North Korea just gave a clue on how to end its nuclear program; we should listen

While the pundits in Washington debate the Trump administration’s decision to remove U.S. forces from Syria, another global hotspot, North Korea, is back in the news — and not in a good way. That is, if you listen to the media hype and take every word coming out Pyongyang as always directed at the United States.

The latest North Korea drama driving headlines comes courtesy of a recent commentary carried by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), North Korea’s news propaganda outlet. It seems the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is quite upset over America’s lack of understanding involving the term “denuclearization.” The article points out — and I hate to say, quite correctly — that the Trump administration has twisted the meaning that just North Korea is to “denuclearize.”

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That’s just not so, and the North is eager to point this out. The joint statement signed by President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un at their summit in Singapore explicitly states the North agreed “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

That nuanced language matters. It means Pyongyang also is looking for nuclear security from the United States — and not just the other way around. In fact, the author of the KCNA commentary shows how North Korea defines the exact geography of the Korean Peninsula, and what denuclearization means to them.

“When we refer to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” explained the KCNA article, that “means removing all elements of nuclear threats from the areas of both the north and the south of Korea and also from surrounding areas from where the Korean peninsula is targeted.”

What North Korea wants is simple: a guarantee that U.S. forces won’t deploy nuclear capable assets in or around its territory — bombers, submarines and maybe even aircraft carriers. That is something the North has been demanding for years. “It is a self-evident truth that the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is a joint work,” explains KCNA, “which can never come true unless the DPRK and the U.S. make joint efforts.”

It seems North Korea is simply reminding us what we signed up for. But headlines around the world are interpreting the above inaccurately — and that could drive up tensions. Perhaps the best example of all comes from The Independent, stating that “[N]orth Korea has said it will not give up its nuclear weapons until the US first ‘completely eliminates’ its own arsenal in the region, a bombshell demand that threatens to derail peace talks.”

Now, to be entirely fair, if you ask 10 North Korea-watchers to interpret anything the hermit kingdom says you are likely to get 10 very different points of analysis. However, do yourself a favor: read Thursday's statement for yourself and decide.

So, where is this misinterpretation coming from? What seems to be driving some of the commentary that Washington must “give up” its nuclear weapons is a part of the KCNA statement that states “the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula means ‘completely removing the nuclear threats from the U.S. to the DPRK’ before it means the elimination of its nuclear deterrence.”

The challenge is that the wording above can be interpreted any way you wish. I read that statement and came away wanting more information, wondering if something was lost in translation. You could also read it as the North wants an end to verbal threats — not the actual dismantling of America’s nuclear weapons, something we would never do anyway.

In any case, the North took a calculated risk putting out such a statement, knowing President TrumpDonald John TrumpCensus Bureau intends to wrap up count on Oct. 5 despite judge's order Top House Republican calls for probe of source of NYT Trump tax documents New Yorkers report receiving ballots with wrong name, voter addresses MORE would read it or see it on the news and could decide to act — and that could mean anything from another “fire and fury” threat to who knows what else.

The Trump administration must decide what it is willing to offer to create the conditions under which North Korea would give up its nuclear weapons and, ultimately, to get Kim to follow through with it. That means creating an atmosphere in which the North feels safe that it can surrender its nukes and won’t end up like Iraq or Afghanistan — something they have stated they fear on numerous occasions. This means, of course, diplomatic relations and a formal end to the Korean War, followed by a mutually agreed-upon set of reciprocal confidence-building actions, such as the easing of sanctions for certain steps that enhance the security of Washington, Pyongyang and Seoul.

But before any of that can happen, Washington needs to change its expectations. Demanding that the North give up its nuclear weapons before the Kim regime gains any benefits is a surefire way to return to the nuclear threats of last year. And that is something we need to avoid at all costs.

Harry J. Kazianis serves as director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, a nonpartisan policy group in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @Grecianformula.