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Decoding Denuclearization

The vagueness of the joint statement out of the Trump-Kim summit may help to maintain momentum, but details are needed to maintain credibility

By NewsChina Updated Jul.1

On June 12, the highly anticipated summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un concluded in Singapore. But as the joint statement released by the two leaders opted for vaguely worded diplomatic rhetoric over concrete plans, analysts around the world are struggling to decode its meaning and significance.  
Denuclearization is no doubt the most important issue covered by the summit. No deal with North Korea could be considered successful without a plan for denuclearization. To the disappointment of many, the joint statement only says that North Korea commits to “work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” offering no timetable or specifics.  

Critics were quick to disparage the negotiation, arguing that the outcome of the historic summit was nothing but a repetition of earlier deals that eventually petered out. Optimists responded that there might be more going on behind the scenes, and reserved judgment until after future negotiations for more substance.  

Given their lack of basic trust, the Trump-Kim summit – the first meeting between leaders from the two countries – may have prioritized trust-building over detail. But there is no doubt the two sides need to clarify a number of issues if there is to be any hope of closing the political gap between them and achieving denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.  
Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible
The US has long insisted that there has to be a “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” before the US lifts any of its sanctions against North Korea. The US State Department uses the acronym CVID. “Because the State Department, the government, likes acronyms so much, we’ve got a new one: CVID – complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization. That is our policy and that is the policy of Secretary Pompeo,” State 
Department spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters in May.  

Originating in the administration of George W. Bush, the US’s CVID position is considered quite similar to the so-called “Libya model,” which US National Security Adviser John Bolton controversially referenced recently. Under this model, North Korea must first give up its weapons, completely dismantle its nuclear program and allow foreign inspections before the US will end sanctions and grant diplomatic recognition to Pyongyang.  

North Korea has clearly rejected the plausibility of the Libya model. Responding to Bolton’s reference to the Libya model, Pyongyang vowed it would never agree to unilaterally surrender its weapons and even threatened to cancel the summit. 

Pyongyang’s position is to adopt a phased approach. Each phase would see both sides take simultaneous steps toward the final outcome: the end of hostilities and denuclearization. This means while North Korea takes steps to freeze its nuclear program, disable key facilities and dismantle nuclear weapons, the US needs to take reciprocal steps at each phase to end its economic, political and security confrontation with Pyongyang.  

At a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in held on May 22, Trump hinted that he might be open to a phased approach by saying it would be difficult to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program in a single step. Ahead of the summit, Susan Thornton, US Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said there would be multiple steps in a long process of denuclearization, and the key issue was what happens first. So far, Washington has not made a clear distinction between the CVID and the Libya model. 

It remains unclear whether the two leaders have agreed on an approach to the denuclearization. According to a June 7 report from South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency, the US requested the inclusion of the CVID acronym in the joint statement, but North Korea scotched the idea on the grounds it would make the North sound like a “defeated country.”  

After the summit, North Korea’s state media claimed that the two leaders had agreed on a “step-by-step” approach to take “simultaneous” actions to achieve peace and denuclearization. 

US researchers visit North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, February 14, 2008

Phased Approach
While many critics in the US would consider it a diplomatic defeat if the US were to adopt a phased approach, some experts say it may be the only way to achieve denuclearization.  
In an article for The Atlantic on May 20, Joel Wit, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center and a former US official involved in previous negotiations with North Korea, said when it comes to denuclearization, the phased approach “could mean, over the long term, that it really happens,” while the Libya model “would assure that it won’t.” 

According to Wit, an ideal outcome of the Trump-Kim summit could be a bilateral declaration of reciprocal commitments the sides are willing to make through all the steps required for denuclearization, an idea Pyongyang has raised in previous talks.  

In an article published by the US international relations magazine the National Interest on May 11, Michael O’Hanlon, a research fellow at the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, argued that denuclearization can be achieved through four main steps – freeze testing, cap arsenals, dismantle infrastructure and disarm.  

Stressing that it would be “unrealistic” to expect North Korea to complete these four steps without being rewarded in the process, O’Hanlon argues that the major question for the US is what kind of inducements it should offer at each step.  

Given the vagueness of the joint statement, it remains unclear as to whether there is even consensus over the approach to denuclearization inside the Trump administration. In the past, Washington’s ambiguity between its preference for a “once-and-for-all” approach and the phased approach favored by Pyongyang was at least partially responsible for the collapse of earlier deals.  

Yet, the US had previously agreed to a phased approach. During the Six-Party Talks held in September 2005, a former attempt to achieve denuclearization, all present, including the US, agreed to a September 19 Joint Statement which “agreed to take coordinated steps” to implement their consensus “in a phased manner in line with the principle of “commitment for commitment, action for action.”  

According to Fu Ying, a former deputy foreign minister of China who has participated in many of the Six-Party Talks, the US had at that time agreed to a five-stage denuclearization  
process. The landmark agreement was the first time North Korea had promised to give up all its nuclear weapons and its nuclear program.  

But the deal quickly collapsed when the Bush administration appeared to back away by accusing North Korea of money laundering through a Macao-based institution immediately after the talks, an issue Fu said was not directly related to denuclearization. The accusation led the US to launch a new round of financial sanctions against North Korea in November 2005, and Pyongyang responded by refusing to return to the Six-Party Talks.  
What Type of Denuclearization?
It appears that the two sides have at the very least made the first step. Even before the summit, North Korea took unilateral steps to dismantle its main nuclear weapons test site and announced a halt to testing. For his part, Trump has suspended joint military exercises with South Korea. 
Such steps seemed implausible weeks ago. In July last year, China raised a similar “freeze-to-freeze” proposal, only to be bluntly rejected by Washington, then by Pyongyang. There is reason to believe that direct talks between the top leaders of both nations gave momentum to the negotiation process, and the vague language of their first meeting actually holds promise for future negotiations.  

But to make denuclearization a reality, both sides do need to flesh out the details in their future talks. “Regardless of negotiation strategies, what really matters is the eventual outcome of the talks – what kind of denuclearization will we get?” said Li Bin, an international relations professor at Tsinghua University. In other words, the US and North Korea need to agree on what the “complete denuclearization” pledged by North Korea really means.  

Li told NewsChina that North Korea’s denuclearization should include four areas, the production of nuclear materials, research and production of nuclear facilities, production and transportation of nuclear weapons and the storage and deployment of nuclear weapons. Li said any denuclearization deal will need to cover four areas and will have to include an inspection mechanism to make it “verifiable.”  

Given the long history of collapsed deals, the two sides will need to reach agreement on these details. The last time the two sides reached a deal was the February 29 Agreement, or the Leap Day Agreement of 2012, made during the Obama administration.  

Back then, North Korea agreed to suspend nuclear tests and long-range missile tests as well as uranium enrichment activities in return for the US improving relations and expanding exchanges. The deal lasted barely two months before North Korea launched a satellite in April 2012, which Washington said transgressed the deal, although Pyongyang disagreed.  
With this history in mind, the chances of the quick deal many hoped for could be slight. Negotiations for denuclearization will almost definitely be a drawn-out process.