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Foreign Policy

Was There Really a Breakthrough in U.S.-North Korea Relations?

Mar 02 , 2018

In the aftermath of the “Korean spring” at the Winter Games, some observers waxed euphoric over the potential for direct U.S.-North Korea talks. The apparent breakthrough in North-South dialogue came about when Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yu-jong, delivered an invitation for a summit meeting to South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in. The warming of inter-Korean relations put Vice President Mike Pence in an embarrassing position. He was odd man out as Moon and Ms. Kim conversed while Pence sat on his hands. Pence tried to recover by indicating as he left South Korea that talks with the North might actually be possible—a concession that gave the appearance of a U.S. decision to fall in line with the South Korean view.

But has the U.S. position on how to deal with North Korea actually changed? Reporting on an interview with Pence, the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin concluded that “the Trump administration is now willing to sit down and talk with the regime while that pressure campaign is ongoing. Pence called it ‘maximum pressure and engagement at the same time.’ That’s an important change from the previous U.S. position, which was to build maximum pressure until Pyongyang made real concessions and only then to engage directly with the regime.” To Rogin, “the White House’s endorsement of the concept of initial talks without preconditions is hugely significant. It provides a real fix to the break between Washington and Seoul.”

A careful reading of what Pence said leads me to a very different interpretation. First, Pence did not say the U.S. position now favors unconditional talks with North Korea. Second, U.S. policy on North Korea’s nuclear weapons is still complete denuclearization, then negotiations. Third, to compel North Korea to denuclearize, the U.S. will continue relying on escalating sanctions. Fourth, Washington and Seoul remain on different tracks when it comes to dealing with North Korea.

Here is what Pence actually said; judge for yourself whether U.S. policy has changed. On talking with DPRK: The allies, he said, would demand “at the outset of any new dialogue or negotiations” that North Korea “put denuclearization on the table and take concrete steps with the world community to dismantle, permanently and irreversibly, their nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Then, and only then, will the world community consider negotiating and making changes in the sanctions regime that’s placed on them today.” “The point is,” Pence added, “no pressure comes off until they are actually doing something that the alliance believes represents a meaningful step toward denuclearization. So the maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify. But if you want to talk, we’ll talk.”

My takeaway is that Pence was merely trying to look accommodating with the South Korean position while retaining a very tough posture with the North Koreans. In practical terms, that bodes ill for any kind of meaningful U.S.-DPRK dialogue, since Pyongyang is not about to dismantle its nuclear weapons and missiles or even put them on the table while it is under severe sanctions and various kinds of U.S. military pressure. My guess is that in Pyongyang’s perspective, the U.S. position hasn’t changed at all: “maximum pressure” that will “intensify,” as Pence said, coupled with preconditions (“concrete steps . . . to dismantle”) that are unacceptable. Kim Jong-un may well ask, "Where are the incentives to talk?”

That said, North-South Korea dialogue may well improve the strategic situation on the Korean peninsula. “Jaw, jaw” is much better than “war, war,” as Winston Churchill said. While U.S. leaders are fearful that the Moon administration will gain nothing from such talks on the nuclear front, and that North Korea will drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea, Moon Jae-in made clear that a summit meeting would have to go beyond mere talking. Even if no progress occurs immediately on the nuclear issue, Korean mutual security can still be served by revitalizing previous agreements such as on maritime boundaries, military communications, inter-Korean trade and investment, and people-to-people exchanges. The value of reducing tensions should not be underestimated.

The most important contribution the United States can make is to help revive multilateral diplomacy, perhaps by working closely with China. One way is the resumption of the Six Party Talks (6PT) without preconditions and with faithfulness to previous six-party and North-South Korea joint declarations. Most critical is the principle contained in the September 2005 Joint Statement of “commitment for commitment, action for action.” At a new round of 6PT, the U.S. and its partners should present a package that, in return for verifiable steps to neutralize if not eliminate North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, provides the North with security assurances, a proposal for ending the Korean War and signing a nonaggression pact with big-power guarantees (with China on board), and meaningful economic assistance from both nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and governments. The package should be joined to replacing threats with language and actions, such as high-level direct U.S.-DPRK dialogue and the U.S. dispatch to Pyongyang of an envoy with unquestioned stature. These steps would demonstrate sensitivity to issues of face and status, which we know to be important to North Korean leaders.

A serious problem with the Six-Party Talks is its exclusive focus on the North Korean nuclear issue. An alternative might be creation of a Northeast Asia Security Dialogue Mechanism (NEASDM), which would address a wide range of regional security issues and even put the nuclear question last rather than first. (See my “Averting War in Northeast Asia: A Proposal,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, vol. 9, Issue 2, No, 2, January 10, 2011, We might recall that such a group was anticipated in the final statements of the Six-Party Talks. Some distinguished Chinese analysts such as Zhang Tuosheng have made similar proposals. The NEASDM would function as a “circuit breaker,” able to interrupt patterns of escalating confrontation when tensions in the region increase. Its purview might include environmental, labor, poverty, and public health problems; a code of conduct to govern territorial and boundary disputes; military budget transparency, weapons transfers, and deployments; measures to combat terrorism and piracy; creation of a nuclear-weapon free zone (NWFZ) in all or part of Northeast Asia; and ways to support confidence building and trust in the dialogue process itself. Normalization of relations among all six countries should be a priority; full recognition of the DPRK by the United States and Japan costs nothing but is an important incentive for meaningful North Korean participation.

How might the NEASDM actually work? First, all six countries in the 6PT should be members. If North Korea rejects membership, the group should nevertheless go on with its work, leaving the door open to Pyongyang whenever it wishes to enter. Second, the NEASDM should be institutionalized, perhaps situated in Beijing, with a commitment to meet several times a year at regular intervals regardless of the state of affairs in the region—but with the provision that any of the parties can convene a meeting in a crisis. Third, there should be an understanding among the member-states that the NEASDM meets whether or not all parties are willing to participate so that a boycott by one party cannot prevent the group from meeting. Fourth, the NEASDM's agenda should be unrestricted; the members should be prepared to discuss any issue that any one of them believes is important.

Each party to the NEASDM would gain from this experiment in stabilizing the Northeast Asia security situation. North Korea’s gain would be in diplomatic recognition (and thus added legitimacy), access to long-term economic development assistance, and the potential for security guarantees by the major powers sufficient for it to stop nuclear weapon and long-range missile tests.

The Trump administration has been hostile to multilateralism and would therefore be unlikely to be interested in either resuming the 6PT or establishing a NEASDM. But that should not prevent other parties from moving ahead—no more than Trump’s distaste for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris accord on climate change, and the North American Free Trade Agreement has stopped other governments from pursuing their interests in coalition. Perhaps this U.S. administration, or one that replaces it in 2020, will yet see that the national interest is sometimes better served by multilateral cooperation than by unilateralism.

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