Will Korea denuclearise?

Carol Turner looks at what’s at stake

After the breakdown of talks this February, the prospect of resumed US-DPRK nuclear dialogue has surfaced again. Both President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have suggested a third summit could take place before the end of 2019.

By the time of the second round of denuclearisation discussions in Hanoi, North Korea had already taken some first steps. But talks broke up with Trump insisting on complete denuclearisation before any US sanctions would be lifted.

Both Trump and Kim have recently indicated willingness to talk again, however. Speaking on the eve of his meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Trump said he was open to a third summit, telling the media “various smaller deals” were possible.

Kim has also said he would participate in another round of talks before the end of this year if Trump is open to changing his stance on sanctions. In a speech to the DPRK People’s Assembly, Kim said the US was mistaken to believe “maximum pressure” would “subdue” North Korea.

Denuclearisation talks resumed in 2018, after President Moon’s initiative at the 2018 Winter Olympics. That April Kim announced he was suspending ballistic missile testing with immediate effect and dismantling an underground test site, later confirmed by US sources to have taken place.

North Korean nukes are not the only military threat in the region though. South Korea is host to the third-largest number of US troops overseas, with 35,000 US military personnel stationed across 83 sites. US-led military exercises take place annually, amongst the biggest in the world. In 2017 an American anti-missile system based in South Korea became operational, Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD).

North Korea’s goodwill gesture notwithstanding, US military drills on and around the Peninsula took place in autumn 2018 which Kim branded a provocation. Be it by mistake or design, nuclear confrontation remains a real possibility.

The elephant in the US-DPRK summit room is the different interpretations of what denuclearisation actually means. For Trump, this is getting rid of North Korean nuclear capacity; for Kim – and many others in the region – it means denuclearisation of the entire Peninsula, including the removal of US nuclear paraphernalia, which would be best assured by establishing a nuclear weapons free zone.

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