US-North Korea Nuclear Diplomacy: Contexualising the Third Inter-Korean Meet

30 Sep, 2018    ·   5519

Shivani Singh argues that smooth inter-Korean relations and cooperative US diplomacy must go hand-in-hand for any substantive progress 

Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Researcher, Nuclear Security Programme (NSP)

The third inter-Korean summit took place between North Korean leader Kim-Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in on 18 September. Topping the agenda was the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula as promised during the US-North Korea Singapore summit held in June 2018. Although some purportedly substantial commitments were reached on the denuclearisation front, it is premature to rejoice. Precedence suggests North Korea’s failure to live up to its commitments, and it is crucial that South Korean efforts are complemented with appropriate US diplomacy. However, the kind of diplomacy adopted by the US so far appears problematic, and is two-fold: US' emphasis on positional bargaining, and an absence of a 'trust-building framework' in the negotiations between the US and North Korea.

Broken Promises

During the summit, North Korea pledged to close the Tongchang-ri facility, a launch site used for testing rocket engines, and  "expressed readiness to shut down the Yongbyon nuclear facility...if the US took some reciprocal action" agreeing  to allow independent inspectors to verify said promises.

However, such commitments are not new. Since the last two inter-Korean summits and the US-North Korea summit in Singapore, North Korea has claimed compliance by allegedly practicing a moratorium on nuclear/missile tests and dismantling the Sohae rocket launch site and the Punggye-ri nuclear site. However, satellite images indicated "no significant dismantlement activity." Moreover, US intelligence agencies reported renewed construction activities towards building "two new liquid fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles at a large research facility on the outskirts of Pyongyang."

Soon after, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), through its collection of satellite imagery, confirmed a detailed list of nuclear-related activities, like "the use of centrifuge enrichment technology and mining, milling and other fuel activities at a declared uranium plant" still being undertaken by the North Korean government.

As far as allowing inspections is concerned, it is important to note that since North Korea is not party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), nor has it concluded any separate Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA, it is not subject to the IAEA inspection protocols and therefore, it is too soon to consider the credibility or effectiveness of these inspections, if at all undertaken.

US Nuclear Diplomacy

Time and again, Moon Jae-in has assumed the role of a mediator between the US and North Korea, especially in light of the US decision to abruptly cancel US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang. However, South Korea’s success has been held back by the flawed US diplomacy adopted so far, with only some forward movement.

President Donald Trump has been very clear that he will not compromise on his demand of complete denuclearisation and is unwilling to lift sanctions till such time as complete denuclearisation is achieved. However, despite this rigid position, the ground reality remains that the US has engaged in tactical negotiations by matching concessions. The US offered to temporarily halt the US-South Korea joint military exercise in exchange for a cessation of nuclear and missile tests by North Korea. It is anybody's guess whether, and to what extent, the US-North Korea summit's immediate goal - persuading Kim Jon-un to cease his aggressive behaviour - has been achieved through this.

It is important to remember that building and sustaining trust relationships with the adversary is just as important as negotiating the substantive matters. South Korea has undertaken confidence-building measures to improve bilateral relations, like negotiating over a Peace Treaty, and its efforts at strengthening economic relations - such measures seem lacking in the US-North Korea negotiations. While North Korea has extended goodwill gestures such as returning the remains of 55 US soldiers killed in the Korean War and releasing three arrested US citizens, the US has not done much in instilling any kind of faith in the relationship except the current cancellation of joint exercises with South Korea. Clearly as larger concessions require some basis, greater confidence-building measures will be inevitable since, ultimately, a larger breakthrough is sought.

The entrenched adversarial relationship between the two countries has been the result of many years of strained ties and it will not be an easy - or quick - task to mend it. To that end, South Korea’s improving bilateral relationship with North Korea can be part of a step-by-step approach to eventually bridging the trust deficit between the US and North Korea. It is thus imperative that these diplomatic issues are addressed, and an optimal mix of smooth inter-Korean relations and cooperative US diplomacy be fused to yield the desired results.


Shivani Singh is a Researcher with the Nuclear Security Programme at IPCS.