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N. Korean leader has road map to scrap nuke program: S. Korea's ex-unification minister

South Korea's former Minister of Unification and current chief researcher at the Sejong Institute, Lee Jong-seok, is pictured here on May 4, 2018. (Mainichi)

SEOUL -- How should North Korea work toward denuclearization and contribute to the stability of Northeast Asia as its leader, Kim Jong Un, prepares for a summit with U.S. President Donald Trump? The Mainichi Shimbun asked Lee Jong-seok, 59, who served as South Korea's Minister of Unification under the administration of President Roh Moo-hyun and is now chief researcher at the Sejong Institute, for his insight.

The following is a condensed version of Lee's remarks in his interview with the Mainichi:

I attended the dinner held after the North Korea-South Korea summit on April 27. Based on the comments and actions of North Korean leader and Workers' Party of Korea Chairman Kim Jong Un at the banquet, I came away with the impression that he had made substantial preparations for the summit, and had a road map for the abandonment of his country's nuclear program and thereafter.

Chairman Kim not only used honorific language toward South Korean President Moon Jae-in, but also toward South Korean staff accompanying President Moon, as he discussed practical matters. There was no need to use honorific language, but he did so, anyway. At the North-South summit in 2000, I saw then North Korean leader Kim Jong Il up close. Compared to Chairman Kim Jong Il, who projected an aura not unlike godly royalty at that summit, Chairman Kim Jong Un seemed to me more like an ordinary leader.

At the April 27 banquet, Chairman Kim repeatedly emphasized his resolve to carry out the North-South joint agreement. Hearing that, I got the sense that he was very determined.

Kim cannot afford to make any missteps in his summit with U.S. President Trump, because he has already declared domestically that the country would be shifting its focus from the simultaneous development of both its nuclear program and its economy -- stating that the policy had already succeeded -- to just the economy at a meeting of the Central Committee of the North Korean Workers' Party on April 20.

Even if North Korea and the U.S. reach an agreement at the bilateral summit, North Korea will face a dilemma if the agreement does not lead to economic growth. This is why North Korea has announced the closure of its nuclear testing facilities ahead of the summit, in an effort to speed up the process. Chairman Kim is likely aiming for a much bigger deal in the summit. North Korea has postponed many meetings in the past, but its behavior has been different this time around, which is one of the reasons that have me thinking that Chairman Kim has made the decision to scrap North Korea's nuclear program.

Some observers say that a denuclearized North Korea that accomplishes economic expansion will not be able to maintain its regime. However, China has achieved economic growth under its Communist Party regime. I am of the view that Chairman Kim used China as a benchmark in determining that it is possible to simultaneously open up its economy and maintain the North Korean regime.

The latest North-South summit has clear differences from past Inter-Korean summits. In past talks, even if tensions between North and South Korea were resolved, they did not lead to fundamental detente on the Korean Peninsula -- as tensions between North Korea and the U.S. still remained. This time, however, talks between North Korea and the U.S. will take place shortly after talks between the two Koreas, which will offer a chance to resolve the two tension-filled relationships in one fell swoop, and put an end to the Cold World order. The issue of North Korea's denuclearization must be viewed with caution, but I can see that the foundations for change have been laid down.

What North Korea is looking for in exchange for denuclearization is a new security framework. It hopes for a normalization of diplomatic relations between North Korea and the U.S., the signing of a peace treaty, the lifting of economic sanctions and the opportunity to become a prosperous country.

The issue now is what steps U.S. President Trump will take. If the North Korea-U.S. summit does not succeed, the relationship between North and South Korea will once again be destabilized.

(Japanese original by Akiko Horiyama, Seoul Bureau)

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