Who will step up to get talks on the North Korean nuclear threat moving again?
- Edward Howell writes that for now, diplomacy may not be sufficient to advance the effort to compel North Korea to rein in its nuclear ambitions
- With three out of the five permanent UN Security Council members unwilling to budge, Washington or Pyongyang may need to act
As Washington and Pyongyang continue their game of stalemate, could dramatic concessions be on the horizon?
North Korea’s claim that “America does not even belch after swallowing a whole chicken” seems bizarre; but Pyongyang’s logic is clear. Washington must make a move, if the stagnant progress in the North Korean nuclear issue is to gain any traction on the part of Pyongyang.
Early October saw the fourth visit of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the hermit state, a visit heralded by North Korean state media as featuring “productive and wonderful talks”. Only two weeks later, Pyongyang treated the world to a 1,600 word essay criticising Washington for “responding to good faith with evil”.
The statement polemically denounced the “ill-boding remarks” from the US, namely the “stereo-typed words” of the US State Department that “sanctions must be continued until denuclearisation is realised”.
This action seems to contrast with the performative diplomacy that has characterised US-North Korean relations this year. But it shows clearly that Pyongyang will only make a move once it gets what it wants. Both sides expect something that the other will not give, which only points to continuing stagnation vis-à-vis seeing any progress on the international menace that is North Korea.
Two conflicting dynamics seem to be at work. First, dialogue – inter-Korean, and between Washington and Pyongyang – and secondly, the simultaneous pursuit of a policy remarkably similar to “maximum pressure”, just not in name, on the part of the US.
Even though the policy in name may seem to have died at the end of April this year, it also seems to live on in a somewhat sporadic afterlife.
Dealing with North Korea is a highly complex game of perception and misperception in international politics. If Pyongyang perceives that Washington will insist on a declaration of its nuclear arsenal and denuclearisation on Washington’s terms – as a condition for economic gains – North Korea, too, can insist on something that it knows Washington will not give: sanctions relief and a declaration to end the Korean war.
If Washington continues to refuse to ease the sanctions on North Korea and recant its past rhetoric of pressure, then the US will not get what it wants: a declaration of Pyongyang’s full nuclear arsenal and active progress on denuclearisation.
The international community is left in a 360-degree spin with respect to North Korea.
Manoeuvres for rapprochement with North Korea – such as the enhancement of inter-Korean relations as we are witnessing so far this year – are all well and good; but without pulling the essential lever to lessen sanctions, no concrete progress will be made.
The North and South plan to connect road and rail networks between the two Koreas in accordance with September’s Pyongyang Declaration. Yet if we take our minds back to September 2017, the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2375 outlines that “states shall prohibit … the opening, maintenance and operation of all joint ventures … with DPRK entities or individuals … unless such joint ventures … in particular those that are non-commercial … have been approved by the Committee in advance on a case-by-case basis.”
Seoul must be cautious in trying to balance its adoption of these sanctions with using any wriggle room to its full advantage.
Yet, South Korea is showing a willingness to play fair in its efforts to advance inter-Korean ties. Moon Jae-in has emphasised that the North’s economy is in “huge difficulty” and “won’t be able to afford the retribution” if it reneges on its purported pledge to denuclearise.
Does this statement suggest that progress is finally going to be made?
Should Washington and the international community ease sanctions and see what happens?
The recent pledge by the US and South Korea to suspend the Vigilant Ace joint military exercises and the holding of general-level inter-Korean military talks later this week, are visible statements by Seoul and Washington of their intentions to bolster diplomacy with North Korea, not least since such military exercises have been an ongoing trigger for provocation from Pyongyang.
Whether this diplomacy alone is enough to spur substantive headway on North Korea and its nuclear capacity, however, is more likely to be answered in the negative – at least for now.
We must also look at the sanctions stalemate in terms of China and Russia, after the latter increased oil supplies to North Korea in August. Pyongyang praised these states for agreeing with its view “that the processes for the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and the establishment of [a] peacekeeping mechanism should be progressed in a phased and simultaneous way”.
The triumvirate issued a joint communiqué calling on the UN Security Council to “start in due time revising the sanctions against the DPRK”. Yet the US is not the odd one out here, with French President Macron reiterating France’s commitment to complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement and Britain stressing that North Korea must take “concrete steps” towards denuclearisation – no mention of sanctions easing just yet.
With three out of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council unwilling to budge, the world seems left in a sanctions stalemate, at least for now, unless Washington or Pyongyang makes a move.
So, how large a chicken must Washington swallow before it belches, and how much need it belch? Perhaps this may determine the extent to which North Korea is willing to act.
Edward Howell is an ESRC Scholar in International Relations at the University of Oxford, specialising in East Asia and the Korean peninsula