Q&A: Denuclearization in North Korea? Todd Sechser Isn’t Holding His Breath

The flags of South Korea and North Korea combined.

On Friday morning, Americans awoke to the news that North and South Korea have promised to officially end the Korean War and denuclearize the Korean Peninsula by the end of the year.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in announced the agreement after a highly-anticipated summit ahead of Kim’s promised meeting with President Donald Trump in May.

We asked Todd Sechser, an associate professor in the University of Virginia’s Department of Politics and the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, to break down the big announcement from the two countries, which have been locked in a tense armistice since fighting concluded in 1953.

Sechser, who is also a senior fellow at the Miller Center, specializes in international security and co-authored the 2017 book “Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy.”

Though the meeting and subsequent announcement were trumpeted in the press, Sechser remains skeptical of North Korea’s denuclearization promise.

Kim is known more for the brutality of his regime than for his diplomacy, and in the past North Korea has repeatedly refused to give up its nuclear weapons program despite intense international pressure. The country also has a poor human rights track record, including the imprisonment of UVA student Otto Warmbier, who died on June 19, 2017, shortly after he was released in a coma with multiple injuries.

Sechser explains how the country’s string of broken promises might factor into this latest announcement, and how Kim might be using that announcement to set the stage for his meeting with Trump. 

Q. What was your reaction when you first heard of this new agreement?

A. The history of the North-South relationship warrants some caution about this meeting. This isn’t the first time North and South Korean leaders have met with great fanfare. Summits in both 2000 and 2007 laid out ambitious goals for improving relations and reducing tensions that were not realized.

We don't know yet if North Korea’s promises to work toward denuclearization are sincere, or simply posturing in advance of the planned summit with President Trump. An optimist could read this as North Korea bending to the force of economic sanctions and U.S. coercive pressure, but a cynic would rightly point out that we’ve seen this movie before.

Q. Can you give some past examples?  

A. North Korea has a long track record of making promises that it does not keep. It agreed to a moratorium on missile testing in 1999. It agreed to another missile test moratorium in 2012, which generated a lot of optimism because it was so soon after Kim Jong Un took power. Most significant was the 1994 agreement freezing North Korea’s nuclear program. All of these agreements were eventually disavowed or broken. The United States and South Korea have not been blameless in the collapse of these deals, but the historical pattern is not encouraging.

Q. What are the implications of Friday’s announcement for the planned meeting with President Trump?

A. The agreement from this summit offers a glimpse of what that meeting might yield: more theater than substance. The agreement announced Friday contained soaring rhetoric and symbolic commitments to peace, but few details. In the same vein, the May summit could produce a broad declaration to denuclearize, but it is much less likely to contain specific verification measures.

Q. Does the announced agreement with South Korea give Kim any advantages or disadvantages in possible negotiations with Trump?

A. Kim has put himself in a strong position. He has created a wave of optimism that North Korea might denuclearize, but he hasn’t yet laid out his conditions. North Korea spent several decades and billions of scarce dollars developing its nuclear and missile capabilities. Kim is not going to give them up in exchange for a handshake and a smile. But because hopes are now so high, President Trump will face pressure to accept Kim’s terms. Kim will be able to blame the U.S. for the summit’s failure if he sets out terms that the United States is unwilling to accept, such as the removal of U.S. troops from South Korea.

Q. Are there any other factors you will keep an eye on after this agreement and ahead of the meeting with Trump? 

A. There is a risk that Kim’s theatrical declarations will give China a pretext to stop supporting sanctions against North Korea. Kim is deftly maneuvering to undermine the international coalition against North Korea and he is using these summits to rehabilitate North Korea’s public image.

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Caroline Newman

Senior Writer and Assistant Editor of Illimitable Office of University Communications