Interview: US-North Korea Talks Will Drag on for a While to Come

R. Rajaraman, former co-chair of the International Panel of Fissile Materials, talks to The Wire about the historic US-North Korea summit.

New Delhi: While hype around the first summit between the US and North Korean leaders starts to mellow down, experts and former diplomats largely agreed that ‘complete denuclearisation’ was unlikely to mean Pyongyang giving up their nuclear weapons arsenal entirely, and said that forthcoming negotiations will be a long-drawn affair.

Just a few months ago, they were calling each other ‘deranged dotard’ and ‘little rocket man’, and threatening to bring down “fire and fury”. But over a series of meeting in Singapore’s Capella hotel, US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un got along rather well. The joint statement commits North Korea to move towards “complete denuclearisation”, with more rounds of negotiations in the future led on the US side by secretary of state Mike Pompeo.

But there were few details beyond that. It was left to the two sides to fill in some of the blanks.

Trump announced that US will freeze “provocative” war games with South Korea, which he added would save a lot of money. The DPRK leader, Trump said, had promised to destroy a missile engine testing site.

The North Korean official news agency KCNA announced that Trump offered to lift sanctions and extend security guarantees. The North Korean media report did mention the offer to halt military exercises, but there was no mention of destroying a missile facility as announced by Trump.

“Kim Jong Un clarified the stand that if the U.S. side takes genuine measures for building trust in order to improve the DPRK-U.S. relationship, the DPRK, too, can continue to take additional good-will measures of next stage commensurate with them,” said the KCNA report. It further said that both US and North Korean leaders “had the shared recognition to the effect that it is important to abide by the principle of step-by-step and simultaneous action in achieving peace, stability and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”.

The historical nature of the summit is not contested by observers, but there is concern that posing before the world press and signing a joint statement was the easy bit.

The Wire spoke to five experts who have worked on nuclear disarmament and observed the geopolitics of the Korean politics to get their view on the outcome of the Singapore summit. Here is what R. Rajaraman, emeritus professor of theoretical physics, School of Physical Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University and former co-chair of the International Panel of Fissile Materials (2007-14), had to say.

You can read the rest of the interviews here.

How do you assess the importance of the Singapore meeting?

From the historical point of view, it is very important. It is the first meeting of the heads of these two countries who have been antagonists for a long time – though one is David and the other is Goliath. But still, this is something that earlier presidents were unable to achieve. Possibly because their North Korean counterparts were not interested. But surprisingly, this young man seems to be. So it is important.

Do you believe that the joint statement has the potential to take forward the objective of denuclearisation?

The third point (in the joint statement) is the substantive one. I think that the discussions will drag on. I don’t think that Kim will be willing to give up his nuclear weapons in toto anywhere in the near future. They have worked very hard to get it. They are always afraid of the Libyan model.

Meanwhile, they have started the negotiations. I am sure that the people in the US also know this deep down that it is a long way ahead.

I think what they will allow for is the dragging of discussions, where some stages of denuclearisation will be offered and accepted as ‘progress’. US may have to lift some of the sanctions in stages in proportionality. This is what I expect to happen, but of course, one doesn’t know with these two gentlemen.

R. Rajaraman. Credit: Youtube

R. Rajaraman. Credit: Youtube

There is, however, no reference to complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation, which the Americans had been advocating earlier.

That will not happen here. Remember, [Mike] Pompeo or somebody else had said that ‘moving towards’ is good enough. A ban on nuclear testing can be part of that. If a stronger statement is required, one can say that no more new bombs. An even more stronger statement would be that no more fissile materials will be manufactured and reactors opened for inspections. All this can happen without giving up the 20 or 40 weapons that North Korea has. They may even make an offer to give up half of them.

Each of these will be considered as very important steps ‘towards’ denuclearisation.

Kim might promise many other things. He might promise to take off short range missiles that threaten Japan and South Korea from their launch pads. The danger doesn’t just come from nuclear weapons, but conventional weapons in which North Korea also excels.

If Kim doesn’t give up nuclear weapons, how does North Korea define denuclearisation?

I don’t think that they will give up nuclear weapons.. They may not come out and say so, because that is clearly not going to help them. They are also very shrewd negotiators. They will certainly take steps which will be defined as moving towards denuclearisation, as they do want the sanctions lifted. They would like to be respected members of the international community. So they will be willing to give up few things.

