President Donald Trump’s much-hyped summit last month with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi may have ended without any concrete agreements, but it still represents progress on the painstaking path toward denuclearization, U.S. and South Korean diplomats said in Atlanta this week.
“Both sides now understand better each other’s position; also both sides want to keep the door open for continued dialogue,” Korean ambassador to the U.S. Cho Yoon-je said during a forum hosted by the World Affairs Council of Atlanta Monday.
Mr. Cho joined U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris this week on an annual roadshow sponsored by the Korea Economic Institute, which is meant to underscore the economic and strategic importance of the alliance here in the U.S.
On North Korea, the elephant in the room, they pointed to two unprecedented Trump-Kim meetings and three inter-Korean summits between President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and Mr. Kim in the last 16 months. Since the talks began, they pointed out, the North has ceased nuclear tests.
What they didn’t mention was that North Korea’s vice foreign minister last week threatened to pull out of the talks altogether, or that the United Nations issued a report in February outlining widespread sanctions violations by North Korea.
Still, the Korean ambassador claimed there is “no daylight” between the U.S. and South Korea on their end goals: ridding the North of its nuclear weapons.
But even the moderator, former U.S. envoy to South Korea and current KEI President Kathleen Stephens, pointed out that the definition of the agreed-upon goal of “denuclearization” can be taken different ways. North Korea, she suggested, could use this vague terminology as justification to call for the removal of the so-called “nuclear umbrella” by which the U.S. offers its protection to the South.
Mr. Cho said the long-held South Korean position goes back to goals outlined in 1992 and the ensuing six-party talks, that the North would first freeze its program, then halt production, dismantle its existing nukes and commit to a nuclear-free peninsula.
Asked why a second summit with Kim Jong Un was needed if the U.S. was so clear in its demands at the first, Mr. Harris suggested that it wasn’t that the American position had changed; it just needed to be reiterated.
“At the Singapore summit, the United States’ position was s crystal clear with regard to what denuclearization meant. If there is a misunderstanding of what it meant in Kim Jong Un’s mind, you’ll have to ask him why he didn’t understand,” said Mr. Harris, a retired four-star admiral who formerly commanded the U.S. Pacific fleet and then headed up U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii for three years. “But I believe that as an outcome of the Hanoi summit, he now clearly understands what we mean by denuclearization, so the ball is in his court on how he reacts.”
North Korea, Mr. Harris said, will have to give up its nuclear program and all its weapons of mass destruction in order to receive relief from sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council. Meanwhile, the U.S. can still work on other understandings reached at the Singapore summit: repatriating remains of U.S. military personnel lost in the Korean War, fostering a new peace regime on the peninsula and transforming bilateral relations.
In the meantime, the U.S. will maintain its military readiness, said Mr. Harris.
“To create space for diplomacy, if you will, we made the decision to downscope some of the major joint military exercises, but at the end of the day, we’re going to maintain that level of readiness in order to ensure that we meet our treaty obligations with the republic,” he said.
Both ambassadors agreed that the U.S. military presence in Korea should not be part of negotiations on denuclearization.
“There are global and regional security issues that are best met by the forward presence of U.S. military forces in the region, in Japan and in Korea, so that’s a separate issue,” Mr. Harris said.
Mr. Cho added: “We believe the U.S. strong presence in the Korean peninsula is crucial for peace and stability in Northeast Asia region as a balancing power.”
They also agreed that an “end-of-war declaration” could be a way to move the peace process forward for a conflict that ended in an armistice 70 years ago rather than a formal peace treaty. Such a treaty should only come after denuclearization, they said.
The envoys shrugged off the idea that trade tensions over the past year have threatened to drive a wedge between the allies as they tried to write a new chapter in the drama over North Korea.
Mr. Harris pointed to successful renegotiation of the KORUS free-trade agreement and the reduction of the trade deficit with South Korea. He also downplayed the U.S. departure from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which does not include Korea.
Mr. Cho noted that South Korea reopened the trade agreement in order to “accommodate” the demands of its ally, which included concessions on U.S. cars entering the Korean market. “We were happy with the original agreement,” he said.
He added that while Korea reached a quota agreement to deal with Mr. Trump’s steel tariffs, one major potential irritant to the relationship has yet to be resolved: The possibility of up to 25 percent tariffs on car and auto parts imports that Mr. Trump has threatened to impose on the basis of national security. In a region of the country home to two Korean car factories, that issue hits home.
“We hope that Korea will be treated differently and separately,” Mr. Cho said.
The two ambassadors had visited the Kia Motors plant in West Point earlier in the day and were scheduled to participate in the groundbreaking of SK Innovation’s $1.7 billion electric vehicle battery plant in Jackson County Tuesday. U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was on hand for the latter event.