What the North Koreans Told Me About Their Plans

This article is a reprint of Joel Wit’s op-ed originally published in The Atlantic. It is reprinted here with kind permission.


What exactly do the North Koreans mean when they say they’re willing to denuclearize? And how exactly would they do so? These are the key mysteries at the heart of the upcoming Trump-Kim summit—and indeed they threatened to derail the whole thing this week when Kim Jong Un objected to National-Security Adviser John Bolton’s vision for it. In a statement attributed to Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, North Korea chastised Bolton for his invocation of the “Libya model” of unilateral denuclearization as a template, noting that the “world knows too well that our country is neither Libya nor Iraq which have met miserable [fates].” The White House quickly walked back Bolton’s remarks.

The exchange did little to clarify how the U.S. plans to achieve denuclearization. But for a group of former U.S. government officials who have been meeting with North Korean officials over the past decade, North Korea’s own plans are anything but hidden. A series of meetings with North Korean officials in 2013, which I attended along with other former U.S. officials, holds valuable clues—and they show that the North Koreans have given a great deal of thought to denuclearization and almost certainly have a concrete plan of action for the upcoming summit, whether the White House does or not.

Those meetings happened five years ago, but they took place at the very beginning stages of the nuclear strategy Kim is executing to such dramatic effect now. At the time, Kim Jong Un had just enshrined his byungjin policy, stating that the North intended to develop a nuclear arsenal as a shield behind which it could modernize its economy. North Korean officials explained in these private sessions that Kim had issued the new policy after concluding that his country needed more nuclear weapons to deter the United States. It wasn’t just that the North Koreans were concerned about escalating tensions in late 2012 and early 2013, as well as continuing flights of nuclear-capable U.S. bombers over the Korean peninsula. The North Koreans also felt Washington and Seoul thought they could bully the North during the leadership transition that had begun with the death of Kim Jong Il in December 2011. One North Korean official I spoke to then said “nuclear” equaled “survival.”

But other officials said that was only under “present circumstances,” and their approach could change if the tense relationship between the United States and North Korea improved. That might explain a puzzling move by the North in June 2013, when the the National Defense Commission—the top government body in Pyongyang chaired by Kim—issued an important new pronouncement that it was open to negotiations on denuclearization. The Obama administration dismissed it at the time as propaganda. But a senior North Korean diplomat told a member of the American delegation that he himself was surprised Pyongyang was speaking of denuclearization again—especially after it had taken the issue off the table not long before.

At the meetings I attended, North Korean officials were emphatic that the pronouncement came from Kim Jong Un himself, and that it reflected his commitment to improving relations with the United States. They emphasized repeatedly that denuclearization could be on the agenda of bilateral talks with the United States, or even multilateral discussions such as the Six Party Talks that had been adjourned in 2008. That position showed a welcome flexibility—it seemed to mean the denuclearization offer wasn’t just a ploy to divide the Americans from their allies by getting them alone in the negotiating room. But it was also a reflection of North Korean self-interest; a more sympathetic China in the room could counterbalance the Americans. The North Korean officials only had one condition: The United States should not set preconditions, such as requiring the North to stop nuclear and missile tests, for negotiations to take place. They said they were, however, willing to take such steps once talks resumed.

Nevertheless, the North Korean proposal was difficult for the United States government to swallow. The Obama administration felt burned by the collapse of the February 2012 “Leap Day Deal,” which Washington had hoped would stop nuclear and missile testing, but which was soon followed by a North Korean launch of a satellite into space with a long-range rocket. Throughout 2013, the Obama administration, with the help of President Xi Jinping of China, tried to quietly revive talks, but only if North Korea met preconditions that demonstrated it was, as administration officials often stated publicly, “sincere” about denuclearization. Because Pyongyang would not meet them, Chinese shuttle diplomacy failed. And Pyongyang’s view was never fully explored.

Of course, talk is cheap. Maybe the North Korean government pronouncement on denuclearization was just a ploy, although any seasoned analyst of Pyongyang’s policies would note that its government statements are not issued lightly. And indeed, in the private meetings, the North Korean officials actually laid out a concrete plan to achieve denuclearization.

