Commentary: Forging a ‘Korean Nuclear Deal’: The Beginning of a Long Road
Dr Kapil Patil

In an unprecedented development last week, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the acceptance of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s invitation to hold a summit meeting and discuss the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.1 Mr. Kim’s invitation to President Trump for a meeting came after hectic parlays between North and South Korean officials on the sidelines of Winter Olympics Games, which resulted in a six-point agreement and the decision to hold an inter-Korean summit by the end of April at Peace House, in Panmunjeom truce village.2 The successful conclusion of a six-point agreement has reportedly led Mr. Kim to step up his game and extend a direct invitation to President Trump, through the visiting South Korean Envoy Mr. Chung Eui-yong.

The announcement of a meeting between these two leaders has been welcomed by many countries around the world including China and Russia. Given the steadily mounting threat of a conflict on the Korean Peninsula, the announcement is seen as a much-needed opportunity for opening up a dialogue with the North Korea, whose nuclear and missile tests have brought the region closer to the brink of war. The proposed meeting between President Trump and Mr. Kim will, therefore, be truly historic, if happens, and that has revived hopes for creating lasting peace on the peninsula. However, if past negotiations with Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) are any guide, the Trump administration will require a compressive and well-executed approach that would reconcile the core security concerns of all parties and strike a multi-pronged deal for establishing peace in the region.

North Korea’s Denuclearisation: Story So Far

The conflict on the Korean Peninsula is among the few remaining relics of Cold War that continue to generate deep suspicions and fears which cannot be allayed easily. This is evident from that fact that Mr. Kim’s offer to talk to the U.S. has once again brought to fore the age-old question regarding North Korea’s real intentions about the denuclearisation. Is Mr. Kim genuinely interested in pursuing denuclearisation in return for the security of his regime or is it yet another ploy to seek relief from sanctions or to break South Korea away from the U.S. alliance? Such suspicion arises strongly due to DPRK’s past record of not honouring agreements and merely using negotiations to leverage time to expand its nuclear and missile programmes. At least on three different occasions in the past, the DPRK accepted limits on its nuclear and missile programme through agreements concluded in 19943, 20054, and 20115 respectively. These agreements, however, have failed owing to DPRK’s non-compliance and unscrupulous behaviour to a large extent.

Secondly, although North Korea always talked about ‘denuclearisation’, it differed strongly on the scope and conditions of what it entails. During the Six-Party Talks held between 2003 and 2008, significant differences emerged over what constitutes denuclearisation. The U.S., South Korea, and Japan, for instance, referred to denuclearisation as the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear programme, whereas North Korea insisted on referring to ‘Denuclearisation of Korean Peninsula’ as opposed to its own denuclearisation in the final agreement. North Korea’s insistence on ‘Denuclearisation of Korean Peninsula’ emerges from its long-standing suspicion that the U.S. still maintains tactical nuclear weapons on the South Korean soil. Although the U.S. has reportedly withdrawn its tactical nuclear weapons from the South Korean territory in 1991 after the end of Cold War, the DPRK continue to believe that the U.S. either maintains these in South Korea or could potentially deploy them as and when they are needed. As a result, North Korea continues to insist on officially declaring the entire peninsula free from nuclear weapons through a formal treaty agreement. Will Trump administration and its counterparts in Seoul and Tokyo accept such condition, remain a moot question at the moment.

Thirdly, North Korea makes a highly conditional and expansive demand that the U.S. ends its long-standing security pact with South Korea, removes its troops from the Peninsula and withdraws nuclear guarantees to Japan as a quid pro quo for its denuclearisation. It is only after such actions that the U.S. can securitise Kim Jong-un’s regime and let it pursue denuclearisation in good faith. North Korean leaders have always perceived the U.S. alliance with Japan and Republic of Korea (RoK) as a direct threat to their survival. If such threat against their regime is removed, North Korea, claims, it has no reason to possess nuclear weapons. The U.S. and its allies, on the other hand, have a narrower conception of DPRK’s regime security which seeks immunity from invasion or destabilisation of the regime in return for denuclearisation.

