An Outlook on the Denuclearization of North Korea
--- What is the Stance of North Korea?---

Lecturer Junya Nishino Professor, Keio University

1. North Korea looks forward to continuing dialogue with the United States

(Chairman Kim Jong-un's policy speech on April 12, 2019)

Chairman Kim Jong-un's policy speech at the First Session of the 14th Supreme People's Assembly of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea on April 12, 2019 elaborated on North Korea's current internal and external policies. Toward the end of his lengthy speech, Chairman Kim took up the US-North Korea relationship and expressed his hope that the bilateral dialogue would continue. His intention to continue the dialogue was made known in the Rodong Sinmun on March 1, the day after the second US-North Korea summit ended in failure. After that North Korea did not issue a clear message about the continuance of the dialogue. Moreover, the First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son-hui's criticism of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton added to the lack of clarity of North Korea's policy on negotiations with the United States. In the above-mentioned policy speech, however, Chairman Kim clarified North Korea's stance. The following are some excerpts from Chairman Kim's remarks related to the United States:

"…in order to implement the June 12 Joint Statement both sides should give up their unilateral terms and seek a constructive solution that meets each other's interests."

"…it is needed above all for the United States to approach us with a new way of calculation after putting aside the current one."

"If the United States proposed holding the third round of summit talks after finding out with a proper attitude a methodology that can be shared with us, we would be willing to try one more time."

"…we will be patient and wait till the end of this year to see whether the United States makes a courageous decision or not…"

"…if it (the United States) sticks to its current political way of calculation, the prospects for problem solving will be bleak and very dangerous."

Noteworthy is that Chairman Kim stressed the need for both the United States and North Korea to "give up their unilateral terms." Yet, he does not forget to add that to this end, the United States should first discard its current way of evaluating. The policy speech suggests the possibility of North Korea making concessions on condition that the United States should first concede. The expression "wait till the end of this year" give the connotation that North Korea has determined to negotiate with the United States, taking into account the political time-tables of the United States and South Korea --- the 2020 Super Tuesday (March 2020) and South Korea's general elections (April 2020).

(North Korea's review of negotiation tactics)

In the aftermath of the failure of negotiations in Hanoi, North Korea is forced to review its negotiating tactics against the United States. However, North Korea's specific negotiating policy is still unclear. Chairman Kim's April 12 policy speech includes the following noteworthy remarks towards the end of the speech:

"…there is no need for me to obsess over the summit talks with the United States out of thirst for the lifting of sanctions."

"I will no longer set my heart on such a trivial issue as lifting sanctions by the hostile forces…"

These remarks seem to suggest two things. First, it is apparent that North Korea tries to deny its admission at the Hanoi summit that it suffers from sanctions and wants core parts of the sanctions to be lifted. Second, North Korea is hinting at another approach instead of suddenly calling for the lifting of sanctions. Needless to say, North Korea obviously puts the emphasis on the first point.

Immediately after the Hanoi summit --- in the early in the morning of March 1, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho held a press conference and" explained as follows about North Korea's proposal:

(1) If the United States lifts part of UN sanctions harming the civilian economy and the livelihoods of the North Korean people, North Korea will permanently and completely dismantle all the nuclear material production facilities in the Nyongbyon area, including plutonium and uranium, in the presence of US experts and joint work of technicians from both countries.

(2) The lifting of part of UN sanctions should signify the lifting of five out of 11 sanctions adopted in 2016 and 2017 under United Nations Security Council resolutions.

(3) This proposal should be considered the biggest denuclearization measure North Korea could take at the present stage when taking into consideration the current level of confidence between North Korea and the United States.

Meanwhile, a Stanford University lecture by the US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun on January 31 revealed that at the time of the fourth visit of US Secretary of State Pompeo to Pyongyang on October 7, 2018, Chairman Kim promised the following:

(1) The invitation of US experts to ensure the complete dismantlement of Punggye-ri nuclear test site.

(2) The dismantlement and destruction of North Korea's plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities.

Regarding the dismantlement and destruction of North Korea's plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities, Biegun indicated his perception that it includes similar facilities other than those in Nyongbyon. In light of the Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho's remarks at the March 1 press conference, Chairman Kim seemingly thought only of the dismantlement and destruction of plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities in the Nyongbyon area.

