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North Korea: Time for a Different Approach?

By Mark Tokola

It seems unlikely that there will be any diplomatic breakthroughs with North Korea during the remainder of 2020 unless Kim Jong-un unexpectedly launches a major initiative involving tangible concessions.  Donald Trump has little to gain from another summit unless it achieved something dramatic and concrete.  Kim Jong-un would be wary of any new deal with the Trump Administration, not knowing whether it would be honored by a potential Biden Administration.  At the same time, the prospect of returning to a pre-2016 policy of isolation and ‘maximum pressure’ towards North Korea is enervating.  The current pause in diplomacy might be a good time to think through alternatives.  None of the previous approaches over past decades have worked, but not every approach has been tried.  Here are three different possibilities:

Change the Channel

The current negotiating framework of denuclearization in exchange for sanctions relief may be too narrow to succeed.  A fundamental problem with denuclearization is verification.  North Korea has always been reluctant to agree to meaningful verification, and the U.S. has been unwilling to lift sanctions until North Korean concessions appear more permanent and principled than they have been in the past.  There is also no reason to assume that a little denuclearization in exchange for a little sanctions relief necessarily would lead to next steps. It could just as easily lead to accusations of cheating and bad faith.

The denuclearization of North Korea should remain the primary objective for the United States and South Korea, but it might have to be a long-term or even multi-generational objective.  North Korea has long stated that its own eventual objective is denuclearization.  There is no reason for the United State or South Korea to state that North Korea has a right to nuclear arms in violation of the NPT.  It might be pragmatic, however, to admit that it might take a very long time for North Korea to give them up.  It would be best to continue to hold denuclearization out as a long-term, mutually agreed goal, even if it is not tightly defined.  We might even get there eventually but not if we give up on it.

In the meantime, it should be possible to change the channel and take up other worthwhile negotiations with North Korea.  Conventional arms controls could be stabilizing and mutually beneficial.  The main risk of war is not a nuclear exchange, it is the outbreak of a conventional conflict, perhaps endangering Seoul.  An imaginable negotiation might involve, for example, a withdrawal of North Korea artillery and short-range missiles to a further distance from Seoul in exchange for a reduction in air forces in South Korea.  (This was essentially one of the deals struck in arms control talks between NATO and the Warsaw Pact: a pulling back of Soviet tanks in exchange for a restriction on NATO helicopters.)  Conventional arms talks could focus on the systems considered most threatening to each side rather than a cap on the numbers of similar weapons.  The two militaries are too different to make that approach fruitful.

Another subject for negotiation might involve persuading North Korea to sign the international Chemical Weapons Convention.  That would not be a big ask.  North Korea is one of only four countries in the world not to have signed the CWC.  The others are Egypt, Israel, and South Sudan.  Apart from reducing the risk of use of chemical weapons, membership in the CWC entails submitting to a light verification regime.  Many countries that are allergic to verification systems have been prepared to sign the Convention.  It would be a modest step on North Korea’s part to acknowledge the principle of verification.  What could be offered in exchange?  Perhaps something specific such as improving North Korea’s peaceful chemical production.  Perhaps something more general by way of sanctions relief or recognition in other international bodies.

Invite Friends

Sooner or later, countries beyond South Korea, North Korea and the United States will have to be involved in talks regarding the future of the peninsula.  If there is a risk of ‘complicating’ the talks, it is not as if keeping it in tight bilateral channels has been all that productive.  And, without the tacit or open support of China, Japan, and perhaps Russia, for an eventual deal, it will be difficult to persuade North Korea that it has achieved a minimum level of security guarantees.

Chinese representatives have said that China is prepared to remain on the sidelines for bilateral talks between the United States and North Korea, and between North Korea and South Korea, but it will insist on having a presence at any trilateral negotiations among the United States, North Korea, and South Korea.  That doesn’t mean the three parties would be compelled to invite China, but it presents the possibility that China might try to sabotage any agreement reached among the three.  Given the growing friction between China and the United States, however, attempting four-party talks might be imprudent for the time being.  In any case, there is no reason to assume that North Korea would want China involved.  Reportedly, both North Korean and South Korean negotiators at the Six-Party Talks sometimes felt that China and the United States were talking over their heads.  There is little current enthusiasm for resurrecting the four or six-party talks formats, although the interests of the six (South Korea, North Korea, United States, China, Russia, and Japan) countries will need to be accommodated at some point.

There are, however, other parties who might be able to facilitate talks.  Inviting friends might take the edge off mutual suspicions and deep-rooted antagonisms between the United States and North Korea.  In the case of conventional arms talks, a neutral, expert, non-government organization such as the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) or the Netherlands’ Clingendael Institute might be able to provide a technical and objective element to the discussions.  For broader talks, the involvement of the United Nations Secretary General’s office might be appropriate for discussing sanctions relief and international assistance to North Korea.  As a potential financial contributor and guarantor of the outcome of negotiations, the European Union might be a constructive participant in talks.  Although some EU member states fought on the side of the UN Command during the Korean War, the EU itself, which includes former Eastern Bloc and neutral states, could be portrayed as an honest broker.

Go Public

A third novel approach towards diplomacy with North Korea might be for the United States and South Korea to make a specific offer to North Korea, and to make it publicly.  The offer should be plausible; relatively detailed; and should offer concrete, economic inducements to North Korea—not intangibles such as an “end of war declaration,” normalization of relations, or vague security guarantees.  North Korea primarily is concerned by the parlous state of its economy.  The U.S.-ROK offer should propose fast-acting relief.  That does not necessarily mean the easing of sanctions, which may be too slow and uncertain to have much short-term effect.  Worrying too much about whether the regime might divert funds to its nuclear or cyber capabilities would make almost any form of economic assistance impossible.  Economic assistance is almost by definition fungible.  It should be possible to craft an offer of assistance in a way that would involve some, but not too much, conditionality.

Apart from the possibility of success, there are advantages to the United States and South Korea making a joint, public offer to North Korea.  It would show the international community that the two countries are making an effort.  It would put Kim Jong-un on the spot to either accept or reject a proposal that would improve the lives of his people.  And, it would demonstrate that the United States and South Korea are on the same page at a time when that is being questioned.

There is no guarantee that a new approach towards North Korea would work, but if the worst outcome is that North Korea rejects a new approach, the onus would be on them.

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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