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North Korea Crisis

North Korea faces arduous road to US peace treaty

For starters, Kim would have to go the distance on denuclearization

North Korea's Kim Jong Un watches a missile launch in this photo released by the Korean Central News Agency last September, when nuclear saber rattling was the name of his game.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is about to get a taste of high-stakes diplomacy, with the landmark inter-Korean summit set for Friday. His regime is expected to push for a peace treaty with South Korea and the U.S. that would ensure its own survival. But experts say the reclusive state faces a major test of its own will.  

Kim has been saying what the world wants to hear. Last month, he told Chinese President Xi Jinping that his country is "committed to denuclearization on the peninsula." He said this can be achieved through dialogue and called for "progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace."

At the time, U.S. President Donald Trump sounded optimistic. "There is a good chance that Kim Jong Un will do what is right for his people and for humanity."

Yet there is widespread skepticism of the young dictator's intentions. The prevailing view is that it is up to North Korea to prove its sincerity, not the U.S. or its allies.

"Many people in Washington see it as unproductive to focus on the treaty early on," said James Schoff, a former Pentagon adviser on East Asia policy and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank. "The American view generally is that, for the time being, we should focus more on the near-term tangible challenges rather than on statements on peace or focusing on a treaty."

Pyongyang has not explicitly said what it wants in exchange for denuclearization, but it is believed to be seeking relief from economic sanctions and diplomatic normalization with the U.S., with a formal end to Korean War hostilities. Technically, the two Koreas have remained in a state of war since their 1953 cease-fire.

Kim's charm offensive began when he sent his sister to the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February. This was the first visit by a member of his family to the South since the war.

Plans were then made for summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in this Friday, Trump by early June, and possibly Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Trump and Abe, during their summit in Florida in mid-April, reaffirmed they will maintain "maximum pressure" until the North takes concrete steps to dismantle all weapons of mass destruction, missiles and related facilities in a "complete, verifiable and irreversible" way. But for the U.S., full denuclearization appears to be job No. 1.

"We need to prioritize and do this in a sequence," Schoff said. Though he acknowledged the need to deal with both weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles, he said, "I think we need to do first things first, which is the nuclear weapons program."

Others experts agree.

"I assume that denuclearization will be a critical component of any peace plan," said Frank Jannuzi, a former U.S. State Department official and president of the Mansfield Foundation, a group that funds work on U.S.-Asian policy. "Conventional force issues can be addressed later. Economic normalization can also be dealt with later, although I assume that if the nuclear issue is resolved, many of the U.N. sanctions can be lifted."

Jannuzi said it is hard to predict how long diplomatic normalization with the North might take, but added that "it all depends on political will" of both sides. Once decisions are made by both parties, he said the actual process can move relatively quickly, sometimes over a couple of years.

North Korea will try to get as much as possible by doing as little as possible

Narushige Michishita, professor at Japan's National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies

Mere months ago, the North was raising tensions on the peninsula to a fever pitch. It conducted its sixth and largest nuclear test in September, claiming success in developing a hydrogen bomb that could be mounted on an intercontinental ballistic missile. In November, the regime tested a long-range missile widely believed to be capable of reaching Washington and other U.S. cities.

If North Korea is serious about denuclearization, experts say it could start by returning to the six-party talks with the U.S., China, Russia, Japan and South Korea -- a process that began in 2003 but has been stalled since 2007.

For denuclearization to succeed, North Korea would also have to comply with various demands from the U.S. and the International Atomic Energy Agency. They would ask the North to submit a list of its nuclear facilities -- to be checked against their own intelligence -- and request access to any suspicious sites. The North would also have to grant them independent access to scientists involved in the nuclear program. 

No one knows whether North Korea is willing to go this far.

Besides the question of cooperation, dismantling a nuclear weapons program as large as North Korea's would be complex and time-consuming. Assessments, inspections, dismantlement, transfer of fissile materials and equipment, verification: These tasks may require the help of other nuclear powers, such as China and Russia, under the leadership of the IAEA. 

"This could be an unprecedented effort," Schoff said. "It could be a multilateral effort."

Some warn against taking Kim's commitments at face value. "North Korea may promise to dismantle its nuclear program by 2020, as requested by the U.S., but it might start dragging its feet, using all kinds of pretexts," said Narushige Michishita, a former official in Japan's Defense Ministry and a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.

Michishita said the North might accuse the U.S. of "maintaining a hostile attitude" through its alliance with the South, or argue that South Korean conservatives are "making anti-North Korean statements."

"North Korea will try to get as much as possible by doing as little as possible," Michishita said.

Experts see a peace treaty as a long-term destination -- something that should come at the end of the normalization process, after confidence-building measures, troop redeployment, economic cooperation and people-to-people exchanges. One touchstone might be the North's willingness to settle on a border with the South and agree on freer movement of people and goods.

A peace treaty is also likely to require acceptance of a U.S. military presence in the South, though there may be some force reductions, especially by the Army and the Marines.

Ideally, North Korea would follow the path of other communist countries like Vietnam, where the government restricts political freedom but accepts economic openness. But there is at least one crucial difference between Vietnam and North Korea.

The former is a unified country facing no rival claims to its sovereignty. The latter faces a competing claim from South Korea, as both states seek reunification of the Korean Peninsula.

"If North Korea opens up its border," Michishita said, "it could quickly become swallowed by the South. So it cannot do so even if it wants to."

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