In conformity with Chairman Kim's promises to Secretary of State Pompeo, North Korea proposed at the Hanoi summit the lifting of five UN sanctions in exchange for the disposal of facilities in the Nyongbyon area. Since this bargain proposed by North Korea was not accepted by the United States, North Korea was forced to work out a new proposal.

(North Korea's readjustment of its negotiating team

At Present North Korea seems to be working on the necessary readjustment of its negotiating team.

(1) Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho and the First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son-hui have assumed a greater role. In particular, Choe Son-hui is a conspicuous figure, serving also as a member of the State Affairs Commission. The new line-up of the State Affairs Commission members gives an impression that diplomacy is given particular priority in state politics.

(2) According to a report submitted to the National Assembly by the National Intelligence Service of South Korea, it seems that the head of the United Front Department Kim Yong-chol has been replaced by Jang Kum-chol. In addition, Kim Hyok Chol, the counterpart of the US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun in practical negotiations for the Hanoi summit, has been moved from the State Affairs Commission to be reinstated in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

(3) The First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son-hui has criticized US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton and has demanded the replacement of Pompeo. Her intention seems to be to resume negotiations again with new US counterparts. While criticizing Pompeo and Bolton, she emphasizes the present good relationship between the leaders of the two countries. North Korea is supposed to prefer a "top-down" approach and "direct negotiations" between the two leaders.

2. Necessary preparedness and preparations against prolonged economic sanctions

From the US negotiation stance at the Hanoi summit, North Korea is increasingly aware that preparedness and preparations against prolonged economic sanctions are necessary. This perception is reflected in Chairman Kim's remarks at the 4th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea on April 10 and his policy speech on April 12 as well.

In his April 10 Plenary Meeting remarks, Chairman Kim reiterated "self-reliance." And he "underscored the need to more vigorously advance socialist construction … under the uplifted banner of self-reliance, so as to deal a telling blow to the hostile forces who go with bloodshot eyes miscalculating that sanctions can bring the DPRK to its knees."

This statement should not be interpreted to call for inflicting damage on the hostile forces by use of "physical force" as described in some media reports, but, rather, to call for a manifestation of the intent not to succumb to sanctions pressure.

Similar remarks were repeated in the April 12 policy speech, which admits that "the confrontation between our country and the United States is bound to be drawn out and the hostile forces' sanctions will persist", but insists that "we must frustrate the hostile forces' sanctions on the strength of self-sufficiency and self-reliance." These remarks are based on the April 10 Plenary Meeting remarks.

In this connection, it is noteworthy that when he inspected the construction site in the Wonsan-Kalma Coastal Tourist Area on April 6, Chairman Kim gave the instruction for the prolongation of the construction period until April next year. Such instructions are unusual for a North Korean supreme leader. Moreover, this tourist area project is said to be implemented under the encouragement of Chairman Kim.

In addition, the fact that the April 12 policy speech did not touch on the "five-year strategy for national economic development" mentioned in Chairman Kim's New Year address suggests that North Korea has been obliged to correct the speed of national economic construction due to the failure of the Hanoi summit.

3. North Korea's efforts to find a breakthrough and "hedging"

When it comes to the issue of how North Korea will specifically deal with the present situation, there may be no decisive change in its policy to invigorate diplomatic efforts indicated by Chairman Kim's New Year address. The failure of the Hanoi summit has resulted in the demand by North Korea for increased diplomatic efforts than before, leading to the appointment of diplomatic officials to important positions. Basically, top priority will be given to negotiations with the United States, but simultaneously North Korea will further diplomatic relations with countries other than the United States to secure "hedging" against the prolongation of the current stalemate in negotiations.

The important countries for North Korea in this context are primarily China, then Russia, followed by South Korea and Japan. Currently, North Korea should give top priority to overcoming the stalemate with the United States, but a shift in due course to multilateral talks cannot be denied, given that President Vladimir Putin proposed the resumption of the six-party talks when Chairman Kim visited Russia in April this year. As stated in the April 12 policy speech, North Korea will prioritize negotiations with the United States until at least the end of this year.