Not surprisingly, for the North Koreans, the key to denuclearization was that the United States had to end its “hostile policy.” That demand sounds vague to many Americans, but in fact, the North Koreans have made it quite clear on a number of occasions what ending a “hostile policy” would entail: stopping political, security, and economic confrontation in return for eliminating their nuclear weapons. The “political” part means U.S. recognition of North Korea as a sovereign state through establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries. (As the North Koreans pointed out, theirs is one of the few states in the international community that the U.S. has never recognized, which they see as a clear sign of its true intention to overthrow the regime.) The security part would involve ending the state of war that has existed on the Korean peninsula since the 1950s by replacing the temporary armistice agreement ending the Korean War with a permanent peace treaty. Finally, the economic part would consist of lifting trade restrictions and sanctions imposed on the North over the decades since the Korean War.

The North Koreans saw all these elements being integrated into a phased approach. In each phase, the two sides would take simultaneous steps leading to the final outcome: the end of hostility and denuclearization. The North Koreans visualized a straightforward three-stage process for their own side of the equation—freezing their nuclear program, disabling key facilities, and finally dismantling not only those facilities but their nuclear weapons as well.

The North Korean plan was encouraging, but there were potential problems. First, to get the process rolling, the North Koreans wanted the United States to declare up front all the steps it was willing to take during each phase of denuclearization to show its intention to remove its “hostile policy.” In return, the North would initially freeze its nuclear program. However, when the American delegation explained that such a declaration would be problematic, since it would require that the United States lay out all the steps it was willing to take without the North doing the same, the North Koreans indicated they would be willing to consider a bilateral declaration of reciprocal commitments. (In fact, that sounds like an ideal outcome for the upcoming Trump-Kim summit.)

Second, North Korean willingness to consider an initial freeze on all of its nuclear capabilities—not just testing but also production of bomb-making material—was intriguing but raised other problems. Such a freeze would be a big step forward, since it would prevent the North from producing more weapons-grade material and help set the stage for dismantling its weapons. But it would also require extensive on-site measures to verify that the North wasn’t hiding any facilities that could help produce new bombs. When the American team raised verification requirements, the North Koreans acknowledged that this would be a big problem, and noted “we are going to need a creative approach, because just saying it’s a problem isn’t going to be helpful.” Indeed, previous negotiations during the Bush administration had foundered over Pyongyang’s unwillingness to accept such measures.

During the 2013 meetings, the North Korean officials also insisted that denuclearization should require the U.S. to end its nuclear umbrella protecting South Korea and withdraw American troops from the peninsula once a peace treaty was concluded. But the North Koreans seemed to grasp the reality that such a demand would be completely unacceptable to both the United States and South Korea and would halt talks in their tracks. Indeed, the North has on more than one occasion, including very recently, seemed to back off this demand.

True, this glimpse of Pyongyang’s denuclearization game plan is now five years old—and the North’s nuclear capabilities have advanced significantly in the meantime. More-recent efforts to discuss that plan again in private with them have failed, perhaps because the North Koreans were anticipating discussions with the Trump administration and did not want to tip their negotiating hand. The 2013 plan may have been subject to some revision. In fact, the North Koreans have already deviated from it, albeit in a positive direction from the U.S. perspective: They have taken unilateral steps—halting nuclear and missile testing as well as pledging to dismantle their nuclear test site—that seemed implausible five years ago.

In any case, the proposal the North Koreans offered then still gives the clearest picture we have to date of what they might want from the upcoming negotiations. And what they outlined was a step-by-step process of denuclearization accompanied in each phase by U.S. measures of their own. It is entirely different from the “Libya model” espoused by John Bolton, which involves giving up its program first and only then getting benefits in return. Indeed, the Trump administration doesn’t necessarily endorse Bolton’s view. Susan Thornton, the acting assistant secretary of state in charge of Asia, said last week that it was obvious there would be multiple steps in a long process of denuclearization, and the key issue was what happened first.

How those differences over denuclearization are resolved inside the Trump administration, and whether common ground can be found with the North Koreans, will determine the future of the Korean peninsula. The stakes are nothing less than the success or failure of the world’s best current chance to disarm North Korea. The Thornton approach could mean, over the long term, that it really happens. The Bolton approach would assure that it won’t.

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