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[Editorial] No illusions

Seoul, Washington should brace for more NK brinkmanship

It is always an illusion to expect an easy deal with North Korea. The North’s apparent backpedaling on its denuclearization talks shows how arduous attaining the goal would be.

Many have already become used to the North’s brinkmanship and both South Korea and the US have taken the antagonistic North Korean statements calmly, making clear their intention to keep the talks going.

It was good none other than US President Donald Trump came forward to allay the North, whose abrupt about-face alerted both Seoul and Washington. That should raise the possibility of Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un going ahead with their historic summit next month.

Trump specifically addressed the North Korean accusations of the US push for a unilateral “Libyan-style” denuclearization and ongoing South Korea-US joint military drills. The Libyan model proposed by National Security Adviser John Bolton calls for a quick denuclearization highlighted by shipping of nuclear arsenals and materials to the US before providing any rewards.

Trump said that North Korea is different from Libya. “That model will take place if we don’t make a deal, most likely. But if we make a deal, I think Kim Jong-un is going to be very, very happy,” Trump told reporters.

Trump indicated that he was willing to provide a security guarantee not only for North Korea but also Kim’s rule of the communist country.

Trump said that the US “decimated” Libya, but that’s not what he has in mind for North Korea. “This would be with Kim Jong-un something where he’d be there, he’d be in his country, he’d be running his country, his country would be very rich,” Trump said.

Trump made the statements two days after North Korea blasted the Bolton’s proposal to push for complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement and relocation of the North Korean nuclear bombs and materials to the US as Washington did for denuclearizing Libya in 2004. What has become clear is that Trump wants to keep his summit with Kim alive even if he had to make some concessions.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said that the US was continuing to move forward with the preparations for the summit.

Bolton, the prime target of the North’s accusations that the US side was imposing a unilateral push over its denuclearization, also said that the “odds are still in favor” of holding the summit as the US tries to be “both optimistic and realistic at the same time.”

Trump’s accommodative response to the North Korean threat to derail the denuclearization talks would be good if the North’s shift to a hard-line stance is part of its efforts to strengthen its negotiating position ahead of the US-NK summit.

It would be a big problem, however, if the North tries to stick to the “phased, synchronized” denuclearization mentioned by Kim several times.

Some experts have already argued that despite the recent peace gestures, the North would never give in to denuclearization on US terms.

Robert Gallucci, the key US architect of the 1994 Agreed Framework is one such skeptic. He said in a forum that the use of “irreversible” regarding the North’s nuclear capability is misleading because it should convey the meaning of “permanence.”

Gallucci noted that one can never take away from North Korea its latent, recess capability to build nuclear weapons, specifically pointing to the fact that it’s impossible to get rid of the North’s nuclear scientists and engineers.

“My point here is that North Korea will always be a recessed nuclear weapons state,” he said, adding that the North will “never ever meet the standard of absolute certainty that they’ve given up everything.”

Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat who defected to the South in 2016, also said that the North’s ultimate goal is to become a nuclear weapons state.

“The final destination that the North is headed for is not to completely dismantle its nuclear weapons program but become a nuclear weapons state covered by the paper called denuclearization,” he said.

All these arguments and the latest North Korean warning combine to raise concerns that the North may shun full denuclearization and resort to a brinkmanship as it did over the past decades. The latest twist of events shows that many -- including Moon and Trump -- have been too naive and optimistic.