Then how will these small incremental concessions be sold to US public and international community?

Well, Trump may not worry about international community. His audience will be domestic. He will certainly drag the discussion till the 2018 Congressional mid-term elections to say that I got him to talk with us. “We sat across the table, give me a Nobel prize for peace” and all that. He will try to project this as big diplomatic victory and say that the original harangue was his negotiating style. This does seem to be part of his negotiating style. He grumbles and grumbles and does not bite as much as he barks. He will claim victory with the ‘stages’. “Yes, we are making progress…these things take time. But this concession has been made and that has been made.” So they will sell it to the public, if there is some kind of progress.

So both US and North Korea are happy to drag on the negotiations?

My guesswork from the outside is that anything else is not likely. Neither side is going to give up. The sanctions won’t be lifted all at once, but gradually.

But North Korea will also demand more steps from the US.

So that will be used as a bargaining chip. Kim might say, “Alright, alright, I will keep a few weapons, you keep a few weapons.” Storage of weapons in south Korea is not the only way that US can attack north Korea. They can send an ICBM from the US heartland. They don’t really need the nukes on the border. US may be willing to denuclearise their side, but not necessarily remove all the conventional forces.

One of the thing that I imagine Kim will want to reduce is his military budget. So if he is able to reduce the level of conventional requirements, that will also be in his interest. That may be in the interest of both countries, because US does not want to pay for South Korean security, as Trump has always said.

Do you see the main pitfalls during the negotiation process will be from opponents like (National Security Advisor) John Bolton or from ideological variance on the objective of the exercise between the two sides?

Well, Bolton will have to be kept in control. But now that both leaders have met, they will not pay that much attention to what the subordinates say.

Bolton may also be part of Trump’s strategy, who knows. The cancellation of talks may have been deliberate.. He seems to have a certain kind of strategy which I don’t fully understand, but seems to be sort of working.

But I think that the South Korean president deserves a lot of praise, because without his intervention at various stages, things might have gone off-key or taken longer to happen. If anybody deserves a Nobel, it is him. But I don’t think anybody deserves it.

I don’t think that there will be a breakthrough. There will be a gradual thing that will be called a breakthrough by both sides. This is what I suspect. There will be a diplomatic announcement on the lines of “first steps will be taken starting from August 1…” or something like that. And those first steps will not be very big.

What would you ideally like to see? What would you term as a breakthrough?

I am not such a great believer in horizontal non-proliferation bugbear of the US. One more country turns nuclear…well, we have nuclear Pakistan, we are also nuclear. I am in no position morally or in any other way to say that North Korea should not be nuclear, as long as they have command and control which they definitely seem to have. I don’t think it is a tragedy that they have a couple of nuclear weapons.

From the nuclear weapon point of view and as a person who wants disarmament, the far more serious thing is the huge nuclear arsenal of US and Russia – and their lack of interest in bringing it down further.

Even if the joint statement is aspirational, it is still a good thing at least to keep both sides on the table.

No question about it. The North Koreans, South Koreans and Japanese can get rid of some of the other tensions in the area and get on with their life. Definitely talking is good and bringing the North Koreans into the mainstream as much as possible is good. Kim looking at the outside world and seeing it for what it is will be good for the internal situation of Korea. It will do all kinds of good for the people of North Korea, even if sanctions are slightly lifted. For me, they are the number one concern, because they have been suffering and suffering.

North Korea’s human rights record got only a small play in the talks.

If Trump raised something like this more, the talks would have collapsed. But the very fact that Kim may feel more secure and the sanctions may ease, these two together could make the lives of North Koreans better.

The Indian statement welcomes the summit outcome, but also says that there should be a reference to how North Korea acquired its arsenal from networks extending to South Asia. Does reiterating this have a utility?

India’s loss or gain from this won’t be very much. Unless the negotiations in some sense upset China and China’s relationship with US gets worse. The US-China relationship is such a big thing that its after-effects can affect everybody, including India. But the direct fate of North Korea is not going to hurt India. We have always been friendly with them and continued trade. India had to make those noises about proliferation linkages and it is the correct thing to do.

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