Donald Trump-Kim Jong-un Summit: Differences over meaning of 'denuclearisation' likely to complicate talks

As US president Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un gear up for the much-awaited 12 June summit in Singapore, the term  "denuclearisation" figures heavily in conversations surrounding the event.

On Saturday, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis reiterated the terms of sanctions relief for North Korea. "North Korea will receive relief only when it demonstrates verifiable and irreversible steps to denuclearisation," he said, speaking at a security conference in Singapore.

During the most recent meeting between Kim Jong-un and South Korean president Moon Jae-in on 26 May, the latter said: "Kim stressed again that he had a firm determination towards complete denuclearisation."

However, there may be a possible spanner in the works that could complicate matters between Trump and Kim: The word 'denuclearisation' may have different connotations for Washington, Seoul and Pyongyang.

File images of Kim Jong un and Donald Trump: Reuters

File images of Noth Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US president Donald Trump. Reuters

What 'denuclearisation' means to the US

The US wants nothing short of a complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of North Korea's nuclear weapons and the facilities needed to build those weapons as soon as possible. The intention is to ensure the existing facilities cannot be reactivated after they've been dismantled. The use of CVID as official policy dates back to October 2006, when the United Nations Security Council condemned Pyongyang's nuclear test, and has been used consistently since in all UN resolution criticising North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

In the event of a "complete denuclearisation", US will expect international bodies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to be allowed to conduct regular inspections to keep track of Kim's nuclear programme.

What 'denuclearisation' means to North Korea

For Kim, his country's nuclear programme is a "powerful treasured sword". North Korea, for decades, has been pushing a concept of "denuclearisation" that bears no resemblance to the American definition, vowing to pursue nuclear development unless Washington removes its troops from the Korean Peninsula and the nuclear umbrella defending South Korea and Japan.

At the height of the Cold War, US deployed strategic nuclear weapons in South Korea in the 1960s, which remained with the country till 1992, according to a report in The Diplomat. However, according to CNNNorth Korea considers US presence on the peninsula as a serious nuclear threat, given the latter's huge stockpile of nuclear arsenal. And they have good reason to be.

The US has an unparalleled ability to project power around the world and can reach targets anywhere with conventional or nuclear munitions. It has long-range bombers, mid-air refuelling capabilities, and a fleet of nuclear submarines constantly at sea, each armed with phenomenal destructive power.

People watch a TV screen showing file footage of US president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Seoul. AP

People watch a TV screen showing file footage of US president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Seoul. AP

In 2016, North Korea laid out conditions for disbanding its nuclear programme, which included that US and Seoul allow international verification to remove all previously stationed weapons in South Korea, guarantee the US would never deploy nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula, and not use it to threaten Pyongyang or attack it.

The main argument Pyongyang makes, as Olly Terry writes in The Diplomat, is: “How can we be expected to give up our nuclear security guarantees, when our neighbours/enemies in the South still have American nuclear security guarantees protecting them?”

Analysts believe the most likely compromise could be North Korea agreeing to freeze weapons and missile tests and possibly cap its weapons development in return for sanctions relief and a reduction or freezing of joint US-South Korean military drills.

However, such a proposition is a highly unattractive course of action for the US as Washington would not want to give up its strategic advantage of having troops and military present in the region. In fact, Jim Mattis recently made clear that the issue of US troops stationed in South Korea will not be "on the table" at the summit between Trump and Kim.

Why Kim won't agree to Trump's 'denuclearisation'

The autocratic regime believes the US and South Korea want to topple his government. According to Voxthe North Korean leader is aware of what happened in other countries such as Iraq and Libya under similar circumstances. When Saddam Hussein persuaded the world he had weapons of mass destruction (he didn't), the US invaded Iraq in 2003 and drove him out of power. Hussein eventually died, too.

In Libya, Muammar Qaddafi gave up his nuclear programme in order to build better ties with the Western world. Instead, he was ousted and brutally killed by a mob.

Ukraine presents another example. Between 1994 and 1996, the country had agreed to deliver nuclear weapons to Russia which the former Soviet Union had left there, with promise of receiving security memorandums from the US, Russia and other countries, as per Nikkei Asian ReviewHowever, following numerous military incursions, Russia annexed part of Ukraine in 2014.

According to Nikkei, even if Kim agrees to abandon his nuclear programme, he will demand that he his family's dynasty be not encroached. Crippling international sanctions have also weakened the North Korean economy.

'Complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula'

As the long warring Korean neighbours met at a historic summit at the Demilitarised Zone in April, the leaders of the two nations promised to achieve "a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula through complete denuclearisation".

Even in statements released from North Korea, Kim has always called for nuclear disarmament of both North and South Korea. The North—which invaded its neighbour in 1950—is the only one of the two Koreas to possess nuclear weapons, but the South has a security alliance with the US.

The US has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea (to defend it from its neighbour), and Washington's nuclear arsenal is a key part of its defence capabilities: It does not have a "no first use" policy.

Pyongyang says it needs nuclear weapons to defend itself against the United States, and interprets threats against it widely: It has regularly condemned US-South Korean joint military exercises as preparations for invasion.

Under the 1953 Mutual Defence Treaty between South Korea and the US, Washington is duty-bound to come to its ally's aid if attacked.

Most analysts and political observers believe that Kim isn't talking about dismantling, and abandoning his nuclear programme completely. North Korea has long said it is open to eventually giving up its nuclear arsenal if the US withdraws its troops from South Korea and ends its “nuclear umbrella” security alliance with Seoul, among other conditions.

What's the compromise the two could reach?

According to The Diplomat, the amicable compromise would be to agree to the creation of a "nuclear free weapons zone" (NFWZ). It was an idea floated by former North Korean leader Kim Il-sung in the 1990s whereby neighbouring regions, countries and continents agree not to deploy nuclear weapons in their backyards.

Internationally, NFWZs are desirable as they can be enforced with Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT), UN resolutions and international declarations. With a NFWZ, member countries' safety is inter-dependent. which takes away the risk of using weapons to threaten neighbouring countries. Latin America, Carribean, Southeast Asia and Africa are UN-recognised nuclear free weapons zone.

For negotiations between US and North Korea, the road ahead is likely bumpy.

With inputs from agencies

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Updated Date: Jun 04, 2018 17:30:53 IST

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