North Korea is unlikely to give up its nuclear deterrent without a change in ‘hostile’ US policy
John Barry Kotch says Washington must consider concrete steps that would convince North Korea to denuclearise, such as gradual sanctions relief, removal of the UN Command or working towards diplomatic relations
Nearly four months after the much-hyped Trump-Kim Singapore summit on June 12, denuclearisation remains as elusive as ever. While US President Donald Trump touts the great relationship he has established with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – who is scheduled to fly to Pyongyang on Sunday to lay the groundwork for a second Trump-Kim summit – has heralded “the dawn of a new day”, the bloom is off the rose.
Trump’s relationship with Kim is not of central concern except in so far as it results in what the international community is eagerly waiting for: facts, figures and locations of nuclear and missile assets, which Pyongyang is not yet ready to provide. And even if testing has ended, without a freeze in production of fissile material, North Korea’s arsenal continues to expand.
While not quite a charade, it’s time to call a spade a spade. The president has remarked, “He wants to make a deal. I want to make a deal” and “if it takes two years, three years or five months, it doesn’t matter.” But it does matter and time is running out.
In June, the administration had said it hoped to achieve “major disarmament” of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal during his first term in office. More recently, Trump’s advisers circled early 2021 – the end of his first term and a little more than two years away – as the drop-dead date for reaching an agreement on complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement. Still, the president has taken issue with his advisers, such as when they unanimously recommended against withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, to no avail.
In presiding over back-to-back UN Security Council meetings last week on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the necessity for North Korean compliance with Security Council resolutions, the president and Pompeo laid down a firm marker – no sanctions relief until Pyongyang complies with denuclearisation.
Nevertheless, there is a fundamental contradiction between inflicting pain on Pyongyang amid expectations that sooner or later it will “cry uncle” and encouraging it to comply using the step-by-step sanctions relief favoured by Russia – even as Moscow evades its responsibility by hosting North Korean labourers and clandestinely offloading refined petroleum products to North Korean ships on the high seas.
Even some Chinese companies continue to engage in surreptitious cross-border trade while South Koreans also favour a step-by-step approach.
In short, Washington appears out of step with its partners. To reach a workable consensus, it urgently needs to outline what a sanctions-relief scenario would look like, in keeping with China’s call for parties “to make joint efforts to create a peninsula with peace, stability and complete denuclearisation”.
Meanwhile, in a speech before the UN General Assembly, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho hailed progress in inter-Korean relations while underscoring the disconnect between Washington and Pyongyang. The latter maintains that Washington continues to pursue “a hostile” policy, allegedly by holding a nuclear umbrella over the Korean peninsula, which necessitates a North Korean nuclear deterrent.
In sum, because the US possesses nuclear weapons, North Korea must also possess them until the US abandons its “hostile policy” based on a peace treaty or peace mechanism. Thus, North Korea cannot give up its “treasured sword” without a change in US policy.
Watch: Divided Korea – how did we get here?
Left out of this security equation, however, is the fact that that the nuclear deterrent exists primarily to defend Japan and deter the two other regional powers with significant nuclear capabilities – China and Russia – with North Korea late to the party.
Nor can it be remedied with a simple declaration ending the Korean war but only through concrete and tangible action such as terminating the UN Command or agreement on a peace treaty or peace mechanism. With respect to the latter, it has been reliably reported that North Korea seeks a security treaty with Washington paralleling that reached with South Korea at the end of the Korean war.
However, putting the two Koreas on the same footing is sheer fantasy – the South has been a steadfast US ally for more than 40 years while the North has been an enemy state, a state sponsor of terror and, most recently, a nuclear outlier.
All of this cannot be wiped away in a single negotiation, or even a series of negotiations, but must be earned over time. In this regard, it took 40 years for South Korea to overcome decades of dictatorial and military rule and emerge as the vibrant, albeit imperfect, democracy it is today.
By the same token, unless Washington gets the logistics right, Pyongyang will never comply. The notion that it’s up to the North to “walk through the door [Trump’s] holding open”, in the words of National Security Adviser John Bolton, is ludicrous without some “give” on the US side, evidenced by a changed relationship.
Without this, Pyongyang is understandably loath to give up its nuclear deterrent.
That was the goal of the earlier 1994 US-North Korean Agreed Framework that followed former US president Jimmy Carter’s successful mediation with then-North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, which eliminated the reprocessing of spent plutonium at the North’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor and paved the way for light-water reactors by the Korean peninsula Energy Development Organisation consortium to produce electricity.
However, the agreement, which also provided for liaison offices in each other’s capitals, as well North-South dialogue that could eventually lead to full diplomatic relations, was abandoned by the George W. Bush administration.
Flying in and out of Pyongyang and conducting negotiations in Vienna is no substitute for a permanent venue in each other’s capitals in dealing with the complexities of denuclearisation.
While North-South dialogue is now a firmly established fact following the Panmunjom Declaration of Peace Prosperity and Unification and a third North-South summit, US-North Korean relations have languished in the deep freeze over several presidential tenures.
At present, a train wreck looms with the two Koreas unable to implement new economic agreements, while Washington and Pyongyang tread water over denuclearisation.
John Barry Kotch is a political historian and former State Department consultant