It has been almost a year since the nuclear talks between the U.S. and North Korea were stuck in the two leaders’ fruitless Hanoi Summit, held in February 2019. The whole world has been anxiously looking for a way out. But before we pessimistically accept the frustrating results of negotiations, isn’t it clear that it’s time for denuclearization to enter phase two?
Achievements appeared to have been made by all parties over the past couple of years, two of which were common views on a political settlement and a phased denuclearization framework.
There were as many factors that halted a necessary breakthrough out of the yearlong impasse, too. The following top the list: The U.S. and North Korea are unmatched game players with sharply opposite stands, and process between the U.S. and the Republic of Korea to the south.
How can this be handled? Some critical changes must be made to foster and clarify common interests for all parties in a new phase.
First of all, South Korea should be encouraged and supported in playing a more active role in phase two. As one of the two puzzle pieces of geopolitics on the Korean Peninsula, South Korea, after helping bring about key summits, is supposed to be a more active composer and maker of lasting peace, not just a mediator between the game players.
But since there is no sign that the U.S. and North Korea can narrow the wide gap in their demands, a second fundamental thought is required: Is it still proper for those two parties to continue monopolizing the procedure? It’s time for the two Koreas to put on shoes of their own, and it’s time for South Korea to be given space to take full responsibility to do the specific work for which the Sunshine Policy has been designed.
Second, inter-Korean tension-easing should be the top priority in phase two. The relaxation of the situation on the Peninsula is not just a result of denuclearization but also one of preconditions. Confrontation can only add fuel to North Korea’s security concerns and encourage it to hold tightly to its nuclear arsenal, which in turn makes it harder for South Korea to maintain a soft policy.
In a circumstance that hungers for mutual trust and common faith, it is possible to recover. The two states need to cooperate in setting an example for future denuclearization — ways to see commitments implemented, policies stabilized and benign interactions extended — which will provide the rest of the world with confidence about both countries’ wellbeing.
Third, again, the window of opportunity could be shut at anytime. Both North Korea’s recent announcement of “nuclear issues not negotiable” and its firmly refusing direct contact with South Korea are delivering clear messages that Kim’s patience is being frayed. The top leader’s calculation of the profits and losses involved in breaking commitments to ending strategic weapons tests must be considered. It may not take long before he decides to embark on some new ventures as a way of declaring his determination.
Meanwhile, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, together with his administration, is undergoing a hard time, too. The Sunshine Policy, his trump card, does not win him a satisfying support ratio as it once did, because of chilly inter-Korean relations today. The hourglass of opportunity requires national recognition of an engaging policy. If this attempt fails, hostility might emerge against the northern neighbor by the conservatives in a short time. That would be another heavy, dark cloud over the Peninsula.
Fourth, there is a possibility that no positive breakthrough will come out in the near future. Compared with taking advantage of this weakness with one more round of push-to-change policy, which has repeatedly failed, staying low-key would be a rational option. In a situation of mounting tensions, any breaking of commitments could cause an overreaction that leads to an irreversible backlash against the denuclearization steps made so far. This is the most important thing that all parties need to avoid.
Last but not least, effective joint multilateral mechanisms must be soundly presented throughout the whole process of denuclearization. Progress, such as recognized bilateral agreements and temporary suspensions, must be transformed into institutional arrangements, focusing on constraints as well as implementation.
This is surely a big, time-consuming step that requires boldness. But it promises benefits for the international community, including North Korea. North Korea’s tough and stubborn responses often derive from “We have nothing more to lose” thinking. But what if they did have something sweet that they’re unwilling to lose? A different gesture over the negotiating table could make all the difference.