SEOUL (Reuters) - “Denuclearization” is a word dominating the headlines as U.S. President Donald Trump leads an effort to pressure North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
First South Korean, then Chinese officials have in recent weeks reported North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has told them he is “committed to denuclearization” on the Korean peninsula.
Kim’s declared commitment to denuclearization, however, is neither new, nor likely in line with Washington’s expectations.
North Korea has long said it is open to eventually giving up its nuclear arsenal if the United States withdraws its troops from South Korea and ends its “nuclear umbrella” security alliance with Seoul, among other conditions.
The United States, meanwhile, has insisted on complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and the facilities needed to build those weapons as soon as possible.
The differing interpretations threaten to scuttle potential talks between North Korea and the United States before they begin.
“As we approach the summits, conceptions of denuclearization seem to be diverging rather than converging,” said Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists.
At the heart of the gulf between what Kim has said and what American and allied leaders may expect are the many caveats and conditions attached.
“The issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved, if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill,” Kim told Chinese officials during a visit this week, according to Chinese state media outlet Xinhua.
Previous North Korean leaders have vowed to end their nuclear programs through negotiations, and according to South Korean officials, Kim said he would be open to giving up his nuclear weapons if he has adequate security guarantees.
Washington is unlikely to be able to credibly provide such assurances in the wake of its interventions in Iraq and Libya, said Vipin Narang, an associate professor at MIT’s Security Studies Program.
“If that’s what the North wants for denuclearisation...Not a chance it’s going to happen,” he said.
North Korea is more likely to offer something that might limit or cap its nuclear program, without immediately eliminating it, analysts say.
China and North Korea share a similar definition of denuclearization, according to Zhao Tong, a North Korea expert at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre in Beijing.
“China is not really demanding or requiring that it dismantle its weapons, but wants to make sure that a nuclear free Korean peninsula is the ultimate goal,” he said.
South Korea’s official line is that it shares the United State’s goal of complete nuclear disarmament, but President Moon Jae-in has told lawmakers he recognizes that may not happen right away and he is open to exploring “other steps along the way,” according to a parliamentary official.
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 U.S.-South Korean military drills.
Trump himself has sent mixed messages on North Korea, issuing threats of military action and calling talks a waste of time, while also accepting Kim’s invitation to meet.
In the wake of that invitation, which was conveyed by a South Korean delegation that met with Kim earlier this month, Trump tweeted “Kim Jong Un talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze.”
Trump’s new national security adviser, John Bolton, recently said the president should use any summit with Kim to “make the point that he’s not there to waste time and that we expect real denuclearization, not talks about talks about denuclearization.”
If Trump shares that view and Kim refuses to give ground, then any talks could go nowhere, Mount said.
“If Trump rejects a phased approach, he will be seen as unreasonable and departing from expectations,” he said. “If that happens, we could see the other players cut Washington out of the process and go it alone.”
Additional reporting by Christian Shepherd in BEIJING and Christine Kim in SEOUL; Editing by Lincoln Feast