‘Denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula’: Pyongyang’s trick language for keeping its nukes

Sometimes words matter greatly in foreign affairs. A
key instance of the crucial importance of seemingly innocuous semantic
distinctions is on display right now in the never-ending North Korean nuclear
crisis.

American policymakers sometimes say Washington’s
objective is “the denuclearization of North Korea.” Other times, they say the
US goal is “the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” The Biden team has
used both phrases to describe the US position. It has probably used the former
term more often, but it uses the latter all the time.

Thus, as president, Biden himself has already spoken of “the necessity of complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” So too Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who last month “underscored the need for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” Last week, on the eve of Blinken’s first outing to Asia, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Sung Kim reaffirmed the US “commitment to seeking a compete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” And in Seoul this week, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who accompanied Blinken to Tokyo and Seoul, declared that the US remains “committed to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong gestures next to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken before the Foreign and Defense Ministerial meeting between South Korea and U.S. at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul, South Korea, March 18, 2021. Lee Jin-man/Pool via REUTERS

Mere wordplay? Hardly. The first formulation — “denuclearization
of North Korea” — succinctly describes the solution to an international threat.
The second — “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” — is North Korea’s own
alternative verbiage. Why does North Korea only use the latter phrasing?
Because of its intention to use that diplomatic terminology to help prevent
denuclearization of the DPRK — ever.

The perplexed reader may ask: What is the big deal
here? What is wrong about signing on to denuclearization of the “Korean
peninsula”? After all, the US completely withdrew its tactical nukes from South
Korea three decades ago, under Bush, Sr. The only nuclear weapons remaining in the
Korean peninsula are in the North. Now it is Pyongyang’s turn, and that is how
we get complete denuclearization of the “Korean peninsula” — right?

Not so fast, the Kim regime replies. So long as South
Korea is a treaty ally of the United States — the world’s most powerful nuclear
weapons state — it is splitting hairs to claim that the South is currently
“denuclearized.” With the US committed to the ROK’s defense, the North argues, nuclear
weapons at Seoul’s disposal could come from anywhere in the world, given
America’s global deployments.

Pyongyang further insists the South will not be genuinely
denuclearized until all US troops in the South — the so-called “tripwire” for
potential US escalation in a North-South confrontation — are removed from
Korean soil, forever. Thus, in Pyongyang’s posture, full denuclearization of the South will require an end to the
US-ROK security alliance so that Seoul truly has no nuclear options whatever
for defending itself.

And there is more. Since the onset of the North Korean
nuclear crisis in the early 1990s, three generations of Kims have maintained
that their state would not be denuclearized unilaterally.
The implication from the beginning was that the North Korean regime regarded
“denuclearization” not as a question of nonproliferation
but as a matter of arms control. In
other words: North Korea would be willing to discuss reduction of its nuclear arsenal — but only in the context of arms
reduction by other nuclear weapons states.

Pyongyang’s equating of “denuclearization” with arms
control negotiations is no longer simply implied. Quite the contrary: The North
has been spelling this out for nearly a decade in their talking points to
Americans and others at “track 1.5 meetings,” where North Korean diplomats meet
with academics and non-governmental experts from other countries.

I have taken part in such meetings, where I listened to DPRK “America handlers” explain that our nuclear dispute can only be resolved through arms negotiations. Kim Jong Un’s former Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho — presumably an authoritative source — delivered the same patter to other Americans, reportedly proposing the North and the US talk “as one nuclear power to another.” Kim Jong Un himself has not called for arms control talks with Washington — yet. This past January, however, he proclaimed North Korea “a responsible weapons state” that “never precludes diplomacy.” A North Korea watcher need not be very clever to see where that line of thinking takes you.

Lest it go unsaid: North Korea’s vision of
“denuclearization” involves no denuclearization of North Korea at all. DPRK
leadership enthusiastically calls for “denuclearization of the Korean
peninsula” because it regards this framing as a negotiating stratagem in its
campaign to secure a permanently armed North Korean nuclear state. So long as
acquiescing in this North Korean language is the only way to lure Pyongyang to
the negotiating table, the Kim family can in practice define the terms of
“denuclearization,” veto any deviations from its own preferred addenda, and otherwise
guarantee that any and all bilateral and multilateral parlays on
“denuclearization” will be no-give/all-take for the DPRK. As it has indeed done
in “denuclearization” talks for almost thirty years.   

Since the end of the Cold War, administration after administration in Washington has unfathomably signed on to the Kim family’s own language for preventing nuclear disarmament of their state. “Denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” features in Clinton’s 1994 “Agreed Framework” (along with a “nuclear-free Korean peninsula”). It is affirmed as a goal in Dubya’s 2005 “Joint Statement” from the Six Party Talks. President Obama repeatedly endorsed that same goal; likewise his two secretaries of state. Perhaps most maddeningly, it is codified in the text of the top-level 2018 Singapore Summit, in which President Trump “committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK, and Chairman Kim Jong-un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Of course, it is not difficult to understand why some international actors are willing to play along with North Korean code language. Moscow and Beijing are delighted by the mischief it inevitably invites. The current leftist Blue House, as part of its dangerous double-game of balancing the neighbor that wants to destroy it against the ally committed to protecting it, pretends there is simply nothing to see here. At his joint press conference yesterday with Secretary Blinken, for example, ROK Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong — a North Korea expert, frequent flier to Pyongyang, and repeat interlocutor with Kim Jong Un — acted as if he had no idea this North Korean formulation even existed. But he and the rest of his government carefully mouth the North’s favored phrasing nonetheless.

There is no good reason for the American government to
adopt North Korean boilerplate. “Denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” is a
formula for inaction against an ever-growing North Korean nuclear threat. The
fact that previous presidents have carelessly or cluelessly tied themselves to
it is no excuse for repeating this folly.

North Korea is now Biden’s problem. Unless he and his team choose to speak clearly and unambiguously about the problem itself, they are unlikely to marshal the international coalition they desire to reduce the North’s nuclear threat decisively.