By alluding to larger strategic dynamics in the region, the DPRK therefore, attempts to shift focus away from denuclearisation as merely a ‘proliferation problem’ to a core ‘regional security concern’. Addressing such geo-strategic complexities requires Trump administration to also engage with China and negotiate a way out of it. For instance, will China renounce its support to Kim dynasty and support the Korean Unification in exchange for Washington’s withdrawal of troops from Korea? Similarly, will the U.S. consider withdrawing troops from Japan as demanded by China for long? Amidst such speculations, the Japanese Government has expressed serious concerns about the possible changes in regional security architecture that might jeopardise its security. Being excluded from the discussions so far, the Japanese Government is desperately trying to reach out to President Trump to ensure that the outcome of the upcoming summit does not negatively impinge on its security. Much, therefore, will depend on how the U.S. will engage with China and also with its allies to work out possible options.

The Road Ahead

As the U.S. would attempt to strike a political ‘deal’ to establish long-term peace and security in the region, it should try to should avoid the mistakes of recent and distant past. Firstly, to ensure that North Korea’s offer to talk does not become a ploy to unilaterally pull South Korea out of the American alliance or to threaten Japan’s security, the Trump administration should reinforce its alliances with Seoul and Tokyo. In recent years, President Trump’s ‘America First’ policy has clearly driven a wedge between Washington and its North-East Asian allies, and instigated North Korea to openly threaten them.

Secondly, given the risks inherent in pursuing DPRK’s disarmament, Washington and Seoul should not allow Mr. Kim to play the old game of easing sanctions while keeping its nuclear and missile programme intact. Clearly, President Trump should take a cue from Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that his predecessor negotiated with the Islamic Republic of Iran. The JCPOA, which is overseen by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has placed verifiable restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear programme in return for granting relief from sanctions. The Trump administration should present a similar plan to North Korea, which would leave Pyongyang very little scope for cheating the international community, once agreed.

Thirdly, the Trump Administration should harbour perseverance in talking peace to North Korea. The proposed Summit Meeting could just be the beginning of long, tortuous negotiations with DPRK. Presently, it appears unlikely that the U.S. could strike a grand ‘political’ deal in one single meeting that will pave the way for DPRK’s denuclearization. Without such deal, Mr. Kim cannot be realistically expected to give up the nuclear programme that his country has built assiduously over the years. The upcoming Kim–Trump summit, nevertheless, can work towards securing some tangible gains by negotiating a freeze on nuclear and missile tests and minimise risks of the accidental breakout of conflict. Clearly, much will depend on how much flexibility Mr. Kim is willing to show in the maiden summit. While Mr. Kim wields authority to make such decisions, he must be presented with clear options to negotiate and make concessions.

Fourthly, President Trump must be apprised of the harsh reality that the failure of a summit meeting does not leave him with the option of using force to resolve the Korean conundrum and that the diplomacy remains his best bet in handling the Korean conflict. The determination to constructively engage DPRK - backed by a sound strategy that takes into account all possible avenues for peace – can only pay-off in the long-run and may even bring fortuitous gains for President Trump.

For that to happen, the U.S. and its allies should, “not repeat past mistakes” as noted by a South Korean diplomat, and prepare extensively towards the outcome that favours all. The international diplomacy is replete with examples of tactful diplomacy yielding unexpected gains from staunchest of rivals. Clearly, by accepting Mr. Kim’s invitation on the spot, President Trump has taken the first step in that direction. It, nevertheless, remains to be seen how far he is willing to walk the path of diplomacy.

End Notes:

1. Mark Lander (2018), “North Korea Asks for Direct Nuclear Talks, and Trump Agrees”, The New York Times, March 08, 2018, URL:, accessed on March 14, 2018.

2. “South Korea Announces Breakthrough Agreement with the North”, Executive Intelligence Review, March 6, 2018, URL:, accessed on March 12, 2018.

3. IAEA (1994), “Agreed Framework Of 21 October 1994 Between The United States Of America And The Democratic People’s Republic Of Korea”, INFCIRC/457, November 02, 1994, URL:

4. U.S Department of State (2005), “Joint Statement of the Fourth Round of the Six-Party Talks, Beijing”, September 19, 2005, URL:, accessed on March 16, 2018.

5. Avery, E. C., Rinehart, I. E., & Nikitin, Mary Beth D. (2016), “North Korea: U.S. Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation”, Congressional Research Service (2018), January 15, 2016, URL:, accessed on March 16, 2018.

(Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the VIF)

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