Experts named North Korea’s denuclearization as by far the key issue in the upcoming inter-Korean summit. All 26 experts surveyed named denuclearization as the main or one of the main issues (including multiple responses) determining the summit’s success or failure. Other issues cited included a declaration of the Korean War’s end and progress in economic cooperation and inter-Korean relations – but none drew anywhere near as much interest as denuclearization. The results show broad-based agreement that the North Korean nuclear issue remains the essential agenda item for the inter-Korean summit.

The experts varied somewhat in focus regarding the essence of the denuclearization issue. Ten of them tied denuclearization to the establishment of a peace regime, while eight of them named North Korea’s confirmation and expression of its commitment to denuclearization and another eight pointed to a concrete plan for implementing denuclearization.

All are issues related to denuclearization or appear to reflect consideration of the level of agreement that can be expected from the summit. Sejong Institute senior research fellow Paik Hak-soon named denuclearization of the peninsula and the establishment of a peace regime as the key issues, suggesting a goal of the agreement should be to “agree on cooperation by South and North Korea and other relevant countries and to begin concrete negotiations toward achieving this.”

Hong Min, director of the North Korea research office at the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), said the key issue would be whether North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization can be spelled out in writing at the summit.

“The key to resolving all issues will be hearing from Kim Jong-un’s lips the confirmation of a commitment above and beyond denuclearization being the ‘final wish of past generations,’” Hong said. “There will also need to be adjustments at the inter-Korean summit’s level to leave room for the glorious moment when a denuclearization deal is reached at the North Korea-US summit,” he added.

KINU senior research fellow Lim Kang-taek said the two sides would “need to reaffirm their implementation of the joint Korean Peninsula denuclearization statement of 1991 in terms of their working together toward denuclearization of the peninsula.”

The experts who named a denuclearization implementation plan as a key issue said that the question of a deadline would be essential.

“While a specific deadline may be announced at the North Korea-US summit, it would be rated as a great achievement if the two sides can reach an agreement at this summit along the lines of working actively to completely abolish nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles from the Korean Peninsula within the next two years,” said Jeong Seong-jang, head of the Sejong Institute’s unification strategy research office.

Concrete goals and process of denuclearization will be critical

University of North Korean Studies professor Lee Woo-young predicted the concrete goals and process of denuclearization would be an issue.

“There’s quite a bit of difference between South and North Korea in terms what they view as ‘denuclearization,’” Lee noted.

“Coordinating on that is going to be an issue,” he said.

In particular, Lee predicted one issue would be “which stage of North Korea’s denuclearization process will be recognized as ‘denuclearization.’”
“We need an approach where we assess and recognize North Korea’s denuclearization efforts at an abstract level to forestall a change in attitude from North Korea later on,” he suggested.

Asan Institute for Policy Studies senior research fellow Shin Beom-chul said, “While I’m expecting an agreement along the lines of South and North ‘working toward’ denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, we need to set our sights on concrete progress, including a declaration from North Korea that it plans to return to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).”

Some experts stressed the importance of striking a balance between North Korean denuclearization and its rewards for complying.

“The key issue is going to be what kind of rewards will be offered for denuclearization by South Korea, the US, and the international community as a whole,” said Yonsei University professor Park Myung-lim.

“In dealing with this issue, South Korea needs to stay on the same page with the US and manage things so that China doesn’t break ranks in terms of sanctions against the North,” Park said.

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