In parallel with its diplomatic efforts, North Korea will continue low-level provocations, verbal and military, to obtain concession from the United States. Since the conclusion of the Hanoi summit, North Korea has engaged in such moves to provoke the United States and the international community, as the reconstruction of the Tongchang-ri missile test site; the construction of a submarine in Sinpo, and uranium enrichment activity in the Nyongbyon area. On May 4, the test launch of a new "tactical guided weapon" was also conducted. If North Korea launched a ballistic missile, it would be a violation of the UN Security Council resolution. North Korea will continue provocations without crossing the line, under the scrupulous watch of the United States, Japan and South Korea.

Meanwhile, the April 12 political speech states, "We should ... reenergize the external economic work." Specifically, "The external economic sector should conduct external economic cooperation, technical exchanges and trading activities in a multifarious, proactive and tactical way." Thus, North Korea can be considered to aim at reducing excessive dependence on China and at diversifying its external economic relations. "The establishment of a new bilateral (US-North Korea) relationship" sought by North Korea may be understood in this context.

While its relationship with the United States is deadlocked, North Korea must have aimed, ultimately in vain, to obtain economic support from Russia at the Russia-North Korea summit in Vladivostok on April 25. All that North Korea gained from Russia was her pledge of political support for a "step-by-step, simultaneous" denuclearization process. In Russia, there were 30,000 to 40,000 North Korean laborers, half of whom have been repatriated in accordance with a UN Security Council resolution. Some 15,000 North Korean workers are alleged to still remain in Russia. According to the same resolution, they will also have to return home by the end of this year. There may be a possibility that Russia will demonstrate flexibility to North Korea on this question, which we need to monitor.

What from now on will become important for North Korea is its relationship with China. Chairman Kim has already paid his fourth visit to China on January 8 this year. Whether or not Xi Jinping will visit North Korea by the end of this year is now attracting attention. Suffering from severe economic sanctions, North Korea has to painfully admit that ultimately China is the most economically dependable partner.

The April 12 policy speech calls South Korea "a meddlesome mediator," and strongly criticizes it saying, "(The South Korean authorities should) be a responsible party that defends the interests of the nation." Until the Singapore summit held in June last year, South Korea had been an intermediary between North Korea and the United States, but now North Korea can directly contact the United States. What North Korea expects from South Korea would be economic support. However, it is South Korea's consistent position that economic sanctions by the UN Security Council resolution make it difficult for the South to provide economic support to the North. At this moment there is no prospect for the resumption of the inter-Korean railway connection project, the Kaesong industrial complex, or Mount Kumgang tourism. Still, South Korea plans to provide humanitarian support to North Korea, while the importance of South Korea to the North is decreasing. Although President Moon Jae-in looks forward to his fourth meeting with Chairman Kim, it is doubtful whether North Korea will accept a North-South Korean summit without a pledge of economic support from the South.

Regarding the possibility of the Japan-North Korea summit, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has, since the conclusion of the Singapore summit in June last year, issued positive messages to the effect that it is time for him to meet with Chairman Kim. Earlier, in his UN General Assembly speech in September last year, Prime Minister Abe said, "As long as we hold a meeting, the meeting must contribute to the resolution of the abduction issue." In January this year, however, in his policy speech, he adopted a more positive expression, "Towards the resolutions of the nuclear and missile issues, and most importantly, the abductions issue, we will take bold actions without missing any single opportunity, by breaking the shell of mutual distrust, and with myself meeting face-to-face with Chairman Kim Jong-un." Furthermore, in a newspaper interview in early May this year, he stressed, "I, myself, have to meet face-to-face with Chairman Kim Jong-un, and meet with him without attaching any conditions." Prime Minister Abe is now groping for the possibility of the Japan-North Korea summit with the cooperation of President Trump, as inferable from their talks at the Japan-US summit meeting in April this year.

To conclude, North Korea will abide by the major direction enunciated in Chairman Kim's New Year address until this year's end --- regardless of the failure of the Hanoi summit. The address is specific as to the four "Nos" regarding nuclear weapons --- "No Production," "No Tests," "No Proliferation," and "No Use" --- and proactive diplomacy. After the Hanoi summit, it was made clear that North Korea's economic construction will not progress significantly. North Korea will be obliged to revise its economic plan.

current topics