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Stunning Korea denuclearization statement bodes well for America

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The stunning Panmunjom Declaration announcement by the leaders of South Korea and North Korea is sweeping and potentially strongly in the American interest. The three-page declaration is quite vague and open to multiple interpretations, but the United States should use the most favorable interpretation going into the summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un next month.

The declaration has four core elements. The first is the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the second is an inter-Korean peace regime within one year, the third regards liaison offices on both sides of the demilitarized zone, and the fourth entails inter-Korean family reunifications. Reports indicate South Korea will provide economic assistance to North Korea, which seems likely, but remains unconfirmed.

{mosads}The total denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is an enormous net gain for the United States, with caveats. We must recognize that this idea means no more U.S. Navy ship visits to South Korea because we do not confirm whether our warships are carrying nuclear weapons. This also probably means no more major American and South Korean military exercises because North Korea will likely say such exercises are hostile acts and training for the potential use of nuclear weapons in the region.

The total denuclearization of the region could mean ending or greatly reducing the U.S. security guarantee to South Korea because the current guarantee implicitly covers protection to South Korea against the use of nuclear weapons. It may mean a major push, backed by China, that the United States has to dismantle its regional missile defense network, since it is not needed if the Korean Peninsula is a nuclear-free zone.

Despite the caveats, a verifiable dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons complex and stockpile would remove the threshold breaking the small state nuclear weapons threat to the U.S. homeland. Verification would need to be at least to the standards of the Iran, Libya, Ukraine and South Africa nuclear dismantlement agreements if the United States is to have confidence that North Korea’s nuclear weapons stockpile and building capacity is ended. Except for the Iran deal, the arrangements are permanent and of high confidence. The United States will want to push hard for long-range missiles to be part of the deal and subject to the same tough verification standards.

The plan for South Korea and North Korea to sign a peace regime within one year is remarkable in many ways, even if a peace regime is far different than a peace treaty. North Korea has not formally recognized the existence of a South Korean state for 70 years. Past direct talks obfuscated whether they were between two nations or just between two belligerents in conflict. Signing a bilateral peace arrangement implies mutual recognition of two states on the Korean Peninsula. The term peace “regime” versus peace “treaty” could be interpreted by North Korea as just an end to the state of hostility rather than permanent peace between two distinct nations. This seems semantic but has great meaning.

Regardless of the differences between a peace regime and a peace treaty, China will be pleased by steps that codify the long-term division between South Korea and North Korea. Beijing has little interest in a unified Korean Peninsula on Seoul’s terms. South Korea is an ally of the United States, while China is a massive bordering nation and has a historical record of seeking dominion of the Korean Peninsula. It is highly likely that a unified democratic Korean Peninsula would want the American counterbalancing weight to temper China’s behavior. Preservation of the North Korean nation sustains China’s buffer state against American encroachment. This fundamental holds as long as South Korea envisions close security ties with the United States.

Japan is a side actor in the inter-Korean dialogue, but it cannot be happy that its core interests are ignored in the declaration. Japan cares about Chinese expansionism, North Korean intermediate-range ballistic missiles, and the return of its kidnapped persons from North Korea. The declaration appears silent on all three and even has the potential to weaken the American security presence in northeast Asia. A weakened American security presence in the region makes Japan vulnerable.

Overall, there is much to like in the Panmunjom Declaration. It should be viewed as a framework agreement with vital specifics to be negotiated. President Trump is right to applaud its promulgation, but he is well ahead of his skis in declaring in all caps, “Korean war to end!” We have been down this path before. All earlier efforts ended badly because all parties interpreted the meaning and obligations of the deals differently. All sides were disappointed. North Korea never gave up its strategic weapons programs, and the allies never provided the economic assistance and security guarantees Pyongyang hoped to accrue.

The Panmunjom Declaration is amongst the vaguest so far. But good negotiators will begin with the interpretations they like as diplomats work through the vital details. President Trump would be well served to let his professional national security advisers at the Pentagon, State Department, and the intelligence community wrestle with what’s been agreed to thus far, work as closely as possible with South Korea and Japan on the way forward, and keep in mind that the promise of this new declaration can only be fulfilled if we are prepared to make some significant bets with our security alliances and homeland defense.

Todd Rosenblum is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council. He was a senior defense and homeland security official during the Obama administration and a delegate to earlier Korean Peninsula negotiations.

Tags Donald Trump Foreign policy North Korea Nuclear weapons South Korea

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