Don’t Buy The Hype About North Korea Agreeing To ‘Denuclearization.’

South Korea's President is saying that Kim Jong Un has renewed his supposed commitment to 'denuclearization,' but it isn't at all clear what that means.

In the wake of last week’s announcement by the President that the summit meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un set for June 12th in Singapore was canceled, President Moon Jae In met with Kim in a surprise meeting that Moon claims included a renewed North Korean commitment to “denuclearization.” As has been the case since we started down the path to this summit that may or may not go forward, though, it’s unclear exactly what that means and whether it can serve as the basis for any kind of agreement:

SEOUL, South Korea — The leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, said during a surprise summit meeting that he is determined to meet President Trump and discuss a “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on Sunday.

Mr. Kim met unexpectedly with Mr. Moon on Saturday to discuss salvaging a canceled summit meeting between Mr. Kim and President Trump, a new twist in the whirlwind of diplomacy over the fate of the North’s nuclear arsenal. The leaders of the two Koreas met for two hours on the North Korean side of Panmunjom, a “truce village” inside the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas.

Mr. Moon gave the first details of Saturday’s meeting in a news conference held Sunday morning in Seoul, the South Korean capital. He said that during the meeting, Mr. Kim expressed a desire to “end a history of war and confrontation” on the peninsula. Mr. Kim also said he was willing to talk about getting rid of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, a topic the Trump administration has said was a precondition for a meeting.

Mr. Moon said that Mr. Kim told him he wanted to go though with his planned summit meeting with Mr. Trump, and to make it a success. The Trump-Kim meeting, which would be the first between the heads of state of the United States and North Korea, had been scheduled for June 12 in Singapore, but was abruptly canceled on Thursday by Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump said he was pulling out of the meeting, citing “tremendous anger and open hostility” from North Korea. But a day later, the American president said he was reconsidering and that it may still take place as scheduled.

Mr. Moon said the biggest challenge to holding the summit meeting was overcoming the lack of trust between North Korea and the United States, two countries that have viewed each other as threats since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

“Chairman Kim once again clearly expressed his firm commitment to a complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Mr. Moon said. “What is not so clear to him is how firmly he can trust the United States’ commitment to ending hostile relations and providing security guarantees for his government should it denuclearize.”

Mr. Moon said that North Korea and the United States will soon start working-level talks to help narrow the gap between the two sides. He said the results of those talks will help determine whether a summit between Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump will take place and, if so, whether it will be successful.

More from The Washington Post:

SEOUL — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is still committed to the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula and willing to meet with President Trump, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Sunday. But Moon declined to define “complete denuclearization,” suggesting that there are still fundamental gaps on the key issue bedeviling preparations for the on-again-off-again summit between Trump and Kim.

Kim also expressed concern about whether he could trust the U.S. guarantee that he would remain in power following denuclearization, Moon said after his impromptu meeting with the North Korean leader Saturday afternoon, which was requested by Kim.

“We two leaders agreed the June 12 North Korea-U.S. summit must be successfully held,” Moon said of the meeting, which took place on the northern side of the demilitarized zone.

The rapidly arranged discussion reflects how urgently the two leaders are trying to salvage the U.S.-North Korea summit, originally scheduled for June 12 in Singapore.


Moon and Kim met at Panmunjom, the truce village in the demilitarized zone and the site of their first meeting in April, the first inter-Korean summit since 2007.

North Korea’s state media reported after the meeting that Kim expressed his “fixed will” for a “historic” summit between North Korea and the United States.

Kim and Moon also agreed on Saturday to hold high-level talks on June 1 and to “meet frequently in the future,” both countries said.

In addition, the two Korean leaders on Saturday also discussed the implementation of the inter-Korean “Panmunjom Declaration.” The two had signed the three-page agreement at their earlier meeting, stating at the time that “South and North Korea confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.”

The unexpected disclosure of the meeting by South Korea’s presidential Blue House was in stark contrast to the highly choreographed summit in April, which was broadcast in real time around the world with great fanfare.

As has occurred several times in the months since we’ve been  moving down the path toward a potential meeting between Trump and Kim, the biggest focus of these remarks is on President Moon’s statement that the North Koreans are still willing to talk about “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, something that the Trump Administration has claimed will be a goal of any such meeting that the DPRK must agree to if the talks are to go forward. As has been noted before, though, it’s fairly clear that the North Korean idea of “denuclearization” is far different from what the United States has in mind. Those differences rarely get discussed in the American media when it covers something such as this latest statement from President Moon, and they certainly aren’t being acknowledged by the Trump Administration.

