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North Korean Denuclearization: Whose Side is Time on?

By Mark Tokola

Who is in the biggest hurry to conclude current negotiations: the U.S., South Korea, or North Korea?  It is not easy to tell.  At the end of 2017, the Trump Administration conveyed a sense of urgency to put an end to North Korea’s growing nuclear threat, through negotiations if possible, but an end in any case, and sooner rather than later.  North Korea has kept up an impressive pace of summitry with Kim Jong-un meeting with Moon Jae-in, Xi Jinping, and Donald Trump all in the first half of 2018.  Perhaps Kim is impatient.  And, South Korea’s diplomatic efforts towards North Korea seem intended to maintain momentum with the apparent concern that if there is a lull in engagement, progress could stall.  If the bicycle doesn’t keep moving forward, it could fall over.

In any negotiation, there is a presumption that the side most eager to conclude the talks will have to make the most concessions.  Consumers know not to appear overly enthusiastic about closing a deal on a house or a car.  Walk away and wait for the price to come down.  In the aftermath of the June 12 Singapore Summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, U.S. and North Korean negotiators seem to be easing their foot off the gas, not because a settlement is less important than it was in 2017, but because there is a negotiating advantage in appearing to have all the time in the world.  South Korea is still urging rapid progress, which seems appropriate because they are under less pressure than North Korea or the United States to make major concessions; in the case of North Korea, to actually take steps towards denuclearization, or on the side of the United States, to accept that North Korea will retain some level of nuclear weaponry.

The United States has been unclear about its desired pace of negotiations or denuclearization.  President Trump said after his meeting with Kim Jong-un that we would soon see North Korea making positive steps but that a few more meetings might be necessary to conclude arrangements.  Administration officials have mentioned the end of Donald Trump’s current term as a time frame in which we might see North Korean denuclearization.  North Korean officials have undoubtedly also seen private American commentators give time frames of ten to fifteen years to complete the denuclearization process.

The main impression that President Trump conveys is that the deal is already made.  He has said that he has a contract and a handshake with Kim Jong-un to denuclearize — all that is left is for lower-level officials to fill in the details.  If this is the case, then minor setbacks in talks, evidence of North Korea continuing to produce missiles or to improve its nuclear facilities, or China backing off some of its sanctions enforcement are annoyances but secondary to the fact that essential deal has been struck.  As long as North Korea does not carry out another nuclear test, a long-range missile test, or a serious conventional provocation, this version of the state of play can remain credible with the American public.  Experts might cavil that the threat from North Korea has not diminished and could even be growing, but the absence of testing combined with occasional positive gestures or statements from North Korea can continue to look like a Trump Administration win for a long time to come.

Historically, it has been assumed that North Korea can afford to be patient in approaching the negotiating table and is prepared to drag out negotiations.  U.S. elections have put pressure on American leaders to succeed in talks whereas the Kims have been able to wait for the U.S. electoral clock to pressure American negotiators, or to wait them out and see if their successors will be more accommodating.  That may no longer be true.  Kim may need sanctions relief to promote his ambitions for North Korean economic growth.  He may be under pressure from China to reduce tensions on the peninsula.  And Kim may believe that he will never have a better opportunity to make an advantageous deal that he will with the unconventional Donald Trump and the progressive Moon Jae-in.

If the U.S. is seeming a little more patient and North Korea a little less patient than usual towards the pace of negotiations, what might push them towards speeding up?  If sanctions are putting the Kim regime under domestic pressure, Kim Jong-un may want a settlement to remove them – or at least to achieve a phased reduction of sanctions.  As unlikely as it seems, Kim may even be under some domestic political pressure to succeed in the talks, having created the public impression that he initiated them and is personally engaged in them.

The Trump Administration may feel a need to pick up the pace if there is clear and disturbing evidence that North Korea is continuing to develop weapons of mass destruction, or is caught in headline-grabbing instances of cyber-attacks or cyber-crime, or engages is some other form of blatant provocation.  The U.S. may also need to accelerate denuclearization negotiations if the inter-Korean talks make great strides and create an impression that they are outstripping the U.S.-North Korean talks, thereby creating a gap between the United States and South Korea.

Absent such outside developments, the U.S.-North Korean denuclearization talks may slow down simply because they are complicated, to be replaced in the headlines by other stories, not least of which will be mid-term elections in the United States.  The talks are drifting in the direction that North Korea prefers, one of mutual, step-by-step, unilateral gestures, e.g. U.S. suspension of joint military exercises and North Korean return of U.S. Korean War remains, rather than the stated U.S. preference of a simple two-step process: (1) complete denuclearization, to be followed by (2) normalization of relations and economic engagement.

This change in the nature of the negotiations is not necessarily a bad development if one assumes that the North Korean process is more likely to reach a good outcome for both sides than is the U.S. all-or-nothing approach.  That may or may not be true depending upon North Korea’s sincerity.  The imponderable is what will happen if Donald Trump or Kim Jong-un become frustrated with the process.  How would they show their frustration?

The answer to the question, “Time is on whose side?” is that it probably is on everyone’s side when it comes to negotiating denuclearization and a more general settlement on the Korean Peninsula.  If North Korea takes provocative steps, such as weapons testing, out of frustration with the slowness of the talks, or if the U.S. dramatically steps up pressure because it believes that North Korea is insincere in its offer to denuclearize, the diplomatic process could rupture.  That would lead us to a situation at least as bad as prevailed in 2017, and perhaps even more dangerous because the pressure campaign designed to lead North Korea into negotiations would appear to have failed.  Diplomacy should be given a chance to succeed.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from coolloud’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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