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The Essence of the North Korea Nuclear Issue (2) US-North Korea Summit Talks: Much Ado about Nothing (As at June 18, 2018) Yoji Koda Former Commander in Chief, JMSDF Fleet [Date of Issue: 29/June/2018 No.0280-1082]

Date of Issue: 29/June/2018

The Essence of the North Korea Nuclear Issue (2)
US-North Korea Summit Talks: Much Ado about Nothing
(As at 7 May 2018)

Yoji Koda
Former Commander in Chief, JMSDF Fleet

In a three-part series, former Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Commander in Chief Yoji Koda explains the North Korean nuclear issue which has taken such a dramatic turn in 2018. In this second article, he overviews the lead-up to the US-North Korea summit talks on 12 June, assesses the content of the talks, and makes some suggestions as to how Japan should respond in the coming months.

Developments since my last article


1. China-North Korea summit talks

On May 7, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un visited the Chinese city of Dalian for a second round of summit talks with China. While the content of those talks was not disclosed, the main topics of discussion are likely to have been: (1) the current status of coordination with the United States and the way ahead; (2) the country's primary goal of securing guarantees of the survival of North Korea and the regime, as well as North Korea's stance on denuclearization and the aid that it will expect to receive in return; (3) the expectation that if US-North Korea summit talks did take place, China would shield and support North Korea, which would inevitably be at a disadvantage in dealing with the American superpower; and (4) constraint of military attacks by the United States, and China's military support in the event that this constraint fails and North Korea comes under attack.

It is highly likely that Chinese President Xi Jinping received the first three of these positively but demurred on the fourth on the grounds that it could lead to an armed clash between China and the United States.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited North Korea again on May 9, holding talks with Kim Jong-un and also freeing and sending home three Americans who had been held in North Korea. Over the last decade, North Korea has released 10 Americans on a total of seven occasions. This latest release was clearly motivated by the nuclear issue, but did not clinch the deal on US-North Korea summit talks.

On May 15, the North and South Korean governments agreed to hold their first ministerial-level talks in response to the their earlier summit talks and the Panmunjom Declaration, and prospects seemed bright for resolution of the Korean Peninsula issue.

2. Sudden hardening of North Korean stance

The situation changed dramatically the very next day, when North Korea informed the South Korean government that the agreed talks were postponed on the grounds that it was “devoid of the elementary sense of the present situation” to hold Max Thunder (the regular medium-scale joint air exercises held by the United States and South Korea involving around 100 planes) at a time when efforts were underway to improve relations with North Korea.

North Korean first vice minister of foreign affairs Kim Kye-gwan also announced that if Washington pressed unilaterally for Libya-style denuclearization (as strongly advocated by John Bolton, Donald Trump's national security adviser), it might reconsider holding the summit talks, which would have been the first since Trump agreed to the idea back on March 8.

On May 17, Bolton hit back, stating that the White House would not repeat the mistakes of past administrations, and would abandon preparations for the summit talks if the North Koreans were not taking the objective of denuclearization seriously.

On May 22, South Korean President Moon Jae-in held talks with Trump at the White House, in which Trump said that he believed Kim Jong-un was “serious” about denuclearization. He also noted, however, that if the US failed to get the conditions it wanted, the meeting would be called off, clearly unhappy at the hardening of Kim's attitude following a second round of summit talks with China.

Regardless of this, on May 24, North Korean vice-foreign minister Choe Son-hui commented that “In the case that the US offends against our goodwill and clings to unlawful and outrageous acts, I will put forward a suggestion to our supreme leadership for reconsidering the North Korea-US summit.” This echo of Kim Kye-gwan's reference to revisiting the summit talks made the United States strongly distrustful of North Korea.

3. Trump's decision to suspend the talks and North Korea's lightning reversal

The same day, Trump decided to suspend the talks due to the rapid change in the situation that had occurred since the 16th, and sent off a note to Kim Jong-un in which he stated that, based on the “tremendous anger and open hostility” displayed in North Korea's most recent statement, he felt that it was “inappropriate” to have the summit talks at that time. He did, however, leave the door open by adding that “some day, I look very much forward to meeting you.”

North Korea responded to this sudden decision with an immediate turnaround. On the 25th, Kim Kye-gwan noted that “internally,” the North Koreans had been giving President Trump high marks for his “bold” decision [to hold summit talks]. Kim Jong-un had also “exerted all efforts” in preparations for the summit, and North Korea was “open-minded in giving time and opportunity to the US.” Trump's decision was “very regrettable,” and North Korea hoped that he would reconsider.

North Korea followed this immediately with an urgent request to South Korean President Moon Jae-in that they hold a second round of summit talks. The talks took place on May 26, with Kim Jong-un expressing his firm commitment to hold summit talks with the US.

