Prices for Denuclearization of North Korea
Remarks delivered at Stanford’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center | February 22, 2019
We have a long history of negotiating with Pyongyang on denuclearization. These negotiations have been in different formats from bilateral talks to trilateral talks to four-party talks to six party talks. We learned many lessons through these engagements. These lessons provide a useful reference, but they should not close our minds to new possibilities.
The North Korea that we are currently facing has the ability to produce and test ICBM and nuclear weapons that threaten its neighbors and even U.S. territories.
The North Korean WMD issue has become worse over the years to the point that we can no longer wait for this problem to naturally go away. We now have a new leader in North Korea who says he wants to engage and appears to want to take his country on a new path. South Korean President Moon strongly wants to bring North Korea out of isolation. At the same time, we have a U.S. administration focused on proactively trying to resolve this national security challenge.
We have new players, like President Trump, Chairman Kim Jong Un, and South Korea President Moon, who want to make this work. I can say that the stars have lined up. Personally, based on the last two years of my own engagements as a senior U.S. official with Chairman Kim, his senior officials, as well as key South Korean officials, I have come to believe that we have a great window of opportunity to engage Pyongyang and resolve this long-standing North Korean nuclear issue once and for all.
To me, Chairman Kim appears to have a strong desire to improve North Korea’s relationship with the U.S., as he appears to believe that it is the only way to lead his country into prosperity and to enhance regime security at the same time. However, there is still a strong debate as to whether Kim would truly denuclearize.
As the old Korean saying “dong-sang-yi-mong” goes, we are thinking the same, but dreaming differently. Perhaps that is where we are. But I believe that there is only one way to find out what Chairman Kim’s true intentions are, namely, to continue to engage him directly and test his willingness to proceed with the diplomacy of denuclearization. Let me share what I observed and heard.
In early April 2018, I accompanied then-CIA Director Pompeo to Pyongyang to meet with Chairman Kim. Our main objective was to confirm one single most important point that the South Korean special envoy relayed to us a couple of weeks prior. According to the South Korean envoy, Chairman Kim stated to the South Korean delegation that he is willing to denuclearize. When Director Pompeo asked Chairman Kim directly whether the Chairman intended to denuclearize, the Chairman said that he is a father and husband and he does not want his children to live their lives carrying nuclear weapons on their back.
During the meeting, Kim not only confirmed his previous statement about his willingness to denuclearize, but he also strongly emphasized the need to improve U.S.-North Korea relations in order to build trust before North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons.
What Kim appeared to have meant was that after over 70 years of hostilities between the United States and North Korea, both countries need to focus on building a warm relationship and confidence before he can trust the United States enough to give up his nuclear ambitions.
Against this backdrop, it appears that the overarching challenge has been how the two countries can improve bilateral relationship and built trust while pursuing denuclearization. It is clear that both processes of denuclearization and improving relationship include many secondary issues and questions that must be addressed.
It is clear that establishing effective communication is a good starting point in establishing a new relationship and engaging in the diplomacy of denuclearization. Building mutual trust is a process that takes considerable efforts and it begins with enhancing and increasing communication. Specifically, the denuclearization process requires intense negotiations and involves not only technical and political-based communication, but also communication that is culture-informed.
Increasing speed and bandwidth, combined with a positive attitude, are key to successful communication, which is yet to come. Also, it is not just the content that matters, but also how you deliver it.
It appears that the current Trump administration officials are fully aware of the need to increase communication with North Korea and have attempted to speed up and raise the volume of communication with their North Korean counterparts in every occasion since the 2018 Singapore summit.
On the other hand, North Korea continues to proceed in a measured pace and has not demonstrated its willingness to change its traditional communication method, i.e., communicate only when it is required. It is doubtful whether North Korea can strike a new friendship with the United States if it only choses to talk when it is necessary.
It is understandable that Chairman Kim’s diplomatic engagements in 2018 can be described as truly high-speed and unprecedented, as he had three meetings with South Korean President Moon, three meetings with PRC President Xi, and a summit with President Trump. All these events required an extremely large amount of resources before and after the meetings. It is particularly interesting to see that North Korea uses the same officials to prepare these meetings and follow up afterward. How much these officials are stretched during this period? Have they had capacity to keep up with the U.S. demand for increased communication and meetings?
