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As U.S.- N.Korea Summit Nears, Path To Denuclearization Remains Unclear

For Trump to actually get a real concrete measurement on denuclearization would allow him to really get more buy-in to keep the process rolling in Washington

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U.S., North Korea
U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un meet at the start of their summit on the resort island of Sentosa, Singapore, June 12, 2018. The U.S. should not grant unilateral concessions and sanctions relief to North Korea. VOA

Despite the Trump administration asserting there’s been ongoing progress in talks with North Korea over its commitment to denuclearize, it is unclear what has been achieved ahead of the U.S. announced summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un.

Bruce Klinger, Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation, says “that while some speculate that behind the scenes there had been quiet successes between the two sides, in reality, that really hasn’t been the case.”

North Korea’s denuclearization process has been stalled for months with little signs of outward progress, despite a call by South Korean President Moon Jae-in for Washington and Pyongyang to meet again. That’s something that is likely to take place before the end of February, when U.S. President Donald Trump said he’d meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for a second summit.

“A few days ago Vice President Pence said that [the U.S. is still waiting for North Korea to commit to denuclearization. That’s been consistent with the divergence between the U.S. and North Korean position, not only since last year’s summit but for decades,” said Klinger.

North Korea, Summit, U.S.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo escorts Kim Yong Chol, North Korea’s lead negotiator in nuclear diplomacy with the United States, into talks at a hotel in Washington, Jan. 18, 2019. VOA

But, that may not be the case, says Rodger Baker, Vice President of Strategic Analysis for Stratfor.

“It seems that the North Koreans are the ones who have been driving the push for this second summit almost more so than the United States,” he said, referencing announcements in Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s speech which “laid out that North Korea saw a need for some change in behavior of the United States or else they would restart their program.”

“[North Korea] reached out to China to make sure that everything was going okay there and that China had their back, and then they reached out to the United States,” Baker assessed.

However, Harry Kazianis, director for Defense Studies at the Center for the National Interest, told VOA that at this point both sides may have realized there needs to be concrete progress towards denuclearization.

Kazianis said the “trick” now is to construct an interim deal “where both sides can come across as being a winner.”

North Korea, Summit, U.S.
FILE – U.S. President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Sentosa Island, in Singapore, June. 12, 2018.

“That’s a very hard thing to do at any sort of negotiation,” he said.

Trump met with North Korean nuclear envoy Kim Yong Chol for nearly two hours, saying the announcement of the location of the next summit would be made shortly and that Kim was looking forward to their meeting.

“We’ve made a lot of progress that has not been reported by the media but we have made a lot of progress as far as the new denuclearization is concerned,” he said.

Neither Trump nor the White House gave details about the talks.

Getting talks to move forward

When South Korean President Moon Jae-in met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un this past September in Pyongyang, “the North expressed its willingness to continue to take additional measures, such as the permanent dismantlement of the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, as the United States takes corresponding measures in accordance with the spirit of the June 12 US-DPRK Joint Statement,” according to the joint declaration issued at the end of the summit.

Currently, what North Korea means by “corresponding measures” remains debatable among experts.

United Nations, U.S.
Members of the United Nations Security Council gather for a meeting on North Korea, Sept. 27, 2018, at the United Nations in New York. VOA

Kazianis suggests that one possible measure the United States could offer would be to make a formal peace declaration or begin the process to issue a peace treaty to formally end the 1950-1953 Korea War.

But Baker said that a peace declaration may not be sufficient.

“The United States has already made basically peace declarations or assertions of having no intent to attack North Korea, and that wasn’t enough,” said Baker.

Furthermore, Kazianis said, “The biggest thing that the North Koreans always talk about their propaganda media statements… is how afraid they are of America’s nuclear assets.”

He suggested that if Washington were to scale the assets back, “I think the North Koreans would be really, really incentivized to do a lot.”

Both Kazianis and Baker added that Pyongyang is also looking for sanction relief.

Although Klinger said many underestimate the complexity involved with reducing or eliminating sanctions, noting the difference between sanctions imposed by the United Nations and those by the United States.

Korea
A train transporting dozens of South Korean officials runs on the rails which leads to North Korea, inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, South Korea. VOA

“The U.N. sanctions are,” he said, “is sort of behavior modification, and a lot of the sanctions are trade restrictions, either import or export. In a way, those are more negotiable.”

“The U.S. sanctions are far more difficult to remove because they’re not just focused on the nuclear and missile programs. They are U.S. laws and they focus on human rights violations, criminal activities, such as money laundering, counterfeiting, as well as related to North Korea being on the state-sponsored terrorism list,” he said.

What needs to happen in February?

A criticism of previous summits between Kim and the leaders of South Korea and the United States has been the lack of concrete statements outlining how denuclearization will be achieved.

While Washington may still desire complete, verifiable denuclearization, Baker suggested that may not be “a viable and a realistic outcome anytime soon.”

“So the reality is that what the United States and North Korea and South Korea really are working towards is some way to manage North Korea and to find a way to ease a sense of imminent conflict,” he said.

USA, Trump, North Korea
A man looks at a TV screen showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and U.S. President Donald Trump shaking hands before their meeting in Singapore, in Tokyo, June 12, 2018. VOA

Klinger said a key deliverable from the upcoming second U.S. – North Korean summit should be a commitment “to flesh out a comprehensive, integrated agreement which very clearly delineates everyone’s responsibilities.”

The problem he said, is that past agreements have been “short and vague enough that everyone can claim their own interpretation, and it doesn’t clearly identify what everyone has to do… and they all had very weak verification.”