4. Getting the talks back on track

Responding to this string of actions, Trump said on May 27 that preparations were “moving along very nicely. We're looking at June 12 in Singapore.” Alongside administrative-level coordination, Kim Yong-chol, the man responsible for conducting North Korea's negotiations with the US, went to the States from May 30 to June 2 to work out the final details with counterpart Mike Pompeo. He then visited Washington D.C. to meet with Trump and hand-deliver the president a letter from Kim Jong-un.


1. Decision to hold summit talks

Even as last-minute preparations continued, Trump announced on June 2 that the talks would take place in Singapore on the 12th. He also noted that he thought progress could be made on ending the Korean War, in relation to which the major topic is likely to be reducing and sending home the US forces stationed in South Korea as sought by North Korea and China. In response to Trump's comment, however, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis cautioned at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-La Dialogue that the presence of US troops in South Korea would not be up for negotiation at the summit.

The venue chosen for the June meeting was the Capella Hotel on Sentosa Island. On June 9, Trump walked out midway through the last day of the regular G7 summit that was being held in Canada and boarded the presidential plane Air Force One, landing in Singapore on the 10th. Kim Jong-un too arrived on the 10th on a chartered Air China plane.

2. The summit talks

The two leaders first each met with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, with their summit talks beginning on June 12. The talks consisted of a one-on-one meeting with the addition of interpreters only, an expanded bilateral meeting in which the leaders were each joined by three advisers, and then a working lunch to which several more delegation members were invited. The talks ended with Trump and Kim signing a joint statement.

Trump held a press briefing, and both leaders then left Singapore late that night, marking the end of an event which the whole world had watched with bated breath. As at directly after the event, the joint statement and Trump's press briefing comprise the only official information from which we can surmise the content of the talks. The main points in the joint statement are as below.

3. Joint statement
• President Trump: Commits to providing security guarantees to North Korea
• Chairman Kim Jong-un: Reaffirms firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula

Main text
(1) Both countries commit to establishing new US-North Korea relations
(2) Both countries to join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula
(3) North Korea reaffirms the Panmunjom Declaration and commits to working toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula
(4) Both countries commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified

• Both leaders commit to implementing joint statement stipulations fully and expeditiously
• Both countries commit to holding follow-on negotiations led by the US Secretary of State and a relevant high-level North Korean official at the earliest possible date to implement the summit outcomes

Assessments of the summit

Assessments immediately after the summit talks were divided. Those who responded favorably pointed to (1) the significance of holding summit talks and (2) North Korea's commitment to denuclearization and the US guarantees of security to North Korea. The concerns of those less convinced were basically that (1) the joint statement contains absolutely no reference to specific procedures for the “Complete, Verifiable and Irreversible Denuclearization” (CVID) which had been the primary US objective before the summit and (2) the US had jumped the gun in unilaterally providing security guarantees to North Korea before North Korea had taken concrete steps toward denuclearization.

Below I examine the key agenda items of North Korea's denuclearization and US forces stationed in South Korea, along with the issue of abducted Japanese citizens.

1. North Korea's denuclearization

On June 13 and 14, immediately after the talks, the media reported a string of optimistic and arguably self-justifying statements from Trump. North Korea “no longer poses a nuclear threat,” he said, and Kim Jong-un would begin dismantling his nuclear arsenal “very quickly.” Meanwhile, North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported on the 13th that the two countries had “shared recognition to the effect that it is important to abide by the principle of step-by-step and simultaneous action in achieving … denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” a very different interpretation from Trump's as to what had been agreed. KCNA went on to report Kim Jong-un as making it clear that if the US side took “genuine measures for building trust,” North Korea would continue to take “additional good-will measures of next stage commensurate with them.”

These contrasting reports revealed a major gap between North Korea's position and Trump's explanation that while CVID might not appear in the joint statement, the North would definitely be taking immediate and clear steps based on its denuclearization commitment. North Korea's claim that it will take “additional good-will measures” toward denuclearization commensurate with “genuine measures for building trust” on the part of the United States is also completely opposite to the US insistence on CVID, suggesting that the road to denuclearization could be a rocky one.

2. US forces stationed in South Korea

At his post-summit press briefing, Trump stunned everyone by suggesting that US-South Korea joint military exercises might be suspended over the course of US-North Korea negotiations, and that US forces stationed in South Korea might at some point be brought home. On the 13th, KCNA reported Kim Jong-un as having commented that, because the building of a “lasting and durable peace-keeping mechanism on the Korean Peninsula” was critical in building peace, a “bold decision” had to made on halting “irritating and hostile military actions against each other,” in reaction to which Trump “expressed his intention to halt the US-South Korea joint military exercises, … offer security guarantees to the DPRK and lift sanctions against it along with advance in improving the mutual relationship through dialogue and negotiation.” Trump himself admitted responding positively to Kim Jong-un's proposal at the summit.

