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Why U.S.-North Korea Denuclearization Talks Are Deadlocked

Dec 18, 2018
  • An Gang

    Adjunct Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

In June, a joint statement was signed during the Trump-Kim Singapore summit, declaring an intention to improve bilateral relations. This reinvigorated the process of denuclearization and normalization of diplomatic relations, as well as the establishment of a peace mechanism for the peninsula.

What is dominating the situation are the U.S.-North Korea denuclearization talks. To prepare for the Trump-Kim Singapore summit, the U.S. and North Korea exchanged their initial “road maps”: North Korea is deeply concerned that the U.S. might turn it into “the second Libya” if it abandons all nuclear power, hence its insistence on a simultaneous step-by-step approach. That is, as North Korea dismantles its nuclear facilities, the U.S. should honor its corresponding security commitment, and ensure that international assistance and compensation are in place in a timely manner, with the international sanctions gradually eased. Worried that North Korea would stall to try to reach a final breakthrough in nuclear technologies, the U.S. demanded that the Kim administration take credible measures abandon its nuclear program before 2020 (when Donald Trump seeks reelection), before considering more security guarantees and economic assistance for North Korea.

The U.S.-North Korea denuclearization talks took smaller steps first, namely setting principles at the meeting of the two heads of state, while leaving fundamental concerns unresolved. As a result, no significant progress could be made to implement the decisions made at the Singapore summit. Despite the fact that Kim Jong-un has written to President Donald Trump to indicate his commitment to denuclearization, shut down the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site, dismantled the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, and repatriated the remains of U.S. servicemen who died in the Korean War, the U.S. still seems stubborn in its stance.

At present, the major divergence for subsequent U.S.-North Korea talk lies in the following aspects.

First, the two sides have different ideas of “denuclearization.” North Korea seeks denuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula and even the entirety of Northeast Asia. This includes demands that the U.S. reveal and withdraw their tactical nuclear weapons deployed in South Korea. However, as the U.S. sees it, “denuclearization” only denotes denuclearization of North Korea.

Second, there are fundamental logical conflicts. North Korea urgently needs the U.S. to ensure its security and lift sanctions against it. However, the U.S. insisted that North Korea abandon and surrender its nuclear program in a verifiable and irreversible manner, while refusing to identify the compensation and rewards it will give in return.

Third, the two sides have different understandings of the process. North Korea adheres to the principle of simultaneous denuclearization and security assurance, while the U.S. still hopes to remove North Korea’s nuclear weapons “Libya style.” To this end, it sticks to the “deadline” of 2020, putting forward specific demands on multiple thorny issues such as the disposal of North Korea’s nuclear materials and nuclear test facilities, the dismantling of long-range missile launching facilities, and will only offer assistance after North Korea abandons its nuclear facilities. Even if North Korea accepts such a path, due to the high complexity of dismantling its nuclear facilities, it would be technically impossible for the country to meet such stringent requirements in a short period of time.

As time went on, in the face of the deadlock in the North Korea-U.S. negotiations, there are concerns within the Worker’s Party of Korea: “We’ve adjusted our policies, but why are the sanctions still here? And why are there still no actual effects?” South Korea is also quite anxious, as President Moon Jae-in gambles his political credibility on the implementation of the Sunshine Policy. After intensive coordination since the beginning of the year, South Korea has partially accepted the idea of phase-by-phase nuclear abandonment, and the two Koreas have actually aligned pro tem with each other for strategic motives. However, the final progress of the North Korea nuclear issue still depends on the compromise between North Korea and the U.S. The coordination between major powers decides whether North Korea could return to the international nuclear non-proliferation regime, rescind UN Security Council sanctions, and establish peace mechanisms directly with related parties. The space for South Korea to coordinate as a middleman grows smaller, and the leverage generated by intra-Korean consensus seems quite limited. At the end of November, the two countries decided to postpone Kim Jong-un’s plan to visit South Korea at the end of the year. One of the main reasons was that, now that the North Korea-U.S. negotiations could not make a breakthrough, there are not many substantial changes to be expected in inter-Korean coordination.

Furthermore, there are negative factors inside the U.S., North Korea, and South Korea which undermine the consensus reached at the Singapore summit. It is hard to say when these factors will re-emerge. The U.S. media and the military intelligence community have never stopped spreading information that the North Korea is still developing nuclear missiles in secret. The latest news showed a Beyond Parallel study report released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in November, saying that the North Korea is moving ahead with its ballistic missile program at sixteen hidden bases after dismantling the lone launching base. In response to doubts all over the world about the sincerity of North Korea’s promise to abandon its nuclear operations, President Trump may also have suspicions, but he doesn’t want his political and diplomatic agenda to be disrupted. Therefore, Trump immediately tweeted that it was “fake news”.

