North Korean “denuclearization” doesn’t mean what Trump thinks it means

"It means the removal of the threat posed by us, not them.”

North Korean officials have told their U.S. counterparts that Kim Jong Un is willing to discuss the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, according to a report Monday. However, experts warn the despot is not actually willing to relinquish his nuclear arsenal.

White House officials told Reuters Pyongyang has confirmed its attendance at next month's summit, a gesture North Korea has yet to make public.


State Department officials have been talking to North Korea officials through its United Nations mission, the report said, while intelligence officers from both sides are using backchannels to communicate.

Discussions remain at a preliminary stage, but one of the key issues is the nuclear situation in the region.

“The U.S. has confirmed that Kim Jong Un is willing to discuss the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula‎,” a U.S. official confirmed. Yet despite the apparent progress, negotiations over what “denuclearization” actually means are likely to be fraught.

For the White House, it means Kim giving up his nuclear weapons. Pyongyang sees it differently, according to multiple experts.

"It means the removal of the threat posed by us, not them,” Evans Revere, an Asia analyst at Albright Stonebridge Group, who was a high-ranking State Department official before retiring in 2007, told the Washington Post. “It’s been defined as this for us on many occasions. My conclusion is this is not new.”

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The term is a remnant from the 1990s, when North and South Korea signed a joint declaration on “the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” While the U.S. subsequently removed its nuclear weapons from the region, Pyongyang has worked to build a nuclear arsenal that could include as many as 60 missiles, including several capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.


“Rather than agreeing to disarm, Mr. Kim is saying he is willing to engage in a process, headed toward an ambiguous goal,” Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia nonproliferation program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey in California, said in a recent New York Times op-ed.

Kim is worried that he could end up like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi, both of whom gave up their nuclear weapons only to be forced from office and later killed.

As such, any discussion about disarmament rather than denuclearization is unlikely, and if it does happen it will only come in relation to a comprehensive settlement that will include terms that allow Kim and his family to rule in perpetuity.

And the confusion could cause problems. “Trump thinks he’s going to a summit to talk about taking away Kim’s nuclear weapons,” Vipin Narang, associate professor of political science at MIT, tweeted. “Kim thinks he’s going to a summit to talk about how quickly the US is going to get the hell off “his” peninsula. Definitely gonna go great.”

Cover image: This picture from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency taken on March 26, 2018 and released on March 28, 2018 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivering a speech at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (AFP/Getty Images)