From ‘strategic patience’ to ‘maximum pressure’: obstacles to progress remain in pushing North Korea on its nuclear weapons

  • Edward Howell writes that Pyongyang’s weapons are not going anywhere for now, so long as the gap remains in how the North and Washington define denuclearisation
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 December, 2018, 12:03pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 December, 2018, 11:15pm

Nobody was surprised when, on November 16, the ruling Workers Party of Korea announced that Kim Jong-un had “supervised a newly developed ultra-modern tactical weapon test”.

North Korea deems itself to be a fully fledged nuclear power. A “tactical” test of an unidentified weapon reinforces the fact that its nuclear weapons are not going anywhere for now, so long as the gap remains in how Pyongyang and Washington (and its allies) define denuclearisation.

While incremental movement in inter-Korean relations through economic cooperation may have been unimaginable a year ago, cautious optimism is key.

We should not expect assisting Pyongyang’s economic development to lead to nuclear concessions easily; the heart of North Korea’s byungjin policy is parallel nuclear and economic development. Moreover, we should not forget the power of alliances, particularly between Beijing and Pyongyang. While frosty at times, it is of critical importance in keeping the status quo on the Korean peninsula.

Two of the many obstacles for progress on the North Korean nuclear issue must not go unnoticed. The first, which sceptics are right to stress, is the stringency of UN Security Council economic sanctions, particularly those that restrict economic engagement with North Korea.

Pyongyang and Beijing have sounded many calls for their easing, yet Washington has refused to give leeway. Yet, is the damage of sanctions enough to warrant North Korea conceding the “icing on the cake” that is its nuclear programme, essential to its self-perception as a nuclear power?

Second is the impasse in which the global community has been embedded since Pyongyang’s rhetorical – but so far, not visible – pledge towards denuclearisation took hold.

What is meant by “denuclearisation”? The Trump administration’s North Korean policy has emphasised complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement, but the idea of complete denuclearisation was also reiterated by then secretary of state Hillary Clinton in 2009, when she said sanctions would continue unless “verifiable and irreversible” steps towards disarmament were taken.

Although the latter remark was made under the Obama administration’s unsuccessful waiting game of “strategic patience”, is the current US administration’s “maximum pressure” more successful? Washington’s line is clear: North Korea’s nuclear weapons must go, and the international community must receive a declaration of Pyongyang’s nuclear stockpiles before any substantive concessions can be made. Anything short of this is not US-defined “denuclearisation”.

For Pyongyang, denuclearisation means the removal of the US security guarantee over its ally south of the 38th parallel, which may include the removal (or at least a significant reduction) in the presence of US troops in South Korea, though the latter has been dropped as an explicit condition by Pyongyang.

US clashes with China and Russia over North Korea sanctions during UN talk

Kim pledged a moratorium on nuclear and missile testing in April of this year, before the first inter-Korean summit, but crucial to this pledge was that the testing was not necessary “for now”. We should not be surprised if nuclear activity restarts.

If a scenario emerges where Pyongyang decides to abandon a few elements of its nuclear and missile programme – such as short-range ballistic missiles, which would mean that the US would still be at threat, but not Seoul – what is to stop it from doing so only temporarily?

For Beijing, denuclearisation on the peninsula is a priority, but crucially, so is stability. If the peninsula has remained war-free for over the past 65 years, and is likely to continue to be so, through sanctions and attempts at economic engagement with North Korea, China has no need for a radical move just yet. Its diplomatic engagements with its ally and “little brother” of North Korea can continue, in its pursuit for peace and stability on the peninsula.

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho visited Beijing on Friday and met his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, the fifth meeting between the two this year.

That followed visits by Ri to Vietnam and Syria, raising questions of a planned future summit between Kim and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and whether North Korea wants to learn lessons from Vietnam’s economic development.

Ri’s meeting with Assad in Damascus on Tuesday emphasised the “one and the same” enemy faced by North Korea and Syria, namely the United States.

We must not forget the cooperation between North Korea and Syria on non-conventional weapons, and the shipment of arms from Pyongyang to aid Syria’s chemical and ballistic missile development.

The targeting of the common enemy of the US reinforces the fact that Pyongyang has still not shelved the idea that the US wishes to invoke regime change in North Korea. On November 15, Pyongyang lambasted a UN resolution that condemned its human rights violations as evidence that Washington “will compel [us] to change our system”.

“System” can mean both domestic regime and North Korea’s control over its nuclear armaments; Pyongyang does not want to concede on the nuclear front just yet. It continues to plead for the easing of sanctions, with China’s support, and how such easing may occur is likely to be discussed in Ri’s meeting with Wang.

Yet Beijing has a dilemma that is tough to reconcile. It wants to trade with North Korea, and reap the benefits of economic infrastructural and developmental projects with Pyongyang, but also wants to be seen as a responsible great power.

We have often assumed that the relationship between an easing of UN sanctions and gradual disarmament of North Korea’s nuclear weapons is linear, but it is far from simple. The phased approach of denuclearisation that Pyongyang has proposed, and China’s “freeze for freeze” mantra, seems to suggest that denuclearisation can occur in a tit-for-tat fashion: a freeze in nuclear and missile testing, with a freeze in US-South Korea military drills; concessions on one side matched by concessions on the other.

Seoul divided over whether to keep US in the loop on North Korea

Of course, China wants to keep the US at arm’s length within its geographic vicinity, and the decision by Washington and Seoul to suspend military exercises in October of this year suggests that China may have gained a little more leverage on this front, but not much.

On November 24, the UN Security Council granted the two Koreas a sanctions exemption for the commencement of surveys to allow joint railways between the two countries. While such cooperation improves inter-Korean ties, however, Pyongyang has not conceded on its nuclear weapons in any way. Seoul seems eager to show that “denuclearisation is the right way to go” – and that Pyongyang knows this – as stated by Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon.

Nonetheless, definitions of denuclearisation between Washington and Seoul, and Beijing and Pyongyang, together with questions about the sequencing of denuclearisation, are unresolved. Drastic sanctions relief before any substantive progress on nuclear reduction is risky, and what is to stop Pyongyang from starting on the path of nuclear reduction to demonstrate its status as a responsible international power, and then reneging.

While the International Atomic Energy Agency may be preparing to play a greater role in verifying North Korea’s nuclear programme, what this means in practice remains unclear. Pyongyang is actively exploiting the ambiguity of the Singapore summit declaration, which placed dialogue before any visible denuclearisation (according to the US definition). There has been a wealth of dialogue in 2018, not all successful, and the nukes aren’t budging.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called for patience in dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue, as sanctions continue to be enforced, amid a suspension of nuclear and missile tests from Pyongyang. Yet for how long should this patience continue? The longer this process draws out, the longer Pyongyang can keep hold of its nuclear stockpiles.

The fact remains: North Korea has not conceded on its nuclear weapons so far, and while inter-Korean and Sino-North Korean relations may be gaining traction, denuclearisation remains as elusive as ever.

Edward Howell is an ESRC scholar in international relations at the University of Oxford, specialising in East Asia and the Korean peninsula