Divergence between the two sides’ stance is only one reason for the slow progress in U.S.-North Korea denuclearization talks. 2018 witnessed mid-term elections in the U.S.; the Trump administration and the Republican Party were busy with domestic affairs. Moreover, in order to lay the foundation for his re-election in 2020, Trump deliberately slowed the pace of the U.S.-North Korea negotiations. In addition, as China-U.S. trade friction become increasingly fierce, in order to suppress China’s ability to use the North Korean nuclear issue as a constraint on U.S. trade tactics, the Trump administration adjusted priorities on the Asia-Pacific agenda to concentrate on trade disputes with China rather than the North Korea nuclear issue. Nevertheless, eager to make some progress, North Korea strove for a better relationship with the U.S. It didn’t stir up troubles in the most crucial stage of the U.S. election, and tried to direct talks towards an armistice. July 27th marked the 65th anniversary of the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement. North Korea originally expected the parties concerned to jointly issue a declaration to end the war at this point, but nothing happened. On October 7th, U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo visited North Korea for the fourth time, during which Kim Jong-un agreed to hold the second U.S.-North Korea summit as soon as possible. He also expressed willingness to permanently dismantle nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, in exchange for corresponding measures from the U.S., such as an armistice declaration.

According to various sources, the second “Kim-Trump Summit” will be held in the U.S. in January or February 2019. At present, Trump still hopes to obtain favorable results through talks and secure a niche in history. After all, the Kim administration’s resolution to concentrate on economic development and resolve its own legitimate security concerns is also worthy of trust and respect. As long as Kim Jong-un attends the summit, it will be impossible for him to return without any result. It doesn’t rule out the possibility that North Korea might declare its intent to dismantle more nuclear facilities and even submit partial inventory of its nuclear power, so that the U.S. might sign documents to recognize the Kim regime and establish diplomatic relations with the country. Consequently, the two sides might reach consensus on the “roadmap” to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

However, Trump’s small circle, dominated by policy hawks, instead of pursuing permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula, only hopes to see North Korea’s submission. What’s more, Trump is quite emotional in making decisions, and the number of senior officials and professional negotiators familiar with the history of the North Korean nuclear issue, arms control, and disarmament affairs remains insufficient. Therefore, while the U.S. recently began to prepare for the second “Trump-Kim Summit”, the government gave signals that denuclearization negotiations might last for a long time. On September 26th, Trump said at a press conference at the UN headquarters in New York that “we’re not playing the time game. If it takes two years, three years, or five months, it doesn't matter. There's no nuclear testing and there's no testing of rockets.” On November 7th, after the mid-term election, Trump stressed seven times at the first White House press conference that there is “no rush” to engage in denuclearization talks with Pyongyang and that solving the North Korean nuclear issue may take 25 years. On November 19th, U.S. Vice President Pence gave a speech at the APEC CEO Summit, calling North Korea “the greatest threat to the Indo-Pacific,” but he said that the U.S. is making plans for another summit between President Trump and Chairman Kim, and that “we must be vigilant and resolve to achieve the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea.”

There are three prospects for U.S.-North Korea negotiations. First, North Korea will achieve full denuclearization, the two Koreas will sign a peace agreement, and relations among parties concerned will become normalized. This is the most ideal result, but also the most difficult one to achieve. Second, the U.S. recognizes the nuclear capabilities of North Korea, but restricts its development of intercontinental missiles. Third, the issue may reach a long-term deadlock, in one of three ways. The first is that North Korea continues to freeze its nuclear tests and then a long delay follows. But this is very unlikely. The second is that North Korea resumes its nuclear tests, and the U.S. resorts to military force. The third is that the U.S. expands its strategic presence in Northeast Asia, thus leading to the escalation of competition, with China, North Korea, and Russia on one side and the U.S., Japan, and South Korea on the other.

How should one avoid the worst scenarios and strive for better prospects? In demonstrating the credibility of their respective positive intentions and goals, both North Korea and the U.S. must break through their domestic political constraints and strategic thinking to take a step forward. Additionally, structural changes in the Northeast Asian international system must be promoted, in order to foster a more favorable climate where the parties concerned transcend the fetters of “collective security,” and coordinate peninsula denuclearization with the transformation process of an armistice mechanism on the peninsula. Various approaches should be taken to truly end the confrontation and state of war on the Korean Peninsula and seek common security. The path will not be decided by North Korea and the U.S., nor by North Korea, the U.S., and South Korea. Instead, it depends on tacit agreement and coordinated efforts of all parties concerned, China included.

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