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Foreign Policy

Breaking the US-DPRK Nuclear Impasse

Aug 20 , 2018
  • Ma Shikun

    Senior Journalist, the People’s Daily

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Two months after the Trump-Kim summit, talks stalled and the initial warmth between the US and the DPRK is giving away to accusations and renewed rivalry, with the US questioning the sincerity of the DPRK’s alleged denuclearization and the latter lashing out at the US for backpedaling on promises.

On 5 August, US media cited a UN report suggesting that the DPRK has not suspended its nuclear and ballistic missile program, and continues to engage in illegal oil, coal, and other commodity trading. 

In the meantime, the Rodong News ran a report that criticized the US State Department for pursuing a policy aiming at bashing the DPRK and clinging to “bandit logic”.

The Trump-Kim meeting should not allowed to come to nothing and it is incumbent on both parties to salvage the situation. The US is evidently the stronger party and should heed the concerns of the DPRK in the following ways.

First, the US should refrain from being distracted by individual events and questioning the DPRK’s sincerity. Denuclearization is not a temporary policy adopted out of expediency, but a strategic decision made by the DPRK so that it can shift its focus from political and security programs to economic development and improving living standards. That decision is not an easy one to make, and the process could be fraught with setbacks, bargaining or even temporary backpedaling. A UN expert report  said the twists and turns do not mean the DPRK is inclined to abandon the denuclearization program. The DPRK may use them as leverage in negotiations, which must be encouraged, and skepticism of DPRK’s intentions will only serve to disrupt efforts to resume the talks.

Second, treat each other with respect. The talks will be a protracted process, patronizing or talking-down to your partner will not help, still less debasing or hostile remarks. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s arrogance and overbearing attitude in previous talks was unwise. On 5 August, Pompeo said that no one should have any illusion about the denuclearization of the DPRK, and what President Trump has been doing is meant to teach the country a lesson as to how to open its door to the outside world. These remarks are rude and undiplomatic, not worthy of the office Pompeo holds. As the main interlocutor, throwing a spanner into the works is the last thing he should do. Probably President Trump needs to educate his cabinet that one loose cannon is enough.

Three, the US should heed proposals and constructive ideas set forth by the DPRK. There are two things that make the DPRK uncomfortable. First, the US keeps shifting the goalpost, from a one year timeline to a new one proposed by Secretary Pompeo, which requests the DPRK to relinquish 60-70% of its nuclear warheads in 6-8 months, and transfer these warheads to the US or a third country for safekeeping. The catch is the US has no knowledge of the size of DPRK’s nuclear arsenal and a percentage objective is vague and subject to manipulation, as the US could conveniently claim that the DPRK has not turned over nuclear warheads as agreed, and use it as a pretext to impose more pressure.

To the chagrin of the DPRK, the US fails to address its grievances, nor listen to its legitimate concerns and proposals. For instance, the DPRK has repeatedly suggested a statement on terminating the truce state and announcing a peace agreement in its place. The DPRK believes that trust underpins efforts towards peace and a security guarantee. But the US State Department declined the proposal and insisted denuclearization should be installed before any peace agreement. An official from the State Department stressed that the US would strive whole-heartedly for a peace mechanism after the DPRK completes denuclearization. Now its focus is on denuclearization.  

Fourth, in the process of denuclearization, economic assistance should be rendered to the DPRK, including in the form of relaxing economic sanctions or in-kind donations. The DPRK has halted missile tests, dismantled nuclear facilities, and returned the remains of four US soldiers. The US has suspended joint military drills with the ROK. That said, the US could resume the drill at its pleasure while what the DPRK has done is practically irreversible. What frustrated the DPRK is that no matter how hard it tries, the Trump administration insisted denuclearization must precede any easing of sanctions, which resembles the “Libya model” the DPRK finds repulsive.

Negotiation is, in the end of the day, the art of compromise and trade-offs. Anything short of that is not a negotiation but dealing under duress or coercion. Any agreement reached under those circumstances, if at all, would only prove short-lived. This is a vitally important caveat for the US to bear in mind.

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