Will North Korea disarm? That may depend on how the US and China play their cards in the next phase of nuclear talks

  • John Barry Kotch says the North Korean nuclear negotiations are complicated by Pyongyang’s call for the removal of the US nuclear umbrella from the Korean peninsula. Presidents Xi Jinping and Donald Trump are also wild cards in the talks
PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 December, 2018, 10:02am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 December, 2018, 10:05am

This has been a banner year for summitry on the Korean peninsula with the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics as the precursor. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un held multiple meetings with South Korean president Moon Jae-in and Chinese President Xi Jinping, while Donald Trump met Kim briefly in Singapore, a first for a sitting US president. Now it’s all about maintaining the momentum. If Trump’s remarks reflect policy, we have gone from “fire and fury” to “love” and the present policy of contradiction. Denuclearisation is on hold, hostage to sanctions and human rights concerns. Can we find a way out of the cul-de-sac in 2019? 

First, Kim would have to pay a promised visit to Seoul, in return for the Moon-Kim summit in Pyongyang in September. He would be making the trip his father, Kim Jong-il, pledged to take but never did. A successful trip south would also distinguish the son from the father as a risk taker. Ideally, Kim and Moon would issue a summit communique highlighting the need for a declaration formally ending the Korean war, which would build on the 2000 joint communique between Bill Clinton and Jo Myong-rok, Kim senior’s personal envoy, that neither the US nor North Korea would harbour hostile intent towards the other. Washington has so far been non-committal about agreeing to a peace declaration, absent progress in nuclear negotiations and given the continued expansion of Pyongyang’s nuclear stockpile.

Second, a joint rail project will give more momentum. South and North Korean engineers have just completed a weeks-long field study of the North Korean railroad, with North and South symbolically reconnecting their rail tracks. Upgrading the infrastructure to support economic development is a shovel-ready project, contingent on a meaningful step towards denuclearisation. All aboard!

Similarly, the announcement that the US would review its policy on humanitarian aid to the North, easing sanctions associated with Washington’s campaign of maximum economic and diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang, is a small step in the right direction, as has been increasingly sought by international aid groups.

Finally, given the vagueness of the communique of the Trump-Kim summit and the lack of concrete follow-up measures (such as a detailed summit agenda by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo), a second Trump-Kim summit would require a deep dive in the details of denuclearisation. Although Vice-President Mike Pence has apparently said the US “would not demand” a North Korean declaration of its nuclear and missile programmes as a precondition for a second summit, numbers, locations and the operational readiness of the arsenal would still have to be on the table. Therein lies the rub.

Can Kim Jong-un become North Korea’s Deng Xiaoping?

What was agreed at Singapore was the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, not just the North. And while Washington has long insisted on nothing less than “CVID” or complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of the North’s nuclear and missile programmes (which was an unrealised goal of the six-party talks from 2003 to 2007), Pyongyang has called for the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. This is North Korean code for the elimination of the US nuclear umbrella over South Korea and Japan as a quid pro quo.

But comparing the two is like talking apples and oranges. CVID is premised on the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which bars signatory states from developing nuclear weapons in return for a pledge by the five nuclear weapon states, including the US, not to use their nuclear weapons against them except in response to a nuclear attack, or a conventional attack in alliance with a nuclear-weapon state. There is irony in the fact that the North, despite its weapons of mass destruction and its status as a de facto nuclear state, has removed this protection.

By contrast, the US nuclear umbrella in northeast Asia is part and parcel of the US security commitment to Japan and South Korea, and also a deterrent against the two nuclear states adjoining the peninsula, China and Russia. In short, there is a false equivalence between denuclearisation and the removal of the nuclear umbrella. As Terence Roehrig, a professor at the US Naval War College, explains, the nuclear umbrella is a “central part of alliance relations that helps reassure allies of the US defence commitment … and, as a result, they do not seek their own nuclear weapons”.

Did Trump just hand over Asia to China?

Xi, slated to visit North Korea next year and bringing Chinese diplomacy to bear on the Korean conundrum, is the wild card. Xi and Kim have already met three times in China this year, following a hiatus in high-level contact in recent years. What role Beijing intends to play, and how actively, are questions ripe for speculation, and will be tied to the outcome of the upcoming US-North Korea summit. While China’s status as South Korea’s largest trading partner gives Beijing political leverage with Seoul, it is the long-standing US-South Korea alliance that gives Beijing greatest pause, because of the Korean peninsula’s proximity to China.

Even more of a wild card is Trump in a post-James-Mattis world. The US president’s seat-of-the-pants decisions could pre-empt policies signed off by allies and lower-level officials. He has threatened to withdraw US forces from South Korea, if the South does not pay a larger share of the cost of US military protection – which must be music to the North’s ears. Stay tuned.

John Barry Kotch is a political historian and a former US State Department consultant