North Korea's government is built on a typical top-down model. Currently, the most powerful individual is the Chairman of State Affairs Commission (KJU) and the Worker's Party has the largest decision-making power. Within the Worker’s Party, various departments follow a top-down system under the Central Committee. The current main counterpart of the U.S. negotiation team is a department within the Worker’s Party, which is appointed by Chairman Kim. Unlike the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, functioning outside of the Worker’s Party, this department has a rather small pool of resources, but maintains a strong pride being a department within the Worker’s Party.
I raise this background of real communication challenges because it is a very important element to overcome in order to create the right atmosphere for success in the negotiation process.
Let’s go back to 2017. We all remember how intense the situation was at the time, as North Korea tested missiles of all kinds almost every other month and tested the largest nuclear weapon to date. I witnessed for the first time how many South Koreans, who had been immune to the North’s threats before, were taking this threatening situation seriously. I received many phone calls from friends in Seoul asking whether it would be safe to be in Seoul at the time. I told them that my daughter had been staying in Seoul for her study abroad program and would continue to be there. I think that reassured them. It is just an illustration of the situation at the time.
During that intense period, critics were very vocal about the lack of U.S. engagement with North Korea. Many were concerned about the situation and asked the U.S. to engage with North Korea to defuse the tension. Now that we are engaging, the critics have changed their tune and say we are going to be played by the North. Well, I have strong confidence in our folks as they are fully aware of the challenges they are facing. As Secretary of State Pompeo says all the time, the United States is going into this path with eyes wide open.
I know there is a concern that President Trump or Secretary of State Pompeo may make concessions to North Korea because they might buy into Kim Jong Un’s appeasement strategy. But, based on my own experience sitting down with our current policymakers many times to discuss our strategies forward, I assure you that they have a clear understanding that the diplomatic engagement is one of many tools in their toolbox. They assume nothing and are consistently re-evaluating their approach to North Korea at every critical juncture.
Before discussing what would be the prices to be paid by both the United States and North Korea to resolve the nuclear issue, let’s review what have been done so far since 2017. Also, I would like to point out what the United States provided North Korea during the past engagements. These are important data point as we are moving into a new set of negotiation:
- During the Agreed Framework from 1994-2002, the international community provided approximately 1.5 billion U.S. dollars and the U.S. government provided 400 million U.S. dollars in heavy fuel oil (HFO).
- During the Six-Party Talks from 2003-2009, the United States provided approximately 200 million dollars for the cost of HFO and dismantling a part of Yongbyon.
- We even released over 20 million U.S. dollars back to North Korea, an amount that was blocked by a Banco Delta Asia investigation.
- We also removed North Korea from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list.
Since 2017, the United States has taken the following steps:
- The Secretary of State rolled up his sleeves and proactively engaged the North Korean leadership by visiting Pyongyang four times within one year. This level of commitment is unprecedented and a remarkable demonstration of active problem solving from our country’s top diplomat. This was the first positive response from the United States to North Korea since the 2017 Missile crisis.
- President Trump provided a world stage for Kim Jong Un to debut and got him the global attention that he wanted.
- The United States and South Korea also agreed to suspend joint military exercises. I recall how, during a meeting with Chairman Kim, the Chairman noted that he understood both the U.S. and South Korea claim that the joint military exercises were defensive in nature, but that the North Korean public feels these exercises are offensive.
What are the actions that North Korea side has taken since 2017?
- It suspended missile and nuclear testing.
- Pyongyang released detainees without protracted negotiations.
- The North returned the remains of U.S. servicemen killed in action during the Korean War.
- It partially dismantled Yunsong missiles engine testing site and dismantled Punggeri nuclear weapon testing site.
- It once again tabled Yongbyon nuclear research facilities.
North Korea probably believes and publicly claims that it partially dismantled its WMD programs, and they are asking for immediate rewards.
I personally heard that the North claimed their concessions are much more valuable than reciprocal actions the U.S. side has taken so far. They said they took these actions as part of their commitment to build trust with the United States on denuclearization. North Korea demanded several times to evaluate all the actions Pyongyang has taken since the June 2018 Singapore summit as some sort of a major denuclearization milestone.
I believe that North Korea still has a long way to go and that it needs to further demonstrate its sincerity by dismantling key strategic weapons production infrastructure. Lessons of the past place the burden of proof on the North. Pyongyang needs to convince the international community that it means what it says, because the level of skepticism is sky high, and for a reason.
