age-old fallback position that has surfaced again in the public domain: It would be willing to consider denuclearization if the US military threat is removed. It also would not have mattered whether Seoul and Pyongyang agreed on a common definition of denuclearization in this summit’s outcome, because the sole purpose was to keep the political space open to enable a US-North Korea summit—leaving the definition battle to take place between Trump and Kim.
But the Panmunjom Declaration produced more than simply reiterating the regime’s baseline position on the nuclear issue. It said that the two Koreas confirmed a shared objective of complete denuclearization. Agreeing to include the word “complete”—which is how the Trump administration frames its objective—is a win for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, because it politically enables Washington to stick with its own summit plans. But the other side of this semantic coin is that “complete” would not be at all controversial for Pyongyang, because it has long demanded that denuclearization be applied to the entire Korean Peninsula. With this caveat in mind, the quizzical plaudits that Pyongyang earned in the Panmunjom Declaration for recently announcing a moratorium on nuclear and missile testing come off as unduly painting the regime as a responsible nuclear state—something it obviously desires.
The agreed-upon language of a “nuclear-free Korean Peninsula” brings back memories of Pyongyang’s original concept of denuclearization dating back to the late 1950s, which it described as a “nuclear-weapons-free zone of the Korean Peninsula.” This concept evolved over time on a tactical level in terminology, scope, and conditions, but the fundamental pillars have not changed. Instead, Pyongyang seems to have made refinements during negotiations depending on the bigger geopolitical landscape—US policy, the state of its relations with China, and South Korean policy—to maximize its gains for long-term survival. These tactical adjustments have come in various forms, such as changing the demand for the timing of the withdrawal of US troops from the Korean Peninsula and, on the surface, agreeing on certain terminology for basic security concepts even though the regime held different definitions.
The devil is in the details: A history. The North’s definition of denuclearization was first officially recorded (link in Korean) in a letter from its Supreme People’s Assembly to members of South Korea’s National Assembly on November 7, 1956 proposing they establish a nuclear-weapons-free zone on the Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang presented more details over the years with Kim Il-sung proposing at the 6th Workers’ Party in December 1980 to establish such a zone to fulfill his ultimate goal of unification on his terms, and presented a phased plan on November 7, 1988 to completely withdraw US ground forces and nuclear weapons by the end of 1990.
The discrepancy over the definition of “denuclearization” first came to light during negotiations between the two Koreas in October 1991. According to South Korean government officials at the time and what can be seen in the negotiation archives, Pyongyang still used the term “nuclear-weapons-free zone of the Korean Peninsula” and presented a seven point-proposal to achieve this goal.
Under the North Korean proposal, testing, manufacturing, introducing, possessing, and using nuclear weapons would be forbidden, as would the transit, landing, and visiting of any nuclear-capable aircraft and ships. It proposed abolishing the US nuclear umbrella protecting the South and prohibiting the storage of any US nuclear weapons on South Korean soil. It also called for banning any military exercises involving nuclear weapons and the complete withdrawal of all US forces from the Korean peninsula. As a sop to the West, North Korea offered to allow its nuclear facilities to be inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—while requiring South Korea’s military bases be inspected by North Korea. Lastly, Pyongyang’s seven-point plan demanded that nuclear weapon states not threaten the two Koreas and respect the nuclear-weapons-free-zone status of the peninsula.
(To give some background, during the Cold War, the United States had deployed tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula to keep the Soviet Union in check. The George H.W. Bush administration had withdrawn these weapons in 1991 as a gesture of good will, but Pyongyang never believed they were actually withdrawn.)
In January 1992, the two Koreas signed the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula that resulted in using Seoul’s terminology and definition of denuclearization. It rejected most of Pyongyang’s proposal except for an agreement that both Koreas would not test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy, or use nuclear weapons. They declared nuclear energy would be used solely for peaceful purposes and would not possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities. They even agreed to create a South-North Joint Nuclear Control Commission to “verify the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” by conducting inspections of “objects selected by the other side and agreed upon between the two sides.” But Pyongyang’s nuclear-weapon-free zone proposal continued to creep up during negotiations over the years.
Demanding the entire peninsula be denuclearized became a recurring theme between the United States and North Korea during their negotiations before the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework and again during the Six Party Talks of 2003-2008.
It now appears Pyongyang under Kim Jong-un’s rule has five conditions for denuclearization, going by a July 6, 2016 statement delivered by a government spokesman. It called for the United States to publicly disclose its nuclear weapons in South Korea; remove and verify that US weapons are not present on US bases in South Korea; guarantee that the United States will not re-deploy nuclear weapons in South Korea; assure that the United States will not threaten or conduct a nuclear strike on North Korea; and withdraw US troops authorized to use nuclear weapons from South Korea. Experts like Robert Carlin argue that this characterization of denuclearization provides the regime with more flexibility to deal with the nuclear issue, while others like Cheon Seong-whun claim that Pyongyang has persistently deceived the world by exploiting the word “denuclearization” without abandoning its strategic goals.
In recent years, Pyongyang has also gone on to explore bigger-picture themes, such as arms control and a world free of nuclear weapons, suggesting in private conversations with US experts that it might consider mutual nuclear limitations and reductions with Washington, much like what the United States has done with Russia since the Soviet Union. Taken together, all this suggests that North Korea is aiming be recognized and treated as a nuclear power on an equal footing with Washington. After all, the North’s constitution says that it is a nuclear-weapon state.
The upcoming US-North Korea summit provides an important opportunity for President Trump to directly clarify Kim Jong-un’s definition of—and conditions for—denuclearization, as well as to gauge any tactical refinements Kim decides to make to ensure his regime’s ultimate survival. The summit, with all of its risks, is still an opportunity to test North Korea under Kim Jong-un’s rule.
Ever since his New Year’s Day address, the North Korean leader has been conducting a savvy public relations campaign and peace offensive to portray himself as a leader of a normal, peace-loving country and a responsible, advanced nuclear power. Such efforts were further accentuated during Friday’s inter-Korean summit and, according to South Korean officials, in Kim Jong-un’s willingness to publicly display the closure of his nuclear test site and abandon his nuclear weapons if the United States promises not to invade. Instead of negotiating through the media, it is important for Washington to seek agreement on definitions directly and devise a strategy that leads to a comprehensive vision statement between Trump and Kim that addresses each other’s security concerns as well as intertwined regional issues.