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North Korea’s Kim promises ‘denuclearization,’ but where does diplomacy stand?

Six months after a landmark summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un seemed to keep the two nations from the precipice of war, Kim says North Korea won't make, test or give away nuclear weapons -- plus he's ready to meet Trump again. Victor Cha of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Jenny Town of online policy journal 38 North discuss with Amna Nawaz.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    In his New Year's speech, North Korea's leader said he was ready to meet face to face with President Trump and would make efforts to ensure all parties denuclearize.

    In his annual New Year's address, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un stressed his desire for peace on the Korean Peninsula and improved relations with the U.S., echoing a message delivered after his unprecedented handshake and summit with President Trump in Singapore back in June of 2018.

    That meeting saw the sudden rise of Kim on the world stage and opened the doors for continued negotiations with the U.S. Today, Kim announced that he now wants a second meeting with the president, and claimed that North Korea is still committed to denuclearization.

  • Kim Jong-Un (through translator):

    We have declared inside and outside our country that we will no longer make, test, use, or distribute nuclear weapons and have taken various practical measures.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But North Korea watchers in the U.S. express doubt that Kim truly intends to give up his country's nuclear weapons. Washington and Pyongyang remains at odds over what specific actions each side should take to start the process.

    Today, Kim warned against too many demands by the U.S.

  • Kim Jong-Un (through translator):

    However, if the United States continues to break its promises and misjudges our patience by unilaterally demanding certain things and pushes ahead with sanctions and pressure against our republic, then we may have to seek another way to protect our country's sovereignty and interest and establish peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Kim didn't clarify what he meant by another way.

    But the North Korean leader was clear in his call for the U.S. and South Korea to stop any future joint military exercises on the Korean Peninsula. Last year, President Trump temporarily suspended those exercises to move along negotiations.

    While Kim stated today that he's seeking more concessions from the U.S., there is no set timeline, nor plans for more talks between the two countries to continue, talks that have already been stalled for months.

    For more on Kim Jong-un's speech and the latest on negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea, we get two views.

    Victor Cha was the director of Asian affairs on the National Security Council staff during the George W. Bush administration. He's now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and is a professor at Georgetown University. And Jenny Town is the managing editor and producer of 38 North, an online policy journal that focuses on North Korea.

    Welcome to you both.

    Jenny, I want to start with you.

    Obviously, this is a speech primarily delivered for a domestic audience, but he just did use the phrase denuclearization. What does that say to you?

  • Jenny Town:

    You know, I think what it is, is he's really now building a narrative of denuclearization to the domestic population.

    And so whether or not we believe him, he's planting the seeds that this is possible and that this is the track that they're going down. I think we were looking for signs to see if he would actually change and announce a new state policy that was more econ-focused.

    He didn't do that. And what I think he did, though, was change that narrative for pyongjin, which is the state policy of dual development of the nuclear deterrent and the economy. He's now shifting that narrative to be more back to the military development, as well as the economy.

    And so it still gives him room to maneuver in case things go bad, but, at the same time, has talked about the commitment to denuclearization, their commitment not to make nuclear weapons.

    And, you know, whether or not we believe him, again, this narrative now is being proliferated domestically.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Victor, in that sort of giving himself room to maneuver, there was some hedging there, right? He said he will only take actions if there are corresponding measures from the U.S. What does that mean?

  • Victor Cha:


    And that is a consistency in their position we have seen in the past. They used to call it action for action, step for step. Essentially, they want reciprocity. They're going to take actions on the nuclear front, they want the United States also to take actions, like lifting sanctions and stopping exercises.

    The one thing that I would say about this commitment to denuclearization is, I think Kim is building a narrative to say that we may at some point stop producing nuclear weapons or stop augmenting our nuclear stockpiles if the United States signs a peace treaty with us, all these other things.

    But the bottom line, I think, is that they want to be accepted as a nuclear weapons state. What they were — what he was messaging in that particular part of the speech, to the United States, to Donald Trump, was, we can do a deal, if you accept me as a nuclear weapon state and a responsible nuclear weapons state.

    That's essentially the deal that he's putting on the table. And that has been consistent, I think, in North Korea's position going back to previous negotiations as well.

  • Amna Nawaz:


  • Victor Cha:

    So there's a commitment to denuclearization, in the sense that someday we all want that there'd be no nuclear weapons in the world.

    But, practically speaking, I think he wants to keep his weapons and still try to get a deal with Trump.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, remind us now — we're six months after this historic Singapore summit, Jenny. And, of course, that commitment to denuclearize was made back then too, but what specific actions, if any, have actually been taken by the North Koreans since then?

