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Foreign Policy

Finding a Solution or Freezing the Status Quo?

Feb 15, 2019
  • Zhang Tuosheng

    Academic Committee Member, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

The situation on the Korean Peninsula has obviously relaxed since 2018. Various parties have resumed dialogue and the dawn of denuclearization and peace seems to have come. However, the stalemate in the US-DPRK dialogue in the second half of the year has cast a shadow. Will the upcoming second US-DPRK summit break the stalemate and achieve a breakthrough? If the dialogue lands into difficulties again, should freezing the status quo be a policy option?

First, the current situation on the Peninsula presents both challenges and opportunities. The first US-DPRK summit in June 2018 produced positive results. The four agreements greatly contributed to relaxation on the Peninsula. But complex changes have taken place since then. On the one hand, the US-DPRK dialogue stagnated due to the huge differences between the two with regard to the schedule and roadmap of denuclearization. On the other hand, South-North reconciliation and exchanges have continued and developed rapidly. Their third summit produced major progress in reducing military risks and developing future economic cooperation. Besides, the DPRK’s relations with China and Russia have also improved and developed.

However, if the US-DPRK stalemate remains and the denuclearization process stagnates, it will be extremely difficult for South-North and China-DPRK relations to move further forward.

It is encouraging that there have been new developments since the beginning of 2019. Kim Jong-un’s New Year message and his fourth visit to China both sent signals for strategic transition and full denuclearization of the Peninsula. The US and DPRK have resumed interactions. Through meetings in Washington DC and Sweden and by exchanging letters between heads of state, the two sides have decided to have the second summit in Vietnam at the end of February.

A series of summits will be held among China, US, the ROK, the DPRK, and Russia. A new round of diplomatic interactions will unfold.

Optimism has increased and more people now seem to believe that the US-DPRK summit will help break the current stalemate.

There are some positive factors:

A. The top leaders of the two countries trust each other and hope to see a successful summit. Kim urgently needs relaxation of international sanctions to aid the DPRK’s strategic transition while Trump, facing great difficulties at home, hopes to consolidate his position with diplomatic achievements.

B. Rapid development of North Korea-South Korea and China-DPRK ties gives the US a sense of urgency in taking action instead of losing its dominance in Peninsular affairs.

C. Progress in China-US trade negotiations enables the two to develop cooperation instead of engaging in confrontation on the Peninsula.

D. The international community has a shared hope that the US and the DPRK will seize the rare historical opportunity to advance the denuclearization process.

Second, the second US-DPRK summit may well produce new progress. Some agreement may be reached on the roadmap for denuclearization and peace at the summit, thus breaking the half-year-plus stalemate. The first US-DPRK summit only reached an agreement on establishing a new type of relations in principle, creating lasting peace on the Peninsula, and working towards denuclearization. But there was neither a timetable nor a roadmap for the three objectives. Then the follow-up negotiation went into stalemate very soon due to opposing positions on the last two issues. For the second summit to be successful, breakthroughs must be made. Trump made it clear last July that the US does not have a deadline for the DPRK to abandon its nuclear program and is not anxious for quick results. Kim in September expressed willingness to speed up denuclearization and the end of hostilities with the US before the end of Trump’s term. These have helped reduce US-DPRK differences on the timetable. So long as the two sides reach certain common understandings on a roadmap, they will surely break the stalemate and realize a breakthrough. To this end, the US and the DPRK must first agree on ‘phased and parallel’ implementation and on that basis produce a roadmap for it. Features of that roadmap may include the following:


• Welcomes international verification of its destroyed or dismantled nuclear and missile test sites;

• Freezes the Yongbyon nuclear facility and allows necessary verification;

• Partially declares its nuclear facilities or nuclear program;

• Undertakes to first destroy its ICBMs;

The US

• Undertakes to further reduce the number and scale of joint military exercises;

• Undertakes to resume and strengthen humanitarian assistance to the DPRK;

• Agrees to issue an end-of-war declaration jointly with the DPRK and other relevant parties;

• Undertakes to gradually lift sanctions over the DPRK and agrees to the ROK removing some unilateral sanctions; and

The two sides make preparations for the creation of liaison offices and launch some cultural exchange projects.

Such a step at the US-DPRK summit will help break the stalemate of the past half year. It will not only enhance mutual trust but also increase the confidence of all relevant parties.

The success of the US-DPRK summit will have a positive influence on future bilateral summits. In the long run, these bilateral dialogues will lay down an important foundation for restarting multilateral dialogue on the DPRK nuclear issue, and the Six Party Talk in particular.

Third, there is still a possibility for continued stagnation. 

Although there are reasons for optimism, due to the extreme shortage of mutual trust, it is still possible for the US-DPRK dialogue to end in a stalemate again with the following scenarios:

• The DPRK refuses to make a nuclear declaration in any form or does not accept verification of its declaration;

• The US Congress refuses to approve any agreement involving gradually lifting sanctions over the DPRK and insists on DPRK first comprehensively abandoning its nuclear program or making a comprehensive declaration;

• Serious obstacles or difficulties in detailing and implementing any agreement reached at the summit;

• A major emergency between the DPRK and the US or South Korea;

• Trump’s leadership is seriously undermined domestically and results in a top-down approach no longer being viable.

Fourth, freezing the status quo must not be a policy option. If the new round of US-DPRK dialogue is stalemated again, the most likely prospect will be another long stagnation plus fixation of the Peninsular status quo. Then the DPRK may continue its moratorium on nuclear and missile testing while keeping its nuclear weapons and capabilities. The US will maintain its military alliance and presence on the Peninsula. It will be difficult to sustain North-South reconciliation and exchanges, which may experience setbacks. China, Russia, and Japan will continue having serious security concerns. And the DPRK will have difficulty pursuing its strategic transition. Admittedly the prospect is slightly better than conflict or war. But as none of the three major objectives (denuclearization, peace, and a new type of US-DPRK relations) is anywhere closer to realization, the DPRK seems increasingly like India and Pakistan. The Korean Peninsula with a frozen status quo will still be full of security risks and pose a serious threat to regional and international security.

Undoubtedly such a prospect must not be a policy option or objective for the relevant parties. To realize lasting peace, conflict or war is not advisable, nor is freezing the status quo. Our only correct choice is to jointly make long-term efforts for full denuclearization of the Peninsula and the establishment of a peace mechanism.

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