11 July 2018

Lessons Learned From 25 Years of Negotiating with North Korea

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is resetting expectations for a denuclearization timeline for North Korea, saying Monday that it will take ‘decades’ to get North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program. 

In a Tweet on Monday, President Donald Trump reaffirmed his confidence in the North Korean leader, saying that he believes Kim Jung Un will keep his promises.

Ambassador Joseph DeTrani is one of the few people who has decades of experience negotiating with North Korean leaders. The former Director of the Counterproliferation Center and Former Special Envoy for Six Party Talks with North Korea filed this Cipher Brief, focused on what he has learned from those years of experience:

It seems obvious, but it’s a simple question: How does North Korea define denuclearization? This is the core issue with North Korea and for some reason, denuclearization wasn’t highlighted in the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration. Rather, it was buried in the penultimate paragraph: “South and North Korea confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.” The June 12, 2018 Singapore Summit Joint Statement includes denuclearization in the third of four bullets: “Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

These two historic documents, negotiated and signed by Presidents Donald Trump and Moon Jae In with Chairman Kim Jung Un, lack clarity on what North Korea meant when it committed to denuclearization.

‘We say we know what it means: complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons facilities. We know that North Korea doesn’t like the acronym CVID, but are they committed to complete and verifiable dismantlement?’

We confronted this issue in the Six Party Talks with North Korea and, after two years of intense negotiations, we drafted the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement. I was the Deputy Head of the U.S. delegation and the lead U.S. drafter, working with China’s Cui Tian Kai, the current Chinese Ambassador to the U.S., Japan’s Akitaka Saiki, the former Deputy Foreign Minister and South Korea’s Ambassador Cho Tae-Yong. During days of discussion, during which North Korea refused to sign any document mentioning CVID and the Uranium Enrichment program we claimed they had, we finally came up with language that satisfied North Korea: “The Six Parties unanimously reaffirmed that the goal of the Six-Party Talks is the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner. The DPRK committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to IAEA safeguards.” China’s head of delegation, Wu Dawei, was instrumental in getting North Korea to agree to this language, making clear to the U.S. delegation that North Korea would not sign any joint statement mentioning CVID or their reported uranium enrichment program. In consultation with colleagues from South Korea, Japan and Russia, we agreed to this language. The key, however, was language stating North Korea agreed to “abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.”

This now seems like a fair and reasonable question: Why can’t North Korea commit to the language used in the September 2005 Joint Statement that Kim Jung il, the father of Kim Jung Un, approved? Why after all these months, are we still in doubt as to North Korea’s willingness to comprehensively and verifiably denuclearize, which translates into the abandonment of all nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons facilities.

‘One has to assume that Kim Jung Un, after a series of summits and meetings with Presidents Moon Joe-In, Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, did commit North Korea to this definitive language.’

In addition to the issue of denuclearization, another subject pursued by North Korea and eventually resolved for the September 2005 Joint Statement was the question of reciprocity on the key issues: denuclearization, security assurances, economic development assistance and a path to normalization of relations. After much discussion, the agreed language in the Joint Statement was: “coordinated steps to implement the aforementioned consensus in a ‘phased manner’ in line with the principle of ‘commitment for commitment, action for action’.” Not too surprisingly, the Panmunjom Declaration stated: “South and North Korea agreed to carry out disarmament in a phased manner.”

In short, North Korea in 2005 and apparently now in 2018 is looking for some form of reciprocity, to ensure that as they pursue verifiable denuclearization, they’re getting some of their demands: security assurances, economic development assistance and progress toward a more normal relationship with the U.S.

Dealing with North Korea in 2018 is indeed more complex than it was fifteen years ago with the Six Party Talks. But the core issues haven’t changed: comprehensive and verifiable denuclearization in exchange for security assurances, economic assistance and an eventual normal relationship with the U.S. If Kim Jung Un made the strategic decision to abandon his nuclear weapons, with security assurances and eventual normal relations with the U.S., so as to focus on economic development and a better life for the people in North Korea, then it’s important we stay the course and not walk away from negotiations that eventually could be successful, despite the frustration and backsliding from North Korea. However, if it appears that North Korea is not serious about complete and verifiable denuclearization, hoping to wear us down and eventually be accepted as a nuclear weapons state, even with a cap on the number of nuclear weapons they can retain, then we should revert to a policy of maximum pressure, with enhanced sanctions and intimidating joint military exercises.

‘Accepting North Korea as a nuclear weapons state would incite a nuclear arms race in the region and instability in Northeast Asia, with added concern that a nuclear weapon or fissile material could find its way to a rogue state or terrorist organization.’

North Korea’s recent harsh criticism of the U.S. should be a wake-up call that nuclear negotiations will require time, patience and persistence. It will also require close collaboration with and support from South Korea, Japan, China and Russia.

Ambassador Joseph DeTrani was the former Special Envoy for negotiations with North Korea. These views are his and are not representative of a government, agency or department.

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