  • Jenny Town:

    Well, the North Koreans have done several things.

    I think that they have stopped the testing of the nuclear missile testing. They have shut down the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. They started to dismantle some of the key facilities at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station. They have offered the option for inspections.

    So they feel like they have done several things. On the U.S. side, they're also looking at the U.S. actions being taken. And, yes, there was a suspension of the military exercises, but then the U.S. also then went and renewed the travel ban on U.S. citizens traveling to North Korea.

    They imposed more and more sanctions, unilateral sanctions, on North Korea. They continue to talk about maximum pressure. They have essentially cut off humanitarian aid assistance to North Korea as well.

    And so if you're looking at the body of action for action, and the commitment to having a new relationship, these are not the actions — the U.S. actions are not the actions of a country that's ready to have a new relationship.

    This is really signaling more the old status quo relationship. And I would — I would sort of disagree with Victor on that they want to be accepted as a nuclear weapons state. I think the offer is there. But the process is approached very differently.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    When you say the offer is there, you mean the offer to fully denuclearize?

  • Jenny Town:

    The offer to fully denuclearize is there, but the approach is very different.

    And I think we still haven't come to terms with how different that is, because the North Koreans see it as, in order to go down that road, we do have to have a different relationship. And the U.S. has always approached it as, you have to denuclearize first, and then we can have a new relationship.

    And I think we're still butting heads against that, as to, how do we get to that point and how do we find a mutually agreed upon path to — in order to justify — having them justify go down that road?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, Victor, coming out of Singapore, there wasn't a specific timeline, right? There was a sort of vaguely worded statement.

    Do we consider the last six months to be progress?

  • Victor Cha:

    It's hard to say, really. I mean, I think what we're looking at is this big meeting that took place in the summer, the laying out abroad guidelines for a possible agreement, a lot of working level negotiations in the interim that really got nowhere.

    And now we're looking at the possibility of a second summit to try to jump-start what they talked about in the first summit. So this is not the way we have done diplomacy with North Korea in the past. That's — I'm not saying that's a good or a bad thing, because the past negotiations, even the ones I was involved in, have failed.

    So we can't say that this is a better or a worse — or a worse path. But it is. We're ending up at a point now where we need a summit meeting to try to keep the diplomacy going. And the good part about that is, if you get the leaders to agree, then maybe you can make real progress.

    The bad part is that, if they cannot agree, then the diplomacy, by definition, fails. There's nowhere else to go at that point, when your leaders can't agree.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, so, Jenny, tell me where this could go now, because it's worth reminding people there was a time not too long ago when these two leaders were trading escalating insults in public, and there was a lot of concern and fear around that.

    If they can't come to some kind of specific agreement on how to move forward, can we get back there again?

  • Jenny Town:

    I — you know, that is the fear.

    And I do think both of them are — have a mutual respect for each other. I think the — on a personal level, they have built a relationship that hasn't necessarily translated to a country level. And the question is whether we can get there.

    But this whole diplomatic process is not the way the U.S. does diplomacy, but it is the way Asia tends — is more comfortable doing diplomacy as well, this leader-driven, kind of piece by piece, small commitments at a time, to build this relationship and build a track record and build trust as you move towards a mutual goal.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You think there's a regional difference here?

  • Jenny Town:

    I think there's a — there's somewhat of a cultural difference. And so it's something that the Koreans are much more comfortable with than the U.S., and this idea that we — the Singapore summit set up a general framework, not necessarily for an agreement, a comprehensive agreement, but for how this relationship should evolve.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Victor, very quickly, before we go, I guess Americans want to know, did that agreement, did the last six months, did all that make us safer in any way?

  • Victor Cha:

    I mean, it — rhetorically, maybe it's taken down the temperature a little bit.

    But, as you mentioned in your question earlier, we're still right on the precipice. If these diplomacy efforts fail, we could end up back where we were last year, which was — we were clearly on a path towards war.

    So nobody wants that. And I think you do have a commitment from the U.S. president to this diplomacy at the highest level. We have never had that before in the relationship between these two countries. North Korea is not your normal negotiating partner.

  • Amna Nawaz:


  • Victor Cha:

    We have to remember that.

    So there's a lot to look forward to in terms of 2019. And this speech was really the first step.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And we will be following it. You will as well.

    Victor Cha and Jenny Town, thank you very much for being here.

  • Victor Cha:

    Thank you.

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