(CNSNews.com) – Looking ahead to a planned summit between President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, a former U.S. nuclear negotiator cautioned this week against focusing on a broadly-defined “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
Instead, the aim should be to get Pyongyang to commit – as it did back in 2005 – to “abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs,” said Victor Cha, a Korea specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Georgetown University.
“That is a different phrasing from this very broad ‘denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,’” Cha said during a Council on Foreign Relations event on Monday.
“‘Denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,’ for any of us who’ve looked at this or negotiated this, means absolutely nothing, right?”
“Perhaps that’s too strong a phrase, but what it means in the broader context is, North Korea would be ready to give its nuclear weapons if ‘U.S. hostile policy’ ended,” Cha said. “U.S. hostile policy is defined as our alliances in Asia, our nuclear umbrella, our extended deterrence, and then our ground troops on the peninsula.”
The U.S. currently has around 30,000 troops in South Korea, a treaty ally. Ridding the peninsula of them has long been a goal of the regime in Pyongyang, as has been the departure of the larger number of U.S. troops stationed in Japan.
Cha served during the George W. Bush administration as deputy head of the U.S. delegation to the “six-party” talks. Multiple rounds of negotiations involving the U.S., China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and North Korea were held in Beijing between 2003 and 2008.
A high point in that ultimately unsuccessful process was a Sept. 2005 “joint statement” in which North Korea “committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs,” while the U.S. affirmed it had no nuclear weapons on the peninsula and no intention to use nuclear or conventional weapons “to attack or invade” North Korea.
“The phrase that I would seek clarification on” in upcoming summit talks, said Cha, “is whether North Korea would agree to what they agreed to in September of 2005.”
Trump reaffirmed on Monday that he and Kim planned to meet “sometime in May or early June.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to make a deal on the de-nuking of North Korea,” he told reporters ahead of a cabinet meeting. “They’ve said so; we’ve said so.”
The White House on March 8 first confirmed Trump would meet with Kim, after the president was briefed by South Korean national security advisor Chung Eui-yong on a trip he made to Pyongyang days earlier.
Chung had said after two days of talks that the North Korean regime “clearly affirmed its commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and said it would have no reason to possess nuclear weapons should the safety of its regime be guaranteed and military threats against North Korea removed.”
Asked during a press briefing Tuesday whether the U.S. and Kim’s definitions of denuclearization match up, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said she could not speak for Kim.
Asked again whether the two sides meant the same thing when talking about denuclearization, she said, “that is something that the president has determined.”
“And I can’t speak for the president, but I can say that when they say they are ready to denuclearize, and we will have conversations about that, we go into those meetings in good faith, hoping for the very best, and so we look forward to having those conversations.”
Will human rights feature?
Nauert also said that while denuclearization would be “the top conversation” at the summit talks, human rights concerns could also arise.
“Typically when we have the opportunity and talk with countries where we have tremendous differences, that [human rights] is something that does come up. I imagine that that would come up as well,” she said.
“However, denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, which is something that Kim Jong-un said that he is willing to abide by and willing to work toward – I think that is obviously the top conversation. Other things may come up as well.”
At the CFR event, both Cha and fellow participant, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, underlined the importance of including human rights in the discussions.
“I think it’s a hugely important part,” said Mullen. “I don’t think we can stand by and watch the kind of – the kind of actions that Kim Jong-un has taken, as his family has taken for decades, and not say anything and do anything.”
“We can never, ever let our guard down on that – the United States, in terms of who we represent, what we represent, and the values that we stand for,” he said. “And there should never be a doubt in his mind, in any interaction, that that’s where we are.”
Cha said he agreed.
“I mean, it would be very difficult to imagine the leader of the free world meeting with the worst human rights abuser in modern history and not raising the issue,” he said.
Cha said that would require both a willingness on the U.S. side to raise human rights and a willingness on the part of the North Koreans to discuss the issue.
“And I actually think that they may be more open to discussing it now, if the theory is true that the reason – part of the reason they’re coming to the table is because they’re feeling so much pressure, so much pressure from the global sanctions campaign against them.”
The Trump administration has made a point of highlighting human rights abuses in North Korea, including during the president’s State of the Union address (“no regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea”) and during Vice President Mike Pence’s participation in the opening of the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February.