In the mind of the United States. South Korea, and other American allies in the region, of course, “denuclearization essentially means the “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of the North Korean program.” Repeatedly, it has been made clear that in the minds of American negotiators this is essentially a one-sided deal in which the North Koreans give up their nuclear weapons, and their research program, in exchange for things such as sanctions relief and, perhaps, some loosening of the restrictions on international trade.

When the North Koreans talk about “denuclearization,” though, they speak of the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” This means not only some action on the part of the North Koreans, but also the understanding that the United States would remove any nuclear weapons it may have in the region and that it would renounce the idea of providing South Korea and Japan with a “nuclear umbrella,” which is essentially the threat that any attack on an American ally. It is also fairly clear that the North Koreans also include in their definition of “denuclearization” the idea that the American military presence in South Korea, and potentially in Japan, which the DPRK has made clear it considers to be part of the nuclear threat posed by the United States.

Based on the realities on the ground, this difference in the understand of what “denuclearization” means to each side makes sense given the fact that, as I have said before, the history of the past twenty years or so makes it clear that Kim would be a fool to completely give up either his nuclear weapons or the research program, and to understand why, one need only look to the examples of Libya, Iraq, and other nations that have pursued a nuclear weapons program and the different ways that they have been treated.

Shortly after the war against Iraq began, Libya essentially approached the United States and other western nations and offered what amounted to a deal under which the nation would surrender its nuclear and WMD research program in exchange for sanctions relief and some sense of a guarantee that the regime in Tripoli would not suffer the same fate as Saddam Hussein. Rather than survival, though, by 2011 Libya found itself in the middle of a civil war with the United States, the United Kingdom, and France actively intervening on the side of anti-regime rebels. At the end of that civil war, of course, Libya’s leader was dead in a gutter at the hands of his own people. This followed on the example of Iraq, which found itself invaded in 2003 notwithstanding the fact that the nation had abandoned its WMD program at the end of the Persian Gulf War. Within just a few months after that invasion, Saddam Hussein had been captured and would ultimately be put on trial and put to death.  , after which he faced a trial and ultimately execution. This, as I’ve said before, is why the invocation of the so-called Libya model by National Security Adviser John Bolton, President Trump, and Vice-President Pence over the past month has not gone over well with North Korea. As many foreign policy advisers observed that these remarks could easily be interpreted as a threat by the DPRK.

On the other side of the equation, Kim and the leadership of the DPRK is no doubt aware of the quite different fate of nations that pursued their nuclear weapons research goals notwithstanding sanctions and the admonitions of the international community. In India and Pakistan, for example, we have two nations that pursuant nuclear weapons development notwithstanding international pressure. Similarly, Israel pursued its own nuclear ambitions largely in secret and in direct violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty to which it still is not a signatory. All three of these nations now possess what is likely a sufficient nuclear deterrent to ensure their survival. Finally, of course, we have the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) and the manner in which the Iranians were treated. Rather than being attacked like the Libyan and Iraqi governments, the Iranians obtained an international agreement that allowed them to largely escape a crippling sanctions regime and, to at least some degree of the Islamic Republic back into the world community from which North Korea has been excluded for the better part of the time it has existed. Notwithstanding the fact that the Trump Administration and much of the news media likes to paint the Kim regime, and Kim Jong-Un himself as unhinged, their actions to date indicate quite the opposite and that they are very much acting in quite a rational manner. Given that, the fact that the United States is looking to a model that led to the leader of an authoritarian regime being killed by a mob and his body dragged through the streets is likely not going to go over very well in Pyongyang.

Jazz Shaw expresses similar skepticism about the prospects of future talks with the DPRK:

Kim is setting things up so that he comes into the meeting with President Trump (if it happens) claiming that he’s the only one who has been putting anything on the table so far. He’s opened a dialogue with South Korea, blown up his testing facility and released the hostages. America has given him nothing but a “wait and see” gesture. So he can ask for at least some of the riches and prosperity that Trump has mentioned before he gives up anything else.

That might leave the President needing to deliver on sanction relief, shipments of food, cash, opening trade routes and help with agricultural technology for the North. In exchange, I can see Kim offering to invite IAEA inspectors in next year after he gets all that and letting them watch him dismantle one nuke and take the pieces away. That would put him a few steps along on that “quest” for a denuclearized peninsula while still holding onto some serious firepower.

If Trump walks away from that offer (which he really should), then Kim winds up looking like the reasonable one and China probably backs him up as long as he makes nice with South Korea.

