More sanctions won’t end the Korean nuclear crisis, but engaging Pyongyang in talks might
Charles K. Armstrong and John Barry Kotch call for a high-level US presidential envoy to reach out to North Korea, and convince its leader that dialogue is its best option to break the deadlock
While the adoption by the UN Security Council of a resolution fine-tuning sanctions against Pyongyang with greater “bite” is a step in the right direction, demonstrating the ability of Washington and Beijing to agree on common language, it remains to be seen to what extent squeezing Pyongyang further will change the dynamics. The country is already heavily sanctioned and isolated internationally and – unlike with the current Iranian nuclear deal – there is no “door prize” for compliance.
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Nor will China agree to a scorched earth economic policy, cutting off necessities like fuel and other imports, given the potential to destabilise the regime.
In short, China fears instability on its borders more than it fears North Korean nuclear weapons. More broadly, the proposed deployment of the Thaad antiballistic-missile defence system in South Korea highlights the region’s geopolitical disarray. Understandably, Beijing views the deployment of a major US strategic asset on its doorstep as threatening, and it is engaging in a war of words with Seoul over the potential of lasting damage to their relationship.
Finally, and most importantly, additional sanctions will do nothing to halt, much less reverse, the progress made to date on the North’s nuclear deterrent.
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The North Korean response has been unsurprisingly swift, with Kim Jong-un asserting, at least rhetorically, that the North is ready to “go nuclear”, if need be, accompanied by firing a salvo of short-range missiles in the Sea of Japan, or East Sea, timed to coincide with the start of joint US-South Korea military exercises, thus bringing tension on the Korean peninsula to a new high this year.
In a sense, this is a reprise of last summer’s mine incident at the Demilitarised Zone which injured two South Korean soldiers. High-level negotiations at Panmunjom then resulted in a quasi apology from the North and a return to what passes for “normalcy” on the Korean peninsula. However, that was broken with the North’s nuclear and missile tests this year and the recent shuttering of the Kaesong free trade zone in response, an important source of hard currency earnings for Pyongyang and one of the last vestiges of Kim Dae-jung’s sunshine policy of engagement.
Nor have the prospects improved for US-North Korea negotiations to resume any time soon, given Washington’s refusal to acknowledge the North as a nuclear power state, matched by Pyongyang’s refusal to discuss its nuclear programme as a precondition. Not since the 1994 nuclear crisis, resolved by the timely intermediation of former US president Jimmy Carter, have the two sides been so far apart on fundamentals. In effect, Pyongyang lacks sufficient incentive to take its nascent nuclear deterrent offline, eventually mothballing it permanently, without parallel negotiations to reconfigure the peninsula’s security architecture, the completion of a long overdue peace treaty formally ending the Korean war, as well as the eventual establishment of diplomatic relations.
Once again, only a high-level presidential envoy can break the stalemate, a daunting and arguably demeaning task in dissuading a headstrong thirty-something with blood on his hands from continuing on an ever more risky path. The immediate task is to convince the rambunctious North Korean leader that more can be gained through negotiations than through bluster, an outcome facilitated by the possibility – even likelihood – of a dramatic shift in the US policy of “strategic patience” following the November presidential election.
Sooner or later, Pyongyang must come to terms with the fact that two key factors have changed the political equation. First, with the conclusion of a deal with Iran, Washington is no longer consumed by the near-term possibility of a nuclear Iran, to the exclusion of addressing the North’s growing arsenal. Moreover, in this context, it is crucial to recognise that whereas Iranian negotiations were purely technical, with no built-in agenda for a broader diplomatic dialogue or rapprochement, negotiations with North Korea have always had a political and geopolitical, as well as technical, dimension – whether stated or implied – neither of which can be ignored.
Secondly, the Obama administration’s policy of strategic patience – basically turning a blind eye to the North’s nuclear activities – is unlikely to outlive its term in office. The strategy is identified with former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. Nevertheless, if she’s elected the next president, a more muscular approach is in prospect. Alternatively, the Trump factor and an unpredictable November electoral outcome could result in even more dire consequences.
President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry face a genuine diplomatic dilemma. Nothing has been done during Obama’s time in office to slow the development of North Korea’s nuclear capability.
Kicking the can down the road to the next president, particularly if a right-wing Republican is elected, who is likely to choose to face down Kim, could result in a cold-war-style Cuban missile crisis and a nuclear catastrophe in Northeast Asia. The national interest of both the US, as a potential target of a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile, and Russia, as a border state potentially in the line of fire from radioactive fallout from a US pre-emptive strike, both demand action based on clear-headed diplomacy. It behoves Secretary Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to take stock of the next steps to defuse this budding crisis.
Charles K. Armstrong is professor of Korean studies at Columbia University. John Barry Kotch is a political historian and a former State Department consultant on Korea