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International Relations

Sanctions maximize chances of success at Trump-Kim summit

US must coordinate closely with Japan and key partners before historic meeting

Friendship Bridge connecting China and North Korea. Sanctions must stay.   © Reuters

The proposed summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un lacks nothing in political and historic importance. If realized,  this would be the first ever meeting between a North Korean leader and a sitting U.S. president.

Yet there is still a long road ahead and the international community must maintain a united front and keep up sanctions pressure until it can be sure that North Korea is absolutely committed to denuclearizing.

The recent diplomatic turnaround began when Kim Jong Un's sister delivered a letter during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics to South Korean President Moon Jae-in inviting him for an inter-Korean summit at the earliest possible date. South Korea subsequently dispatched a delegation to North Korea, led by national security chief Chung Eui-yong, to lay the groundwork.

After this meeting, the first ever between officials from South Korea and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Chung reported a breakthrough. North Korea expressed its willingness to denuclearize if the security of its regime is guaranteed, the first such indication under Kim Jong Un who took over leadership of the country from his father in 2011.

North Korea's shift shows that sanctions are beginning to bear fruit. China and Russia have started to seriously participate in the implementation of sanctions. The U.N. Security Council passed four resolutions since June 2017 progressively tightening sanctions against North Korea, including limits on North Korean oil imports.

Now the international community seems to be back to where it was when the six party talks realized the September 2005 joint statement. Under this agreement North Korea was to denuclearize in a verifiable way in exchange for measures it intended would guarantee its survival. This would involve the conversion of the 1953 Korean War armistice agreement into a permanent peace treaty, the normalization of North Korea's diplomatic relations with the U.S. and Japan, and the provision of economic and energy cooperation.

In order to capitalize on a possible first ever U.S.-North Korea summit, and avoid repeating past mistakes, careful preparation will be required while keeping the following five key points in mind.

First, when the 2005 agreement was reached, North Korea had not yet made significant progress in its nuclear weapons development. Since October 2006, North Korea has conducted a total of six nuclear tests. This means the international community is now in the position of convincing North Korea to abandon a nuclear weapons program at an advanced stage rather than a program which was largely potential.

Second, as evinced during my own experience negotiating with North Korea which facilitated two summits between former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and then North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, the country's unique political structure means any significant policy change must to be approved and demonstrated by the country's top leader himself. Only Kim Jong Un has the power to take the country in a new direction. This is why summit talks at the top leader level are so important if substantive progress with North Korea is to be achieved.

Third, while the joint statement issued at the six-party talks of September 2005 agreed that North Korea would denuclearize in a verifiable way, there was never any agreement on methods. A highly detailed roadmap is needed to ensure the integrity of a future denuclearization verification process.

Fourth, the understaffing of the U.S. Department of State, especially in key roles related to the Korean Peninsula, means the Trump administration is already diplomatically on the back foot. The U.S. chief North Korea envoy Joseph Yun resigned last month, the widely expected appointment of Victor Cha as ambassador to Seoul fell through. Meanwhile, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Susan Thornton continues to fill her role in an acting capacity. Key jobs in the State Department will need to be filled with staff who have a deep understanding of the issues. This should include expertise on the history of North Korea's nuclear development, the past efforts of the international community to denuclearize the country, and North Korean society and its national mindset which emphasizes a sense of threat from all sides. U.S. allies, especially South Korea and Japan, can also contribute by giving forthright advice to the Trump administration. Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe's planned trip to Washington in April provides a good opportunity.

Finally, as the history of the international community's attempts to denuclearize North Korea demonstrates, there is a risk that North Korea will find an excuse to move back to developing nuclear weapons even if an agreement is reached. Until we can be 100% sure about denuclearization, a multi-level approach must be maintained -- pressure, coordination, contingency planning and communication channels.

Pressure through sanctions must be continued to show North Korea that it will not be permitted to survive with its nuclear weapons. Coordination and intensive consultations between the U.S., China, South Korea and Japan are critical to maintaining a united front and ensure North Korea does not prematurely win relief from the pain of sanctions.

Coordination should also extend to contingency planning in order to prepare for a worst-case scenario on the Korean Peninsula in case of a collapse, including securing nuclear weapons and dealing with refugee flows. A communication channel with North Korea, including with Kim Jong Un's inner circle, is vital to ensure there are no misunderstandings which could lead to accidental conflict or give North Korea excuses to renege on a future agreement.

A Trump-Kim summit provides a rare opportunity to communicate to Kim Jong Un in no uncertain terms that if North Korea continues down its nuclear path, sanctions will be maintained and it will not be allowed to survive, but if it engages in credible negotiations and denuclearizes, it will be welcomed into the international community.

Hitoshi Tanaka, former deputy minister for foreign affairs and a key adviser to then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, is chairman of the Institute for International Strategy at Japan Research Institute.


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