Can Pompeo trip turn vague commitment into actions?

By Robert A. Manning Source:Global Times Published: 2018/10/7 17:58:39

Pompeo trip signals new phase of diplomacy

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

After the third North-South Korea Summit, UN meeting, another Trump-Kim exchange of letters and preparations for a second Summit, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's shuttle to North Korea and the region signals a new and critical phase of nuclear diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula. The recent Moon-Kim Summit energized an intensifying process of North-South reconciliation, reaching accord on a long list of confidence-building and tension-reducing measures - from demilitarizing the Joint Security area of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to scaling back military exercises - as well as nuclear diplomacy.

In their Joint Declaration at the Summit, Kim Jong-un offered to take important steps toward peace on the Korean Peninsula. He offered to dismantle some weapons of mass destruction (WMD) facilities - the Tongchang-ri missile engine test site - under the watch of outside experts.

But more significantly, Kim also offered to "permanently dismantle" North Korea's main nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. This is a significant portion of Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program. It includes: a nuclear fuel fabrication plant; a 5 megawatt reactor that produces fissile material; a spent fuel storage facility; and a fuel reprocessing facility where bomb material is made from recovered uranium and plutonium.

Kim's offer was a challenge to the US. Yongbyon would only be dismantled, Kim indicated, if the US took "corresponding measures." It is unclear what US measures Kim is seeking, but getting rid of UN sanctions has been a North Korea's goal. Regardless, Pyongyang has squarely put the ball in the US court. Enter Pompeo. The US Secretary of State has made three previous visits to Pyongyang, but has little progress on denuclearization to show for it. There is some concern that North Korea may not negotiate new steps with Pompeo, but rather wait for the next Trump-Kim Summit, laying the groundwork for which is one purpose of Pompeo's visit. One indicator: North Korea has so far not responded to an invitation from Pompeo to meet with Steve Biegun, the US special envoy for North Korea, in Vienna.

On a previous visit to Pyongyang Pompeo presented US demands for a "frontloaded" process, with North Korea abandoning the majority of its nuclear weapons in 6-9 months. That was angrily rejected by Pyongyang. Yet, according to South Korean National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong, Kim said he envisions denuclearization being completed by the end of Trump's first Presidential term in 2021.

Pyongyang has deftly dominated nuclear diplomacy, calling the shots and setting the agenda at every turn, and seeming to play Kim's relationship with Trump against Pompeo and its Korea policy team. The US has been passive, reactive and clumsy, making unrealistic demands. Any nuclear deal requires cooperation from the other frontline states - China, Russia and Japan. Talks on a peace treaty would need to include the US, China, South and North Korea, and with regard to economic benefits, China, Russia and Japan would all have key roles to play. But the US has made no effort to initiate a multilateral mechanism to coordinate diplomacy.

Dismantling the North's main nuclear facilities at Yongbyon would be an important step toward denuclearization. Pyongyang has pushed for an "end of the war" declaration, a political statement of intent, but lacking the legal status of a peace treaty. The US has expressed interest in a "declaration-for-declaration" trade off - end of war declaration in exchange for North Korea revealing its full inventory of nuclear material and facilities to the IAEA. But Pyongyang has resisted.

Despite all the rhetoric of peace and a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, how to turn vague commitments of denuclearization into a phased, diplomatic process where each side bargains and negotiates reciprocal steps remains a mystery. That the US was willing to discuss "declaration-for-declaration," and similarly, has said there is no rushed timeline to achieve denuclearization, suggests Washington is now prepared to negotiate.

For Pyongyang, an end of war declaration is seen as a step toward a full peace treaty. One way forward would be to adopt the principle of parallel movement: steps toward a peace treaty with simultaneous steps toward denuclearization. It is for the US and North Korea now to negotiate what "corresponding measures" are needed for the destruction of Yongbyon.

One answer may be talks for a peace treaty. There are different views of what a peace treaty is. But it should be more than a legal document: it should be the last stage of a process, reflecting a state of peace, an end to confrontation, as occurred at the end of the Cold War in 1991. That would include reduction in conventional forces - including the future status of US troops in South Korea. It would be helpful if the US defined its vision of a peace treaty to set the stage for talks.

Similarly, for North Korea, providing the IAEA a declaration of its full inventory of nuclear material and nuclear facilities is essential: how can North Korea be considered denuclearized if we don't know the content of its entire nuclear program? That should be a no-brainer. Yet Pyongyang has so far refused that basic requirement of transparency. It should be recalled that the 2005 Six-Party talks "Agreed Statement" unraveled in 2008 when North Korea refused verification provisions.

In any case, whether during Pompeo's Asia trip or the likely Trump-Kim Summit in coming weeks, there is an urgency to find agreement on basic principles to negotiate the details of the vague commitments to peace and denuclearization. Otherwise, I fear a return to the tensions and war threats of 2017.

The author is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4.
Newspaper headline: Pompeo trip signals new phase of diplomacy

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