As I noted on Friday when the President hinted that a summit might be back on the table, all of this indicates that the President could be walking into what for him could be a diplomatic debacle while Kim comes out getting exactly what he wants, international recognition and legitimacy:

What this development tells us, though, is that both Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un would still like a meeting to go forward sooner rather than later, albeit each for their own purposes, Trump, for example, likely views the summit as something that can be pointed to as a sign that, contrary to what the media says, he is a serious player on the world stage and that he ought to be taken seriously. For Kim, such a meeting would essentially serve as a legitimization of him and his regime on the world stage in the form of a one-on-one meeting with the most powerful man in the world. As far as substance goes, though, it’s still quite apparent that the two nations are not exactly on the same page when it comes to the details of issues such as the fate of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, sanctions relief, and what, if any, security guarantees the United States and its allies would be willing to give to the DPRK in exchange for a broader agreement. Until there’s at least a framework for a discussion on possible agreements in this area, it seems clear that any summit meeting would be little more than a photo opportunity that would clearly benefit Kim far more than it would benefit the United States.

So, yes, there are good reasons to be optimistic about the future on the Korean Peninsula. Most certainly the events of the past several months have been more encouraging than the fire and brimstone rhetoric we saw from both Pyongyang and Washington last year and, indeed, these appear to be some of the most positive developments we have seen when it comes to the North Korean situation. At the same time, though, it’s worth noting that we’ve been down this road before. Kim’s father and grandfather both made gestures toward peace that they ultimately end up violating after getting what they want, and it is entirely possible that we may be headed down a similar road with Kim Jong Un. Additionally, as I’ve noted, the United States and North Korea are most emphatically not on the same page when it comes to what constitutes “denuclearization” to the point where it arguably doesn’t make sense to go forward with a summit meeting unless and until we can be sure that all parties share the same goals. Finally, for the reasons I’ve stated both here and in other posts, it would simply be insane for the North Koreans to completely denuclearize even with a supposedly “ironclad” security guarantee from the United States. Given that, it pays to be skeptical and President Trump ought to refrain from making room on the mantle for the Nobel Peace Prize that some of his supporters seem to believe he’s already won.


FILED UNDER: Asia, Donald Trump, National Security, North Korea, Politicians, US Politics, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Kathy says:

    I’d be willing to bet $100 US that North Korea will still have nuclear weapons by late January 2021. If for some insane reason Cheeto Benito (H/T teve tory) is re-elected (knock wood), I’d play it double or nothing until late January 2025.



  2. teve tory says:

    I’d love to claim it as mine, but I stole Cheeto Benito from someone years ago. 🙂

    Given that, it pays to be skeptical and President Trump ought to refrain from making room on the mantle for the Nobel Peace Prize that some of his supporters seem to believe he’s already won.

    GW Bush blundered us into a war in Iraq that killed something like a million people. Obama got the Nobel Prize for basically just not being GW Bush. There’s no way the ADHD-addled tv junkie in the white house will do anything deserving of the Nobel, but we all just hope he doesn’t screw things up so horribly that his successor gets one of those automatic ones.



  3. TM01 says:

    Just to be clear, a number of people thought Kim Jung Un is indeed rational and that the Twitter back and forth was hardly a lead up to nuclear war, as many on the Left sat around fretting about. No one is going to start a war over a tweet. That was always stupid hyperbole from the Left.


    international recognition and legitimacy:

    And a pallet full of cash!
    Now THAT would be a great deal! That would be Trump adhering to Diplomatic Norms!



  4. Kathy says:

    @teve tory:

    You were the first I saw using it.

    I’d also bet Trump would have not changed his mind on cancelling the summit, had Lucy not said “Really, I want you to kick it.”

    But Kim may just be saying that because he didn’t get to remove the football, and really wants to see Trump flat on his back.



  5. michael reynolds says:

    He’s already agreed to a pallet of cash, genius, the difference being that the ‘cash’ for Iran actually belonged to the Iranians. Jesus, do you ever read a newspaper? Trump’s promised him a shower of money.

    US President Donald Trump tried to put his summit with Kim Jong-un back on track on Thursday, offering the North Korean leader guarantees of staying in power if he abandons nuclear weapons – but threatening a grisly death if he refuses.

    As prospects for a historic summit next month between the two leaders dimmed, Trump told reporters that if the meeting were to go ahead successfully, Kim “will get protections that will be very strong”, and that “He’d be in his country and running his country. His country would be very rich.”

    The Great Negotiator has offered Kim EVERYTHING I’ve been saying for weeks would be in the final deal: survival, an end to sanctions, money and more money. He’s already said explicitly that Kim gets everything he wants. . . while Kim is still not even agreeing to our definition of de-nuclearization.

    Kim isn’t just out-negotiating Trump, he’s bent him over without benefit of lube.

    Let’s see if you can get your head around this:

    1) Kim offers ‘de-nuclearization’ which in his head means us as well as him.
    2) Trump’s offered in return, everything Kim wants.

    The amazing thing is that Kim actually needs this far more than Trump, stands to gain far more than Trump, and still Trump is losing the fcking negotiation.



