Cipher Brief Expert Joseph R. DeTrani served as the special envoy for negotiations with North Korea from 2003-2006 and is the former director of the National Counterproliferation Center. He’s also a veteran of the CIA. The views expressed are his and do not imply endorsement by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence or any other U.S. government agency.
OPINION — Republic of Korea (ROK) President Moon Jae-in must be very pleased with his May 21 meetings with President Joseph Biden. The Joint Statement that captured hours of discussions at the White House is comprehensive and impressive. It documents a very special relationship between two allies, forged 71 years ago with the crucible of the Korean War.
President Moon appropriately started the day by participating in a groundbreaking ceremony at the Wall of Remembrance, at the Korean War Memorial, that will include the names of 36,574 American servicemen and 7,174 members of the Korean Augmentation to the U.S. Army killed in the Korean War.
The meetings that followed at the White House were equally memorable. The U.S.-ROK Mutual Defense Treaty, and its extended deterrence commitments to the ROK, was reaffirmed, while also strengthening cooperation in other domains, to include cyber and space. The 1979 Revised Missile Guidelines, confining the ROK to the development and operation of ballistic missiles not to exceed a range of 800 kilometers, was terminated, providing the ROK with “complete missile sovereignty.”
With a shared vision “for a region governed by democratic norms, human rights and the rule of law at home and abroad”, both the U.S. and the ROK pledged “to maintain peace and stability, lawful unimpeded commerce, and respect for international law, including freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea and beyond.”
A successful summit required agreement on a shared approach to resolve issues with the Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK). Both presidents emphasized “their shared commitment to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” and “reaffirm our common belief that diplomacy and dialogue, based on previous inter-Korean and U.S.-DPRK commitments such as the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration and Singapore Joint Statement are essential to achieve the complete denuclearization and permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
It now appears that the Biden Administration, working closely with the ROK, is determined to use diplomacy to secure an agreement with the DPRK for the complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula (there are no nuclear weapons in the ROK). Equally encouraging is a U.S. willingness to support ROK efforts to pursue an independent but coordinated dialogue with the DPRK on humanitarian and economic issues, like the reunion of separated families from the Korean War, ROK tourist visits to Mount Kumgang and humanitarian assistance to the neediest citizens in the DPRK. Indeed, Inter-Korean relations, and the DPRK’s receptivity to ROK overtures, will be a good barometer in determining if the DPRK is serious about complete denuclearization.
The 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, memorializing the historic meeting of President Moon and Chairman Kim Jong-un, spoke of peace and reconciliation between the two Koreas. It was this meeting that facilitated the June 2018 Singapore Summit between former President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim, which resulted in a Joint Statement that committed both countries to a transformation in bilateral relations, a peace treaty to end the Korean War, the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the return of the remains of U.S. servicemen killed in the Korean War.
A commitment to diplomatically pursue an agreement with North Korea, in a flexible and creative manner, based on the two cited agreements with Chairman Kim in 2018 – the Panmunjom Declaration and the Singapore Joint Statement – are positive signs that the U.S. is committed to peacefully resolving the nuclear and missile issues – with progress on human rights concerns — with the DPRK, while also working closely with the ROK as they pursue a dialogue and inter-Korean cooperation with the DPRK.
Also encouraging was the naming of Ambassador Sung Kim as the Special Envoy for North Korea. Ambassador Kim is well-known to the DPRK and the ROK, given his experience in dealing with the DPRK during and after the Six Party Talks, and his three years as the U.S. ambassador to the ROK.
There is considerable skepticism that North Korea will ever give-up its nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles. Much of this skepticism is fair, based on 27 years of failed negotiations. But during this period, there were a few temporary successes – the Agreed Framework of 1994, the Six Party Talks Joint Statement of September 19, 2005 and the Singapore Joint Statement of June 2018. We learned a fair amount from these negotiations, which should help as we again attempt to resolve issues with the DPRK. One thing we did learn is that the DPRK wants a normal relationship with the U.S, but with acceptance as a nuclear weapons state. Our job has been to convince the DPRK that they can have a normal relationship with the U.S., but not as a nuclear weapons state. Indeed, North Korea has been assured of security assurances, economic development assistance, a peace treaty ending the Korean War and path to normal relations with the U.S., assuming progress with human rights and illicit activities. These were the assurances provided in the September 2005 Six Party Talks Joint Statement. Implementation of that Joint Statement ended in early 2009 when North Korea refused to sign a verification agreement permitting IAEA monitors to visit non-declared suspect nuclear facilities.
Fortunately, there is now a momentum within the U.S. and ROK to reenergize the dialogue with the DPRK, to determine if denuclearization is achievable. Getting the DPRK to halt the production of fissile material and the launching of mid to long-range missiles, in return for the easing of certain sanctions, seems like a reasonable first step that could lead to a denuclearization road map, on an action-for-action basis, that provides deliverables to the DPRK as they dismantle all nuclear weapons and facilities, in a verifiable manner.
The successful U.S.-ROK summit could be the beginning of a process that eventually succeeds in securing a peaceful resolution of issues with the DPRK.
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