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'Trump Seeing Denuclearisation as a Process Is the Biggest Development'

Vishnu Prakash, former Indian ambassador to South Korea, discusses his views on the Trump-Kim 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 Vishnu Prakash, former Indian ambassador to South Korea (2012-2015), had to say.

You can read the rest of the interviews here.

What is the significance of the Trump-Kim summit?

I think this is a ground-breaking development. Developments like this happen few and far apart in human history. It was 50 years in the making. It was a summit that had been sought by the North Korean leaders because they always said that they need a face-to-face engagement or encounter with the US president to articulate their concerns or find a modus vivendi.

And it took a maverick US president to make that happen, and somebody like Kim Jong-un who was totally underestimated. He was written off as a babe in the woods when he took over in 2011. And here he has proved to be master-strategist. I think that this could be a game changer.

The devil lies in the details. As you must have seen in the joint statement, it is very vague, more aspirational. It just ticks the boxes and leaves the rest to future negotiations. But, at the same time, it is one of the most realistic outcomes that I have seen, because loading North Korea with demands is not going to work. That’s my take on it.

The joint statement says that DPRK is committed to move towards denuclearisation. How would you read that phrase from North Korea’s perspective?

It is not a new position, but the big difference between this and 1994 or 2005, is that today, North Korea is a de-facto nuclear power, which was not the case earlier. It is being led by a person who has been exposed to the Western world, unlike his father and grandfather who were more homespun. This young man has studied in Switzerland and he has first-hand experience of the outside world. And he also knows that with the WMD deterrent under his belt – Trump’s nuclear button may be bigger – but for deterrence, you don’t need to match weapon for weapon. You just need to have the capacity and to show the will and recklessness to push the button, which he has demonstrated.

Vishnu Prakash. Credit: Embassy of India

Vishnu Prakash. Credit: Embassy of India

I don’t see him denuclearising ever. He has seen the fate of Gaddafi. He has seen the fate of Saddam Hussein. He has seen the transactional nature of US.

A realistic outcome would be to completely freeze it, place a moratorium etc…have a verification mechanism etcetera and gradually build trust…switch to economic development as that’s what Kim wants to. In that regard, if you also see that the CVID bit has been dropped. The joint statement talks of complete denuclearisation.

Till about two weeks, President Trump was talking of CVID and one-shot deal. Now he has started talking about the process. The very fact that he changed his stance from one-shot deal to process was for me the biggest development.

According to you, how does North Korea technically define denuclearisation?

I don’t see North Korea agreeing to denuclearisation for the simple reason that denuclearisation is an impossibility. I will tell you why. South Korea gave up its nuclear weapons capability in 1976. But the Americans who keep vessels on their maritime assets offshore keep calling the East Sea as the Sea of Japan. They are based in Okinawa, Guam and on submarines. How can you say that the Korean Peninsula can be denuclearised? It can never happen. What is the guarantee that tomorrow an American president will not change his stand?

As I said, denuclearisation would mean for North Korea freezing its nuclear capability. They may not use it. They will never use it. If they did, it will be the end of North Korea. But, the ability to wield the stick, they are not going to give up.

How do you assess Trump’s announcement on freezing of war games?

That has been a long-standing demand of North Korea. I have for one been questioning the need for joint exercises for 15-20 years. It is counter-intuitive. On one hand, you say I want to have peace, and then on other hand, you have joint exercises which are seen as rehearsals for invasion. So why do they need joint exercises? Their answer is that it is aimed more at China and also aimed to rattle North Korea. It is about time… you cannot say that we are building an atmosphere of peace and security in Korean Peninsula and continue with annual joint exercises.

According to President Trump, North Korea agreed to destroy a missile engine facility. Doesn’t it seem that the US has conceded the most?

Very much so. They have more than met North Korea halfway. What has North Korea given up? North Koreans have basically promised good behaviour. North Korea has said that we will no longer be a destabilising force. For the simple reason that they have the deterrence, I think means business this time.

But the North Koreans have walked out of previous agreements in 1994 and 2005?

That is pure propaganda. The problem is that we don’t read anything besides Western media, and Western media paints North Korea as a tyrant, devil. There are reasons for how North Korea behaved. For the 1994 agreement, there were two sides. North Korea had to do something and the US had to do something. Neither side acted in good faith. And then, you happened to have a president like George Bush who promptly dubbed North Korea as part of axis of evil and teared up the agreed framework – and then entire blame is put on North Korea. It doesn’t work like that.

What are the likely pitfalls in the negotiation process?

Anything can happen. But I don’t see North Korea violating the agreement, doing a nuclear or missile test. The hawks in the US administration could up the ante, which people like Bolton did earlier. The redline for North Korea is that it will not give up its WMD arsenal which it sees as insurance for regime survival.

The difference between why Trump is pulling out of other agreements and may not pull out of this one is that those agreements were crafted by other people. This is his own baby and he is unlikely to kill his own baby. He wants to project a great foreign policy success that had eluded his successor. He will not allow others to sabotage it.

Even if the joint statement is vague, isn’t it better to at least better to result in more talks?

Very much so. It paves the way for cooperation. It validates the South Korean position of engagement and in one stroke, it changes the equation in the Korean Peninsula and East Asia.

India’s statement welcoming the agreement also reiterates the proliferation linkages. Does bringing up the AQ Khan Network again and again make any difference? Is it helpful?

Why not? For us, that is the biggest concern. We are far removed from the Korean theatre. So it does not have a direct bearing on us. The only direct bearing that it has for us is that in the 80s and 90s, there was the massive proliferation that took place clandestinely between the three countries, especially China and North Korea, which directly impinges on our security. We will be unfair to ourselves if we don’t raise it. In fact, India was the one which managed to give some actual evidence of what was going on. Now with this thaw, chance of any further clandestine cooperation will diminish dramatically.

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