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Taking a harder line against North Korea

Author: Liang Tuang Nah, Nanyang Technological University

Kim Jong-un has emerged from the third North–South Korea summit as the clear winner. The summit concluded with easily reversible agreements and insubstantial concessions that hardly promote nuclear disarmament. The United States and South Korea should be firmer in their future dealings with Pyongyang.

The Pyongyang Joint Declaration of September 2018 commits both Koreas to several agreements. But the clear beneficiary of each of these agreements is the North Korean regime.

North and South Korea agreed to implement military de-escalation measures across their shared border. Security stability along the demilitarised zone and in Southern provinces closer to North Korea will be welcomed across all sectors of South Korean society.

But inasmuch as this effort provides positive optics for the summit and may help to boost Moon’s domestic political standing, curtailing military antagonism benefits the North Korean regime equally if not more. The world is so used to seeing an aggressive North Korea that any improvements to stability on the Korean Peninsula help to reform Kim’s global reputation.

Moon and Kim also agreed to implement permanent measures to reunite families separated by the 1950–53 Korean War and to further cultural, social and sporting exchanges between the two Koreas. These initiatives will be well received in the South, where pro-reunification voters perceive cross-border exchanges, including a unified Korean representation at the next Olympics, as grounds for rejoicing.

But it should be noted that there is minimal cost to Pyongyang in agreeing to more family reunions, civil exchanges or joint sporting participation. Any northern financing shortfalls for these feel-good events will more than likely be covered by Seoul or by South Korean corporations eager to do their bit to smooth the road to reunification.

These cross-border initiatives also help to alleviate North Korea’s isolation without it ever giving up a single warhead or missile. And they can easily be undone by a proverbial snap of the young leader’s fingers if his attempts at international diplomacy turn sour.

The two Koreas also agreed to further economic and infrastructural cooperation, including construction of transportation links, joint economic zone development and epidemic prevention initiatives.

South Korea will benefit from economic cooperation with the North given the latter’s educated workforce, cheap wages and significant natural resources. But South Korea can find partners anywhere around the globe, whereas an international pariah like North Korea can only look to China. The North’s impoverished finances also mean that the South will end up funding the lion’s share of any capital expenses for joint projects. If international sanctions against North Korea are ever lifted, Seoul would be bankrolling Pyongyang’s economic rehabilitation.

The most important commitment of the joint declaration is to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula. Kim pledged to permanently decommission the Dongchang-ri missile engine test site and launch platform with a possible option to dismantle nuclear facilities at Yongbyon — if the United States reciprocates with appropriate concessions.

But the same commitment to denuclearisation was included in the Trump–Kim joint statement signed in June, yet no subsequent progress on this point was achieved because North Korea and the United States disagree — and still do — on how and when denuclearisation is to be achieved. Unless both sides can reach a mutual agreement on the details of Pyongyang’s denuclearisation responsibilities, progress will remain elusive.

Similarly, the third Moon–Kim summit does not hold the Kim regime to any concrete nuclear disarmament. The dismantlement of the Dongchang-ri missile test site is purely symbolic and will still leave Pyongyang free to build another test site, or even test fire a missile by other means.

Even if the United States makes a valuable concession to North Korea and the latter demolishes its nuclear manufacturing facilities at Yongbyon, North Korea would remain in possession of an unknown number of nuclear warheads and the capability to manufacture missiles to deliver these warheads to overseas targets.

In other words, these measures allow the preservation of Kim’s nuclear arsenal while giving the impression that he is making progress on denuclearisation. This all works in the favour of Kim’s Byungjin ideology of nuclear arms retention and economic prosperity. While the Byungjin line flies in the face of nuclear non-proliferation norms, the weak commitments of the Pyongyang Declaration indicate that the risk of North Korea pulling it off is growing.

Washington can take action by accepting the South’s invitation to visit Seoul for the fourth North–South summit this year. The Trump administration should remain firm on North Korea’s nuclear disarmament commitments by insisting on verifiable denuclearisation steps before further engaging with Pyongyang.

The United States could also exert pressure at the United Nations Security Council and through bilateral diplomacy to reinforce or refresh sanctions enforcement. And it should be more resistant to Kim’s direct messaging towards Trump. Kim can say whatever he wants, but Trump needs to be reminded that talk is cheap and only nuclear arms relinquishment can bring about normalised Washington–Pyongyang relations.

Liang Tuang Nah is Research Fellow at the Military Studies Programme, Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

A version of this article originally first appeared here on Asia Dialogue.

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