A key mission for South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s special envoy to Pyongyang is to salvage stalled denuclearization talks between North Korea and the US by persuading North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to take bolder steps to denuclearize, experts say.
Headed by Moon’s national security adviser Chung Eui-yong, the five-member delegation will travel to Pyongyang on Wednesday for a one-day trip to set the date and agenda for the inter-Korean summit planned for this month, according to the presidential office.
With much at stake, the delegation’s visit and its achievements will not only shape the prospects of Washington-Pyongyang talks, but also impact upcoming political events, including the third inter-Korean summit, according to analysts.
The delegation’s focus should be to convince North Korea to make concessions on denuclearization, such as revealing an inventory of its nuclear weapons programs, which appears to be a minimum requirement on the part of the US if denuclearization talks are to move forward, said Shin Beom-chul, a senior researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
“The delegation should bring a road map for the declaration of the end of the war in exchange for the disclosure of the list of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs,” Shin said. “Plus, the delegation should assure North Korea that South Korea will faithfully take measures to build trust with North Korea.”
At the center of the current impasse is North Korea’s request to declare the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. The US wants the North to first submit a list of its nuclear weapons programs, but North Korea wants the US to declare an end to the war first as a step to guarantee its security and build mutual trust.
“It is important for the delegation to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The delegation’s meeting with Kim, if it takes place, would signal a change in North Korea’s attitude on denuclearization,” he added.
It is unclear whether the delegation will meet the North Korean leader during its one-day visit. During the envoys’ first trip to North Korea from March 5-6, they met with Kim and later traveled to Washington to convey Kim’s proposal for a summit with US President Donald Trump, which resulted in the US-North Korea summit in June.
Kim Hyun-wook, a professor at the National Korea Diplomatic Academy, said a failure to persuade the North to provide an inventory of its nuclear weapons programs could darken prospects of peace on the Korean Peninsula.
“Trump might want to hold on to denuclearization talks with North Korea until the US midterm elections in November. But after that, Trump could choose to break away from negotiations with North Korea and return to a tough line, if the North does not take tangible steps to denuclearize,” Kim said.
“Without progress on North Korea’s denuclearization, the end-of-war declaration within the year will be less likely and the upcoming inter-Korean summit in September will yield little outcome,” he said. “The US is unlikely to make a concession at this point.”
For South Korea, the best scenario would be getting North Korea’s promise to present a list of its nuclear weapons programs, or at least set a timeline for it, which could give the US justification to continue negotiations with the North. If the momentum is still going strong, South Korea could seize on it at the United Nations General Assembly session later this month and push to declare an end to the Korean War.
The worst scenario, on the other hand, would be a failure to draw out any meaningful measures to dismantle the North’s nuclear weapons programs, which could fuel skepticism in the US over the North’s willingness to denuclearize and put the brakes on the South’s efforts to expand inter-Korean exchanges.
South Korea, which intends to improve inter-Korean ties and achieve broader cross-border exchanges, has been put in a difficult position in the face of the stalemate in denuclearization talks.
North Korea has stepped up its demands to accelerate inter-Korean cooperation, which could put Seoul at odds with Washington, while the US has maintained that progress on inter-Korean relations must happen in lockstep with progress on denuclearization. The US has ramped up pressure on North Korea in recent weeks by canceling US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang and hinting at a resumption of South Korea-US joint military drills.
“Realistically, I am not sure North Korea will disclose a full inventory of its nuclear weapons programs. It is likely that the North will provide a list of nuclear warheads, facilities and part of its missiles, for example, that it is willing to dismantle,” said Park Won-gon, a professor at Handong Global University.
“It remains to be seen how far the US could accept that and move on.”
China, which is engaged in an intensifying trade dispute with the US, would have a great impact on Kim’s decision on how far it will act on denuclearization, he said.
“The best scenario would be Chinese President Xi Jinping not going to North Korea and North Korea feeling pressured to break from diplomatic isolation and showing its willingness to take significant measures to denuclearize, which could put Pompeo’s visit to North Korea back on,” he said.
For the slow progress on North Korea’s denuclearization, Trump has increasingly blamed China, North Korea’s traditional ally and biggest trading partner. China is believed to be holding the greatest sway over North Korea as it is an important source of money, fuel, food and other commodities.
Xi is reportedly planning to visit North Korea, possibly around Sept. 9 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of North Korea’s founding, but experts say his visit might not take place as China may want to avoid further angering the US.