As North Korea has expressed its will for denuclearization to South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s special envoys, Seoul’s diplomatic campaign for North Korea-U.S. talks has begun in earnest. South Korea’s National Security Office chief Chung Eui-yong and National Intelligence Service Director Sun Hoon, who led the delegation to Pyongyang, will leave for Washington on Thursday to brief U.S. President Donald Trump on the result of their meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. As Chung said that he has a separate message on Pyongyang’s position to deliver to Washington, he is expected to convey Kim Jong Un’s message to the United States as well. Chung and Suh also plan to visit China and Japan around next week.
Washington’s initial response to Pyongyang’s expression of its will for denuclearization is positive. Trump said he “will see” while assessing the North’s position to be “very positive.” His response indicates that while he believes in the North’s sincerity, he will also remain cautious due to the possibility of a “false hope.” In particular, he intends to maintain Washington’s current position until visible results are produced, as pressures and sanctions have led the North to the negotiating table. It seems that the United States will make its move after listening to the South Korean delegation’s briefing on the Pyongyang visit. Attention is also drawn to how positively will Trump react to Kim Jong Un’s message delivered by the South Korean security chief.
The end of March has been considered the deadline for the start of North Korea-U.S. talks. Without the initiation of the talks before the South Korean-U.S. joint military exercises in early April, the situation on the Korean Peninsula could return to the tensions before the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, creating an atmosphere of stiff confrontation. However, the inter-Korean summit scheduled for late April and Kim Jong Un’s understanding of the South Korea-U.S. joint military exercises have delayed the critical point of tensions by a month.
While Pyongyang and Washington have gotten closer to the entrance to denuclearization dialogue, there will inevitably be significant clashes and conflicts during the process of discussing the exit – the North’s abandonment of its nuclear program. They just have come close to the starting point. Therefore, the North Korea-U.S. dialogue could not get into full swing until the two Koreas and the United States reach a consensus on a roadmap for the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue – a roadmap that involves a process from a freeze on and the scrapping of the North’s nuclear program and from the improvement of Pyongyang-Washington relations and the establishment of a peace regime on the peninsula. The roadmap cannot be complete until it wins a U.S. consent, persuades North Korea, and obtains positive responses by Beijing, Tokyo and Moscow.
The roadmap for a peace process for the Korean Peninsula would include the implementation and verification of the North’s denuclearization, and corresponding measures. Washington will likely be interested in the former, while Pyongyang will pay attention to the latter. The level of refinement would determine the fate of the roadmap. Depending on the result, the upcoming inter-Korean summit could develop into a declaration by the leaders of the two Koreas and the United States of an official end of the Korean War that the Roh Moo-hyun administration pursued 10 years ago. The South Korean government’s diplomatic mediation ability, with which to endlessly test Pyongyang’s sincerity under close coordination with Washington, is more urgently needed than ever.