John Kerry’s visit to South KoreaU.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to South Korea did not generate many surprises. On the contrary, on the core issue of North Korea and the alliance, the secretary simply reconfirmed the policy known as strategic patience. But when put together with developments in North Korea, President Park Geun-hye’s recent comments and subtle hints about China’s stance, I expect things to get worse on the peninsula before they get better.
U.S. strategy towards North Korea consists of three often misunderstood elements. First, the United States has repeatedly stated its willingness to return to the six-party talks on the basis of the September 2005 Joint Statement. This important milestone in the talks - suspended since 2008 - nonetheless laid out the “grand bargain” that is on the table for the North, including diplomatic recognition, a peace treaty and economic assistance in return for denuclearization.
In the meantime however, the United States and the other five parties have agreed to implement sanctions on North Korea. These sanctions are not simply punitive, or designed to change North Korea’s behavior: They are a defensive measure as well. Multilateral sanctions - approved by the United Nations Security Council with support from both China and Russia - seek to limit Pyongyang’s ability to import goods that would be used in its missile and nuclear programs.
Finally, the United States has stipulated that it would not return to the six-party talks unless North Korea showed some concrete interest in negotiating over denuclearization.
South Korean critics - as well as the regime in Pyongyang - have argued that this is equivalent to asking North Korea to disarm prior to negotiations over disarmament. But this is a misguided interpretation of the policy. The “preconditions” that Washington has sought do not require North Korea to give up anything. The United States and its partners are only asking that North Korea commit to the 2005 Joint Statement and pause - not immediately dismantle - its nuclear and missile programs. If North Korea is not interested in denuclearization, what is the point of holding talks in which a prime objective for all five of the parties - not just the United States - is off the table?
One subtle shift did come out of the Kerry visit: the United States, South Korea and China are likely to ratchet up sanctions in the near future. Kerry suggested that China has already been doing more than we think, quietly taking a number of measures that have slowed trade between China and the North over the past year.
Although Chinese officials did not say as much during Kerry’s visit to Beijing, they also stressed that the United States and China were cooperating on the issue of getting North Korea back to the talks. Kerry was surprisingly forthcoming in his praise for China’s stance on the issue. The question is how all of this looks from Pyongyang, and the answer is almost certainly “not good.”
First, the political system is clearly still undergoing a transition, with all of the uncertainty that brings. South Korean intelligence was criticized for its claim that Defense Minister Hyon Yong-chol was executed. But information collected by the Seoul-based DailyNK has now confirmed that the execution has been talked about openly in meetings among party cadres in the North. When there are risks at home, it is important to look strong abroad. The recent spate of missile tests and claims about nuclear capabilities could well be connected with domestic politics in ways we do not understand.
Add to this the UN vote on the Commission of Inquiry report on human rights, joint U.S.-Korean exercises, ongoing and perhaps increased sanctions - including over cyber issues - an open mention by Kerry of deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system to the South and even discussion of indicting Kim Jong-un at the International Criminal Court, and you have a North that could easily feel cornered.
What can be done? One thing is clear: Washington is not going to move very much, and if it does, it is toward a tougher, not a softer line. China is clearly exasperated and Japan and Russia do not have central roles, despite Pyongyang’s efforts to strengthen its ties with Moscow.
That leaves North-South relations as the only front where there may be room to maneuver.
In his press appearance with Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, Kerry was asked whether there was a disconnect between South Korean and American policy over Trustpolitik. Kerry noted that Trustpolitik had been rebuffed, but he did not openly cast doubt on President Park’s ongoing efforts to ease tensions.
Strategic patience is always difficult to implement because the target can hear the threats and ignore the promises. President Park’s comments about the “reign of terror” in the North may reflect her conclusion that the pursuit of detente is hopeless. But Trustpolitik should not be abandoned prematurely. It should be seen as a component of the broader efforts of the five parties to convince North Korea to join the international community.
*The author is the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor at the Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego.
by Stephan Haggard