In the new National Security Strategy announced by the United States in December 2017, it was Trump who identified China as a major challenger. Given the current international situation, the role of the US forces stationed in South Korea is shifting from its original focus on the Korean peninsula to deep involvement in the security of the Indo-Pacific region where China exerts major influence. Trump's comments in Singapore entirely ignore this aspect, and can only be described as lacking perspective.

Moreover, having the United States reduce or withdraw its troops from South Korea is the ultimate goal of both China and North Korea, so Trump has effectively handed them both countries an amazing and unexpected gift. In terms of the actions of an American president, this can only be rated as a fail.

3. Abducted Japanese citizens

Prime Minister Abe has repeatedly seized the opportunity to coordinate with Trump on the issue of North Korea's abduction of Japanese citizens. While it was not included in the joint statement, Trump noted in his press briefing that he had raised the issue with Kim, but the North had repeatedly stated that it had already been resolved. That same position was restated on the 15th without any reference to the discussion at the summit. With the North flip-flopping on this serious issue just as it has on denuclearization, there will clearly be no magic solution and we can expect more stumbling blocks ahead.

4. Overall assessment

The above issues are clear proof that a major and fundamental gap remains between US and North Korean perceptions of the results of the summit talks, as well as between their respective positions, suggesting some confusion over the direction ahead in terms of resolving the nuclear issue.

Despite the great fanfare with which the talks were held, there has effectively been no change in the fundamental standoff between the two countries on the nuclear issue that has continued for the last 25 years, with absolutely nothing new emerging from the summit. If this situation continues, we face the prospect of the United States doing exactly what the rest of the world most wanted to avoid—namely, repeating the “mistakes of the past” in failing to persuade North Korea to dismantle its nuclear arsenal?leading directly to the situation that the world most fears, which is the North becoming a real nuclear power.

Japan's response

Japan cannot afford to be swayed by either Trump's self-legitimizing claim that the summit was a great success or the North's string of high-handed interpretations. The key will be to observe dispassionately when, how, and to what extent Kim moves “very quickly” on denuclearization as claimed by Trump—the timing and content of those measures taken by North Korea, in other words.

This article was written a week after the summit talks when there was still limited information available. Developments with the high-level meeting between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a North Korean official which is expected to be held this week will certainly be a good indicator of the likely directionality in terms of resolving the nuclear issue, and as such will bear close observation.

If North Korea takes steps that match our expectations in terms of both timing and content and denuclearization is realized, the summit talks will undoubtedly go down in history as a great achievement, and there is certainly nothing wrong with hoping for this optimal outcome. However, we also need to prepare for the worst, whereby North Korea continues to assert its own interpretation of the summit talks and does not proceed with measures of sufficient content at the expected speed, leaving us to deal with a nuclearized North Korea.

More specifically, in the case that the agreement eventually reached at the summit talks thanks to the efforts of the United States, North Korea and the world is not implemented, Japan will need to be fully resolved to prevent North Korea's nuclearization at all cost. Our past mistakes demonstrate that such resolve will be vital in finding a way to block North Korea's efforts to weaken the CVID condition and lock the country instead into a process of Japan's choosing, driving toward the world's ultimate goal of denuclearizing the North through peaceful means.

Finally, as I noted earlier, the abduction issue is a serious one for which there is no magic bullet. However, Japan does have an important card up its sleeve other than military power—the economic role that we could play in rebuilding North Korea after the nuclear issue has been resolved. We need to devise a specific and optimal strategy and action plan for using this card which only we can play to ensure that the abduction issue is resolved.

About the Author
Yoji Koda
Advisor, Japan Marine United Corporation
Former Commander in Chief, JMSDF Fleet (Vice Admiral)

Born in Tokushima Prefecture in 1949. After graduating from the Japan Defense Academy in 1972, he entered the Japan Marine Self-Defense Forces. In 1992, he completed Naval Command College at the US Naval War College. After serving in posts such as DG Joint Staff, Commandant JMSDF Sasebo District, and Commander in Chief, JMSDF Fleet, he retired from JMSDF in 2008. From 2009 to 2011, he was a research fellow at Harvard University's Asia Center, and also served as an advisor to Japan's National Security Secretariat. His works include The Day that North Korea Goes to War with America (Gentosha Inc). Koda is known for his cool and objective perspective on the international situation and his ability to present a clear analysis grounded in the big picture.

(For the Japanese version of this article)

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