Hopes are high for US-North Korea summit to flesh out details of denuclearization

  • Friday's summit between the leaders of North and South Korea concluded with a promise to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, but failed to provide any concrete details.
  • Those specifics are likely being saved for President Donald Trump's meeting with Kim Jong Un.
  • "The real negotiations were never going to be last Friday, it's going to be between the U.S. and North Korea," said Andrew Gilholm of Control Risks.

Friday's landmark summit between the heads of the two Koreas was widely seen as a positive step in the quest to achieve a nuclear-free North Korea, but it failed to provide concrete details on how to achieve that goal. Those tough particulars are likely being saved for the upcoming meeting between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un.

The third inter-Korean summit concluded with Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-In signing a joint declaration agreeing to work for the "complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." But no specifics were provided as to how or when.

The meeting was a diplomatic win, but it "was never going to go into details on decnulearization, which is what everybody wants," said Andrew Gilholm, principal and director of the analysis practice for greater China and North Asia at Control Risks.

Information on whether Pyongyang will unconditionally relinquish nuclear weapons and how that process can be verified may only be revealed at the Trump-Kim meeting, he continued: "The real negotiations were never going to be last Friday, it's going to be between the U.S. and North Korea."

Despite Kim's promises, "prospects for the North Korean leader giving up his nuclear weapons remain poor," analysts at consultancy Eurasia Group warned in a note over the weekend. "Grand statements in support of full denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula have been made before," they added, referring to the first two inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sign documents at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, April 27, 2018.
Korea Summit Press | Reuters
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sign documents at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, April 27, 2018.

"The joint declaration is simply a signed statement between two leaders and is not legally binding," they continued, adding that "there are no details on how North Korea would make progress to denuclearize, or over what time frame."

Kim, on Friday, also told Moon he will be inviting international experts to ensure transparency in his promise to close a nuclear test site. But the dictator's words must be taken with a pinch of salt, strategists have long warned.

For instance, Kim on Friday said he felt "embarrassed" about his country's poor transit infrastructure, which many interpreted as a potential indicator of joint development projects between the two Koreas.

However, "Kim Jong Il, during previous summits in 2000 and 2007, also made the same kind of self-effacing comments about North Korea's circumstances," said Christopher Green, a senior advisor at the International Crisis Group.

All eyes on Trump-Kim meeting

The historic face-to-face encounter, set to be the first between sitting U.S. and North Korean leaders, could occur over the next three to four weeks, Trump said. But discussions could be complicated by the fact that both parties hold varying interpretations of the concept of denuclearization.

South Korean and American officials must "discard this very ambiguous and obscure term of denuclearization," recommended Cheon Seong-Whun, visiting research fellow at The Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a Seoul-based think tank.

Instead, "they have to use, from now on, nuclear dismantlement for this upcoming summit," he added.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Kim's wife Ri Sol Ju and Moon's wife Kim Jung-sook attend a farewell ceremony at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, April 27, 2018.
Korea Summit Press Pool | Pool | Reuters
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Kim's wife Ri Sol Ju and Moon's wife Kim Jung-sook attend a farewell ceremony at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, April 27, 2018.

The stakes are high if talks don't specify how Pyongyang will limit its nuclear capabilities, with several experts warning that a failed summit could increase the risk of armed conflict.

If the Trump-Kim meeting does go ahead, "that means they basically have some kind of agreement in place" regardless of how vague such a deal may be, Gilholm told CNBC's Chery Kang. "Even for it to take place, I think there has to be some kind of positive outcome that is going to start the [denuclearization] process."

For now, a big question is what concessions Washington will make to address North Korea's security concerns, which include the American military presence in South Korea.

The other question is what North Korea will do with all its missiles, nuclear warheads and related materials, said Bong Young-Shik, research fellow at the Yonsei University Institute for North Korean Studies.