Denuclearizing North Korea Is a Big Challenge

Tensions escalated to an alarming level between the United States of America and North Korea during 2017. North Korea kept on test firing missiles and conducting nuclear tests, something which angered the international community, in particular the US. As a result, a chorus has developed to denuclearize the East Asian country. But to denuclearize North Korea is a big challenge.

In the wake of September 11, 2001 attacks, the US has used military action against countries, such as- Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia. The purported aim was to confront and combat the non-state actors- real or suspected- who were responsible for carrying out the attacks on the US.

However, the US ended up in having regime change in many of these countries. Saddam Husain of Iraq was punished. So was Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un may have fears of meeting the same fate if his country gives up nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons act as deterrence in the hands of a nation.

Kim is attaching conditions for giving up his nuclear weapons. He wants mutual steps to get rid of nuclear weapons. He demands that the US must withdraw its nuclear guarantee or nuclear umbrella from South Korea and Japan, the two immediate neighbors of North Korea. He also wants an end to the Korea war. Technically speaking, the two Koreas have been at war for decades.

The US cannot accept these conditions, fearing Kim may continue to produce the nuclear weapons to dictate terms in East Asia where the US has its key allies. These allies have soured relations with North Korea because of the latter’s nuclear ambitions.

Even if the US agrees to the conditions, it is uncertain that Kim will give up all of his nuclear facilities. As a result, a climate of distrust surrounds the denuclearization program of the Korean Peninsula.

Now South Korea’s president Moon Jae- In and Kim Jong –Un met in the third week of this month for their third summit this year. The purpose was to discuss practical measures to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.  Diplomatic steps, like that, are the need of the hour and in fact a better option to diffuse the tension. The summit has taken place in a positive atmosphere and has ended on a positive note. Kim welcomed his relationship with Moon and stated that the two of them would like to discuss “various issues… in a frank and open-minded manner.” It remains to be seen how things move forward, following the summit.

However, the national interest of the two countries varies and so cooperation between them appears a far cry. North Korea wants guarantee of its security from the US while South Korea wants a peaceful engagement between the US and the North.

As per the historic agreement signed between US president Donald Trump and Kim Jong in Singapore  June 12, the phrase “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” is written three times. That goes to show the need and nature of a nuclear arsenal free Korea. Agreed that there are no specific details of how the denuclearization can be done. There is no time frame also.

However, there has been no progress in the denuclearization after the Singapore summit. This was leading to the feelings of frustration for Trump. As a result, Trump last month cancelled Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip to North Korea. The reports from the intelligence said the North has continued to develop its long-range ballistic missiles and nuclear weapon capabilities have only deepened suspicions.

The North is reported to have dismantled its nuclear test site in Punggye-ri and ballistic missile test facility at Iha-ri but the two sides have been stuck in a deadlock since the Singapore agreement. The deadlock needs to be broken before it worsens the situation. A clash between North Korea and the US can prove a trigger for a disaster. Diplomatic efforts can serve the purpose of cooling the tempers.

Fears of new economic sanctions on North Korea may have made Kim to think twice before continuing with the confrontational approach with Trump. Kim’s meetings with his neighboring countries and Trump essentially were very useful in diffusing tensions. But no forward moves on denuclearization, have spoiled the good work. Hence, the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of the North Korean programme seems a distant possibility.

Kim has pledged to “work towards complete denuclearization” but the North and the US seek different things. The US wants that Kim gives up the nuclear arsenal and allow international inspectors to check that the North is living up to the expectations.

Denuclearization can be expected to become easier through talks. If the US indeed wants to test how far North Korea will go in favor of denuclearization, it can do so by engaging with it in talks. However, from the peace talks, the US should not expect immediate results towards the disarmament of the North, but still it needs to prefer talks as denuclearization is a tough task. Additionally, talks will give birth to goodwill. And act as a Confidence Building Measure to sustain the diplomatic process.

North Korea may seek to continue some nuclear activities for civilian purposes like Iran doing.  That may negate the very purpose of denuclearizing the North: the US and the international community would like to see no trace of nuclear activities in the Korean Peninsula. This may not satisfy the North. Such a situation may derail the peace process.

The bottom line is that the US is unlikely to agree to the North’s behavior towards the denuclearization. Hence, a conflict may run the show again and the two countries may return to the 2017 like dangerous situation. The international community cannot afford renewed and escalating tensions between the US and North Korea if no denuclearization takes place.

Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press

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