Experts are doubtful whether the United States could “guarantee” that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would remain in power if North Korea denuclearizes as President Donald Trump promised during his meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Despite North Korea’s threat to cancel the summit with the U.S. scheduled for June 12, Trump met with Moon in Washington to prepare for talks with Kim. Speaking with reporters, Trump said that despite the anticipation surrounding the Singapore summit, “there’s a very substantial chance it won’t work out” for June 12.
At the same time, Trump attempted to reassure Kim that the North Korean leader would stay in power if North Korea denuclearizes, indicating the U.S. will not seek a regime change in Pyongyang.
“I will guarantee his safety, yes,” Trump said. “He will be safe. He will be happy.”
Ken Gause, director at the International Affairs Group at the Center for Naval Analyses, said providing a security guarantee for Kim’s regime would require more than Trump’s promise. The guarantee would need to be buttressed by a signed peace treaty with North Korea, giving the assurance that the U.S. would not attack or invade the country.
“Trump’s word is not enough,” Gause said. “I think [North Korea] will need a peace treaty, ratified by Congress, and a Chinese security guarantee in order to ensure the U.S. doesn’t do regime change in the future.”
For nearly seven decades, South Korea and North Korea have been technically at war after agreeing to a truce to end the hostilities of the Korean War in 1953. Seoul and Pyongyang never signed a formal peace treaty. The U.S., as one of the signatories of the armistice that stopped the fighting but did not end the war, would require ratifying a peace treaty along with North Korea and China, the other signatories of the armistice. Then the peace treaty would have to be formalized by the United Nations. South Korea never signed the armistice but adhered to it.
Robert Gallucci, chief U.S. negotiator during the 1994 North Korean nuclear crisis, also thinks providing security assurance would first require normalizing relations with North Korea through a peace treaty.
“So, the North Korean objective of normalizing the relations between North Korea and the U.S. manifest in a treaty of peace replacing the armistice makes most sense to me,” Gallucci said. “If the U.S. and North Korea have normal relations, then the U.S. will, I think, be more credible, respecting North Korea’s sovereignty and developing the relationship.”
Four no’s, security guarantee
According to Dennis Wilder, former National Security Council senior director for East Asian affairs during the George W. Bush administration, Trump’s guarantee of Kim’s safety “is very equivalent to what Mr. Tillerson said about Four No’s.’”
In August, while trying to urge North Korea to come to the negotiating table, former secretary of state Rex Tillerson laid out four actions that the U.S. would not take against North Korea. His remarks came after North Korea tested a second intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in defiance of a United Nations ban.
Tillerson ensured the North that the U.S. “will not seek a regime change, a collapse of the regime, an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, or an excuse to send [U.S.] military north of the 38th parallel.”
Wilder added that although the U.S. can promise not to attack or invade the country, it cannot protect Kim’s regime against any of the North’s own potential internal conflicts.
“Of course, we can’t guarantee the existence of his government completely,” said Wilder said. “I don’t believe (we are) saying that we will protect Kim against his own people.”
Gary Samore, former White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction in the Obama administration, agreed that the U.S. cannot promise any protection against internal threats that might come with economic reforms as North Koreans become more prosperous, or political reforms that might follow down the road.
“Political threat to Kim Jong Un is not just foreign threat. There are also potential domestic threats,” Samore said. “So, for example, if there are political uprisings or political instability in North Korea, the U.S. can’t guarantee any credibility that we would ensure the survival of Kim’s regime, and North Korea knows this.”
Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said the security guarantee that the U.S. provides to the North should be confined to its own action against the country. “Beyond security guarantees not to attack North Korea or support any efforts at regime change, there is little the U.S. can credibly offer to protect Kim from internal opposition or threats, nor should it,” Manning said.
Most of the issues involving any security guarantee that the U.S. can give Kim’s regime seem to be contingent on whether Pyongyang accepts “certain conditions” or terms of a denuclearization deal that Trump hinted have been offered to the North.
During his meeting with Moon, Trump said the U.S. is looking for “certain conditions” and that it “would be nice” to have an “all in one” denuclearization deal that could be achieved “over a very short period of time,” indicating the U.S. might not proceed with the summit if the North does not accept what the U.S. suggested. Kim favors a step-by-step denuclearization process that would proceed in phases.
Although the announcement of a potential delay casts a pall over the summit, experts are not altogether pessimistic.
Gause said the summit will be delayed until Washington’s “absolutist” demand for North Korea’s complete denuclearization is bridged with Pyongyang’s phased approach to denuclearization where both sides would be expected to make “upfront compromises.”
“Until we can find an option that works for both sides, the summit might have to be delayed,” Gause said.
Manning thinks “there will be a summit,” but emphasized that Trump should have dealt with “contradictions” in the expectations of Washington and Pyongyang before agreeing to meet with Kim.
The possible delay in the summit will create a politically “anxious” situation for Moon, who has been brokering the summit between Trump and Kim, because the planned Singapore summit will take place the day before South Korea’s provincial elections, according to Douglas Paal, vice president for the Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Although Moon’s party is “enjoying unprecedented support after the Olympics and the Inter-Korean summit,” Paal said, “President Moon must be very anxious after [Tuesday’s] meeting with Trump,” since “the careful ballot could come apart with rancorous relations over the Kim-Trump summit.”
In what appears to be a positive signal, Pyongyang changed its position at the last minute and allowed South Korean journalists to visit North Korea to observe the closing of its Punggye-ri nuclear test site where it conducted all of its nuclear tests.
Eight South Korean journalists arrived in North Korea Wednesday and will be joining press groups from the U.S., Britain, China and Russia to witness the dismantlement of the site, scheduled to take place through Friday.
Soyoung Ahn contributed to this report that originated with VOA’s Korean Service.