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North Korea Crisis

How North Korea and the US define denuclearization

Kim Jong Un has yet to put his country's nuclear program on the table

People in Tokyo walk past a street monitor showing a news report of North Korea's big announcement on April 21.   © Reuters

SEOUL/WASHINGTON -- North Korea's Kim Jong Un on Saturday seized the initiative ahead of his summit with U.S. President Donald Trump.

Kim created a hubbub by announcing his country no longer needs to test nuclear weapons or long-range missiles, that it would decommission a nuclear test site and take other steps. But he did not give up his nuclear ambitions, and the U.S. government plans to continue pressuring Pyongyang.

Before the first-ever North Korea-U.S. summit, Kim will sit down with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on April 27. Kim's date with Trump is set for early June. The big question heading into these meetings is whether North Korea intends to bow to the U.S. and give up its nuclear program.

As far as that goes, the U.S. and North Korea do not appear to be on the same page. While the U.S. is talking about North Korea denuclearizing, North Korea has made statements in the past about the Korean Peninsula becoming a nuclear-free zone.

North Korea insists that the U.S. still has nuclear weapons in South Korea. In 2016, a statement by a North Korean government spokesman said the U.S. needs to pull its nuclear weapons from South Korea if North Korea is to accept denuclearization.

South Korea, like Japan, falls under the U.S.'s so-called nuclear umbrella, through which the U.S. provides its allies with deterrence via warheads carried either by bombers based elsewhere or by submarines.

Nonetheless, North Korea's 2016 demand presents big hurdles for the U.S., ones of disclosure and verification. Just where are these warheads based and how many are there? Is the U.S. prepared to become as transparent on this issue as it is demanding North Korea be?

The U.S. and North Korea have another difference over denuclearization. Should North Korea actually capitulate to such a demand, what would come first? The U.S. says international sanctions that are crippling North Korea's economy are to be lifted only after it can confirm that North Korea has completely and irreversibly given up its nuclear weapons program and that this can be verified.

This is the medicine that the U.S. prescribed to Libya in 2003 and 2004, hence the name: Libya-style denuclearization.

Of course, North Korea's Kim dynasty paid attention to how the Libyan government collapsed afterward, and the current leader will strongly resist a similar prescription.

There is another model -- Ukraine. Between 1994 and 1996, Ukraine agreed to deliver the nuclear weapons left there by the former Soviet Union to Russia. In exchange, it would receive security memorandums from the U.S., Russia and other countries.

Like Libya, though, Ukraine has also suffered. After several military incursions in 2014, Russia annexed part of the country.

If Kim does agree to abandon his nuclear program, he will insist on assurances that his family's dynasty not be encroached upon.

The hubbub on Saturday capped an eventful week. On Thursday, South Korean President Moon told executives of South Korean news organizations that North Korea has expressed its intention to completely denuclearize. He also said he does not believe North Korea and the U.S. have different ideas of what this means.

The veracity of the information Moon was passing on cannot be verified, however.

The U.S. plans to continue demanding complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea by 2020. U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis on Friday confirmed this when he met with Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera. The two also agreed to maintain "maximum pressure" on North Korea and to demand that it also abolish its short- and medium-range missiles.

But it is North Korea that has owned recent news cycles. Also on Friday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Kim Jong Un earlier this month promised Mike Pompeo, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, that three Americans imprisoned in North Korea would be freed during the Kim-Trump summit.

Bit by bit, North Korea is taking tangible steps toward better relations with the U.S.

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