Kazianis remains optimistic that the upcoming summit will make progress on the denuclearization front since both sides have a lot to offer in terms of concessions.

Also Read: North Korea Working For Second Summit With US to Achieve Results, Says Kim Jong-un

“For Trump to actually get a real concrete measurement on denuclearization would allow him to really get more buy-in to keep the process rolling in Washington and keep the people that are completely against this process on the left and the right, maybe to buy in a little bit more,” he said.

Neither Washington nor Pyongyang has yet to officially announce the date or location of the second U.S. – North Korean summit, although some speculate it may take place in Vietnam. (VOA)

 

Next Story

U.S. To Begin Search Through The Remnants Of The Islamic State’s Final Enclave

SDF officials have raised the possibility that the remaining IS fighters may also be holding prisoners and hostages, but there has been no word as to their fate in recent days.

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IS
Fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) patrol near the village of Baghuz in the Syrian countryside, March 20, 2019. VOA

U.S.-backed forces are starting to search through the remnants of the Islamic State’s final enclave in northeastern Syria, looking for fighters, mines and booby-trapped explosives.

The effort Wednesday to sift through the broken buildings and shredded tents that litter the landscape in the town of Baghuz comes a day after Syrian Democratic Forces took the area from IS fighters in what officials described as a significant blow to the terror group.

SDF officials said as many as 1,500 more people surrendered following Tuesday’s incursion into IS’s final stronghold, including hundreds of injured IS fighters.

Suspected Islamic State (IS) group fighters and civilians are screened by members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the village of Baghuz, Syria, March 20, 2019.
Suspected Islamic State (IS) group fighters and civilians are screened by members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the village of Baghuz, Syria, March 20, 2019. VOA

But concerns run high that fighters lurk in trenches dug all around the former IS enclave, as well as in a complex network of caves and tunnels, which some officials said could run for more than two kilometers.

An unknown number of IS fighters have also retreated to a sliver of land along the Euphrates River, and there are no estimates for how many fighters could be hiding in other parts of Baghuz.

“A group of Daesh in Baghuz still fight back and hold their families as human shields,” Zana Amedi, a media official with the YPG militia, which has been supporting the SDF offensive, told VOA Wednesday, using the terror group’s Arabic acronym.

Despite the official caution, small celebrations broke out Wednesday around Baghuz, with some groups of SDF fighters playing music and dancing.

“We have won. We have eliminated the enemy, the terrorists,” Majid Hejjo, an SDF fighter, told the French news agency.

“The comrades are tired, and the battle is over,” said another SDF fighter.

No ‘complete victory’ yet

In Washington, U.S. President Donald Trump was equally effusive, telling reporters on the South Lawn of the White House that the very last speck of IS-held territory would be liberated within hours.

“There is no red,” Trump said just hours after an intelligence briefing, showing off a map that compared IS-held territory now and the day he was elected. “In fact, there’s actually a tiny spot, which will be gone by tonight.”

Still, SDF officials and U.S. defense officials have been wary of saying the fight against the terror group’s self-declared caliphate is over.

It has been three months since Trump first announced the defeat of IS in a tweet,and more than a month since he told a meeting of ministers from coalition countries that the end of the caliphate “should be formally announced, probably sometime next week.”

More recently, multiple SDF officials have also forecast the fall of IS within days or even hours, only to see efforts slowed by fierce fighting and the presence of tens of thousands of civilians, mostly the wives, children and family members of IS fighters.

They now say more than 5,000 people have fled Baghuz since SDF resumed its final assault on IS just over a week ago, despite earlier saying only about 1,000 civilians and 300 fighters were holed up in Baghuz shortly after the operation to liberate the town got under way last month.

Smoke rises from the Islamic State (IS) group's last remaining position in the village of Baghuz during battles with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in the countryside of the eastern Syrian province of Deir el-Zour, March 20, 2019.
Smoke rises from the Islamic State (IS) group’s last remaining position in the village of Baghuz during battles with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in the countryside of the eastern Syrian province of Deir el-Zour, March 20, 2019. VOA

In all, SDF says more than 5,000 IS fighters have surrendered or been captured over the past month, while another 1,300 have been killed in the fighting.

The U.S.-led coalition also said Wednesday there has been no letup in efforts to ensure the terror group is defeated.

“The ground offensive, coalition airstrikes and artillery continue as needed,” coalition spokesman Col. Sean Ryan told VOA. “The SDF feel they are in control of the area, but as long as Daesh puts up any type of fight and hides in tunnels, they cannot declare complete victory.”

Fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) gather near the village of Baghuz, Syria, March 20, 2019.
Fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) gather near the village of Baghuz, Syria, March 20, 2019. VOA

‘Tens of thousands’ of fighters

SDF officials have raised the possibility that the remaining IS fighters may also be holding prisoners and hostages, but there has been no word as to their fate in recent days.

Thousands of SDF troops have massed around Baghuz for weeks, laying siege to the town in an effort to liberate the final IS enclave in Syria. Officials said Kurdish special forces from Iraq also had been brought in to help with the operations.

Also Read: After Failed Hanoi Summit, U.S. Imposes First North Korea-Linked Sanctions

Even once an official announcement is made, U.S. defense officials caution IS still has “tens of thousands” of fighters working either as part of sleeper cells or as part of an active, clandestine insurgency.

Additionally, senior officials believe most of the group’s senior leadership, including its self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, remain at large. (VOA)