  6. michael reynolds says:


    So, yes, there are good reasons to be optimistic about the future on the Korean Peninsula.

    Yeah, just less and less reason to be optimistic about US power in Asia. The President of the United States is publicly humiliating himself (and us) by prattling on as everyone on the far side of Guam can see quite clearly that we’re losing this thing. Xi must be peeing himself laughing.

    Come on, people, focus! Our goal is NOT de-nuclearization in Korea, our goal is maintaining US power and prestige in Asia and constraining the rise of China. Are we constraining China with this? Duh, no, we are offering to give Kim everything he wants which means China gets a less-troublesome NK and a sweet opportunity to move in economically without fear of sanctions.

    And what do we get? We get a richer, stronger, more stable NK regime that will no longer threaten us with weapons that were never a realistic threat to us.

    Too many people are buying fool’s gold here. Kim’s nukes are not a threat to US power. A South Korea no longer dependent on US protection is. People have bought into the Trump hysteria over NK nukes as if they were a real threat when they were not. We’re getting fairy dust in exchange for real gold and we’re actually excited at the prospect. Amazing.



  7. CSK says:

    @michael reynolds:

    It’s because Trump. Doesn’t. Know. What. The. Hell. He’s. Doing.

    Remember when he offered Dianne Feinstein a “clean DACA bill,” and she literally jumped for joy? And Kevin McCarthy had had to leap into the fray and explain to Trump what a clean bill is?

    This summit, if it comes off, which I doubt, will be a clusterf*ck of epic proportions.



  8. michael reynolds says:

    I’ll tell you my suspicion. Early on Trump wanted a unilateral withdrawal from Korea. He was stopped by every foreign policy and defense expert tackling him. Which made him feel stoopid and frustrated. He’ll do this deal, agree to get out of Korea, and actually believe he’s proven his point. And his idiot followers will sing hosanna while the world laughs at us.

    And of course Trump’s already been paid by Xi to rescue ZTE. Imagine what Xi will be willing to pay him for a collapse of US power in Asia.



  9. teve tory says:

    @michael reynolds:

    “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.”

    “I know what I’m doing and I listen to a lot of people, I talk to a lot of people and at the appropriate time I’ll tell you who the people are,” Trump said. “But my primary consultant is myself and I have a good instinct for this stuff.”




  10. teve tory says:

    And of course Trump’s already been paid by Xi to rescue ZTE. Imagine what Xi will be willing to pay him for a collapse of US power in Asia.

    The ZTE thing is just open, naked corruption. Even after 3 years of this idiot, that actually shocked me.

    Make China Great Again.



  11. CSK says:

    @michael reynolds:

    It’ll be yuge!!!! It’ll make that half-billion dollar Chinese investment in the Indonesian Trump resort and golf club look like chump change!



  12. TM01 says:

    @michael reynolds:
    Oh good.

    Now Trump is just doing what the Chinese want. JCPOA. Get a new idea into your tiny brain. Russia. Israel. China. Can you get an original thought? Please?

    Based on the JPOC, you should LOVE the NK deal you think is all but done.

    So what happens if Trump agrees to a bad deal with NK anyways. The next president gets to pull out or renegotiate? Can’t have that. That would ruin Our Word.

    Add for the last time, WHO THE FRAK CARES if it was Iran’s money? The whole point is that it was held as part of sanctions and obummer just gave it all back with no strings attached. But I’m sure that cash just weakened the hard liner regime somehow. Dolt.



  13. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    The problem is in Beijing and in Moscow, not in Pyongyang. The Russians don´t like the 20 thousand troops in South Korea because they allow the US to block the only Warm Russian port in the Pacific. The Chinese don’t want to share a border with these troops.

    One could argue that allowing the North Koreans to have nuclear *technology* is dangerous because they could sell their technology to the highest bidder. But Kim Joung Un would end his day like Mussolini, Kadafi or Ceausescu if North Korea became “prosperous”.



  14. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    “Chairman Kim once again clearly expressed his firm commitment to a complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Mr. Moon said. “What is not so clear to him is how firmly he can trust the United States’ commitment to ending hostile relations and providing security guarantees for his government should it denuclearize.”

    We are clearly seeing the argument “the reason we can’t have nice things on the peninsula is because the US won’t let us have them” in it’s full glory now. Moon has thrown Trump under the bus for all to see. Great job on the part of Team Trump.



  15. An Interested Party says:

    The whole point is that it was held as part of sanctions and obummer just gave it all back with no strings attached.

    Ahh, there’s that projection again…the Orange Blob performs some terrible diplomacy, and what is the answer? “But, but, Obama!” Keep up the good work, tool…




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