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A New Approach to North Korea

Aug 12, 2021
  • Zhang Yun

    Associate Professor at National Niigata University in Japan, Nonresident Senior Fellow at University of Hong Kong

On July 27, North and South Korea issued statements announcing that their leaders had decided, through exchanges of letters, to immediately reopen all channels of communication that have been severed over the past 13 months.

The Korean nuclear issue is also an important field for cooperation between China and the United States. A day earlier, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Tianjin for high-level, face-to-face talks with China.

These developments give rise to expectations for diplomatic breakthroughs on nuclear proliferation. If the diplomatic whirlwinds on the issue in 2018 and 2019 were intended mainly to reach consensus in principle (such as the Singapore Joint Statement), any new breakthrough should be more specific. A key to the issue will be the resumption of the inspection and verification regime. Past failures should have taught us a lesson: New thinking is needed.

First, perception of the North Korean regime should change from the previous “presumption of guilt” to “positive burden of proof.” The previous inspection regime was based on the presumption that the country was bound to cheat; therefore, the scope and depth of inspection and verification should be continuously expanded and no stone should be left unturned. Under such a mindset, great attention was paid to trying to find evidence to expose the presumed cheater, but any evidence showing innocence was ignored.

Under domestic laws, the presumption of innocence is applied to all criminal suspects, but for the inspection and verification regime in international relations, presumption of guilt has been applied to serve the purpose of adequate warning. This mentality — being focused warning — usually only intensified the hostility of the country being inspected toward the verification regime. It drove the parties away from the goals of inspection and verification. On this path, inspection and verification did not improved security but reduced it.

With new thinking, the inspection regime should shift from focusing on what North Korea is doing and allow it the latitude to prove what it is not doing.

Second, inspections must be changed from the previous goal of “deterrence and punishment” to “mutual supervision and reciprocity.” The goal of discovering cheating aims at punishing the cheater. When inspections become a one-way process, warnings about cheating become overblown and linger through the process, leading to an escalation of tensions and elevating mutual distrust.

In fact, inspections should have been a two-way, interactive process. If the country being inspected can produce solid evidence to prove that it did not misbehave, economic sanctions imposed by the international community, or by any individual country, should then be reduced or lifted. If the country being inspected is not rewarded, through incremental incentives, after it has done a lot to meet the requirements, then the fairness and credibility of the inspection and verification regime is undermined. Therefore, a relationship of mutual supervision and reciprocity among the parties should be established.

Third, the inspection regime must be changed from the previous “technical model” to “a model of politics and diplomacy.” The core function of the previous program for the Korean nuclear issue was very technical — that is, a gathering of evidence to deter and punish presumed cheaters. In fact, it was highly uncertain how much evidence on-site inspections could gather, and some countries with advanced technologies could get more information without any on-site inspections. To prevent revealing their information-gathering capabilities, however, inspecting countries usually demand inspections of extensive scope, and this, in a case where trust is lacking, could make the country being inspected wary, believing it will be the “loser” in the process.

Instead, inspection and verification procedures should be decided through formal and informal consultations, and negotiations, which could serve as platforms for all parties to communicate and build trust. Trust is the foundation for further inspection and verification, as well as follow-up consultations. Only in this way can inspections be considered by all parties as a win-win or win-for-all mechanism. In this sense, inspection and verification will be a process of politics and diplomacy rather than a technical task.

Fourth, the inspection regime should be shifted from a process of “being flawless” to “being gradual.” If from the beginning it is required to be perfect and flawless, it will usually lead to disappointment. Perfection is virtually impossible, and assuming an imperfect inspection regime would provide room for all parties to work together to build trust.

A relatively flawless regime has to be formed in the course of interaction and communication, and should not be one designed unilaterally by one party and imposed on the other. If this were the case, it would surely not last long even if the inspection regime was agreed upon by the parties at the beginning.

If new breakthroughs are expected on the Korean nuclear issue, the resumption of an inspection and verification regime would be essential. But what it looks like requires new thinking.

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