Positive Moon-Kim summit creates a diplomatic opening in North Korea

Positive Moon-Kim summit creates a diplomatic opening in North Korea
© Getty images

Korea-watchers are so steeped in well-earned skepticism that they may be missing the ground beginning to shift underneath them after the third Moon-Kim inter-Korean summit this week.

As President TrumpDonald John TrumpCorsi sues Mueller for alleged leaks and illegal surveillance Comey: Trump 'certainly close' to being unindicted co-conspirator Trump pushes back on reports that Ayers was first pick for chief of staff MORE gears up for a summit next week with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump ultimatum sparks fears of new arms race Paul calls Trump's pick for attorney general's views on surveillance 'very troubling' Focus on Yemen, not the Saudi crown prince MORE prepares to meet his North Korean counterpart in New York, we have entered a new phase of nuclear diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula.

ADVERTISEMENT

While the ultimate intentions of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un remain suspect, he has taken some serious steps vis-à-vis both South Korea and the nuclear issue. Kim has put the ball squarely in the U.S. court.

First, there is a long list of tension-reduction and confidence-building measures agreed to at the Moon-Kim summit. These include:

  • halting military drills along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ);
  • removing guard posts demilitarizing the Joint Security Area along the DMZ;
  • scaling back military exercises to no fly zones near land and sea borders; and
  • creating mechanisms to prevent accidental clashes.

Taken together, it stops not far from a non-aggression pact.

President Moon has sought to link progress in North-South reconciliation and cooperation with that on the nuclear issue, a task that has become increasingly problematic.

But judging from Secretary of State Pompeo’s announcement that he would meet his North Korean counterpart in New York next week and that the U.S. has invited senior North Korean officials to meet in Vienna, the Moon-Kim Summit seems to have created a diplomatic opening.

In their joint declaration at the Moon-Kim Summit, North Korea offered to begin some dismantling of its nuclear and missile arsenal. Kim volunteered to dismantle the Doongshang-ri missile engine test side and the launch platform in the presence of outside experts.

But the most significant offer was to “permanently dismantle” all the nuclear facilities at Yongyon, which include:

  • a nuclear fuel fabrication plant;
  • a 5-megawatt reactor that produces power as well as fissile material;
  • a spent fuel storage facility; and
  • importantly, a fuel reprocess facility that recovers uranium and plutonium from spent fuel to make bomb material.

This appears to be a North Korean partial response to Trump administration demands that Pyongyang “frontload” its denuclearization process. It is a conditional offer, based on the U.S. taking “corresponding measures.”

While destroying Yongbyon would be a concrete step on denuclearization, it wouldn’t leave North Korea with any less nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles. How should the U.S. respond?

  1. The U.S. should insist that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) be invited to inspect and verify the destruction of the facilities. This may be why the U.S. requested a meeting with North Korea in Vienna, where the IAEA is based.
  2. North Korea must provide the IAEA with a declaration of its full inventory of its nuclear weapons, facilities and fissile material. We can’t denuclearize North Korea until we know what we need to denuclearize.
  3. To verify destruction of the missile site, credible technical experts, perhaps from third parties like the EU or China should be invited.

Finally, there is the big question of what price the U.S. is prepared to pay for these concessions? Perhaps a package that includes:

  • agreeing on an End of the Korean War Declaration (which Pyongyang has been seeking);
  • suspension of some sanctions;
  • offer to exchange liaison offices and to send a U.S. Treasury Department team to help explain how to create a commercial environment to obtain foreign investment and help them begin talking to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank about what steps are needed for them to apply for membership.

If Kim is serious about fixing his economy, such steps are essential.

Of course, the details are for the new North Korea Envoy Stephen Biegun to negotiate. But if there is any hope of denuclearizing North Korea by the end of Trump’s first term in 2021, these new developments need to be the beginning of a sustained give-and-take negotiation process.

Otherwise, Kim is likely to maneuver the U.S. into just freezing his nuclear status quo, an outcome that should be unacceptable to the U.S. and South Korea. 

In any case, considering that we were fearing “fire and fury" and North Korean missile tests only a year ago, things are clearly moving forward, however slowly and ambiguously.

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He served as a senior counselor to the undersecretary of State for global affairs from 2001 to 2004, as a member of the U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008 and on the National Intelligence Council (NIC) Strategic Futures Group from 2008-12. Follow him on Twitter: @Rmanning4