The historic summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore this month (June 12) has drawn both skepticism and optimism from experts. A panel of senior American and South Korean diplomats with experience negotiating with North Korea weighed in at an event hosted by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs’ Korea Working Group on Tuesday (June 19).
John Park, director of the Korea Working Group and an adjunct lecturer at Harvard Kennedy School, moderated the panel, which opened with remarks from Kim Yonghyon, the South Korean consul general to Boston. Kim observed that, despite the mixed assessments of the summit, it could lead to “tremendous potential and opportunities down the road.”
Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs from 2013 to 2017, provided thoughts on possible goals and challenges for continued negotiations. Russel emphasized the importance of getting a full account and independent verification of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. He thought that further negotiations could broach cyber issues, chemical weapons, biological weapons, criminal activities, and human rights but cautioned that, “at the first instance, we have to find a way to get started.”
Christopher Hill has served as ambassador to South Korea and assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. Hill, who headed the 2005 U.S. delegation to the six-party talks to resolve the North Korean missile crisis, argued that North Korea’s actions should be seen in a regional context, where “nuclear weapons, including nuclear weapons aimed at the United States, are used to weaken and ultimately decouple our relationship with South Korea and to some extent Japan.” Hill observed that the joint statement that came out of the Singapore summit was a “shadow” of the one that resulted from the 2005 six-party talks and the 1994 agreed framework between the United States and North Korea.
South Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Lim Sung-nam reflected on both the Singapore summit and the historic April summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, which resulted in an agreement to end the Korean war and the Panmunjom declaration, committing to denuclearization on the peninsula. Like the American negotiators, Lim observed that the joint statement in Singapore lacked specifics, comparing it to “a backbone to which meat should be added.” At the same time, Lim urged that “new history can be made only by visionary optimism.”
Gary Samore, one of the senior negotiators with North Korea during the Clinton administration and currently the executive director for research at the Belfer Center, spoke about the South African model of denuclearization, which some U.S. officials have suggested Korea might follow. As Samore explained, South Africa voluntarily disarmed to demonstrate good global citizenship. Although the country gave up its nuclear weapons program, it retained the nuclear material. Samore described this model as a “bit of a double-edged sword” and questioned whether Kim was sincere about denuclearization. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s forthcoming negotiations with North Korea, Samore suggested, “will focus very much on the technical process of how you account for and dispose of nuclear weapons.”