In the end, whatever horse-trading Washington decides to do with Pyongyang, our objective needs to remain crystal clear and not waver. Our leaders need to continue to stop and check our assumptions and check what demonstrable progress we are making against our goal.
And our goal is simple, although it may be long and difficult to achieve: Final Fully Verifiable Denuclearization (FFVD). What does FFVD mean?
- The North is to halt the testing of Nuclear weapons and launches of ballistic missiles.
- North Korea is to permit U.S. and international technical experts access to key WMD-related sites throughout the process.
- Pyongyang is to declare and shut down all nuclear facilities.
- The North is to completely dismantle and remove its nuclear weapons, delivery systems, facilities, and associated material from the Korean peninsula with an agreed timeline.
- North Korea is to provide a comprehensive declaration of its nuclear and ballistic missiles, as well as chemical and biological programs.
- North Korea is to rejoin the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
And what are North Korea’s goals?
- Pyongyang wants the removal all U.N. designated sanctions.
- The North wants resumption of inter-Korea economic projects, including Kaesong industrial Park and Kumkang mountain tourism project.
- The North wants to obtain an End-of-War declaration.
- It wants to be recognized as a nuclear state, if possible.
- It wants to improve its relationship with the United States, with an eye towards establishing a diplomatic relationship.
- It wants to place a long-lasting peace mechanism in the Korean peninsula that reassures continued Kim family rule in the North.
What price would the United States and North Korea each be willing to pay?
On the U.S. side, I see three incentive categories:
Within the Economic Incentive category:
- The United States would be able to provide humanitarian assistance to North Korea;
- It could ease restrictions on North Korean banking transactions;
- It could modify or ease existing import and export gaps;
- It could provide exemptions for joint ventures to be implemented in economic zones.
In the Political Incentives category:
- The United States could lift its travel ban;
- It could establish a liaison office;
- It could start promoting cultural exchanges;
- It could lift the U.S. sanctions on Kim family members and senior officials;
- It could delist North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism.
In terms of Security Incentives:
- The United States could sign an End-of-War declaration;
- It could begin military-to-military engagement;
- It could sign a Peace treaty;
- It could establish a diplomatic relationship.
And for the last step, when FFVD is seen approaching,
- The United States could lift U.N. sanctions.
What are the prices that North Korea should pay?
- The North needs to completely shut down all nuclear facilities;
- It needs to eventually hand over a comprehensive declaration of its nuclear and ballistic missiles, as well as its chemical and biological programs;
- It needs to accept U.S. and international experts and provide access to its WMD facilities;
- It needs to agree to set a timeline and work with the United States and international experts to dismantle and remove its nuclear weapons, missiles, facilities and associated material from Korea;
- It needs to agree to rejoin the NPT;
- It should reform its foreign investment rules and regulation to make investment a friendly environment for the international community;
- It should improve its human rights record. And, perhaps, they should start with ease on freedom of religion. (There was a rich history of Christianity in Pyongyang 100 years ago.)
Does all of this look like an impossible mission? Probably not. I believe these are all achievable. During the diplomatic process, I assumed that the North would push the U.S. counterparts hard to obtain as much concessions as possible and would demand a concession-for-concession approach. I also assumed that it would be a one-step-back and two-steps-forward process. In the end, North Korea would prefer a transactional negotiation, but Kim Jong Un recognizes that he has to compromise, and his negotiation position has evolved throughout the process.
I believe that Kim Jong Un delivered on his promise to his people already: better life and economic prosperity. It appears that most North Koreans welcome Kim’s engagement policy and support his attempt to improve the economic situation in North Korea. It gives them hope. It is not a good idea for Chairman Kim to walk back and ask his people to abandon hope at this point.
Past engagements, including the Agreed Framework and Six-Party Talks, all started with ambitious goals focusing on denuclearization of North Korea, improving relations between the United States and North Korea, and establishing a lasting peace regime on the Korean peninsula. However, they did not work out because both sides tried to solve all the issues tactically rather than strategically.
The conflict is not only about denuclearization, it is also about redrawing the geopolitical and geo-economic map for North Korea. I hope that this time around, both sides would continue to keep a clear eye on the objectives and approach the process strategically. Imagine how a successful outcome of the current negotiations would positively impact the people of North Korea, the Korean Peninsula as a whole, the entire region, and the entire world in three to five years.