On new terrain
The author is the Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California in San Diego. He is the author with Marcus Noland of the Witness to Transformation blog at https://piie.com/blogs/north-korea-witness-transformation.
Because of the Kim dynasty tradition of offering up unbearable New Year’s speeches, this time of year breeds speculation of what will unfold. This year, however, we are clearly on new terrain. My prediction is a simple one. If the Donald Trump administration cannot figure out how to structure meaningful negotiations, the new year will see the same holding pattern we have been in since the Singapore summit.
I supported the Singapore summit, but it always carried one simple risk. Because of Trump’s overconfidence and aversion to detail, the United States made commitments it subsequently regretted in order to give Trump a short-lived public relations win.
Only belatedly has the Trump administration recognized the flaws in the Singapore statement of principles. First, it committed the United States to a process in which denuclearization was closely linked to the negotiation of a wider peace regime and improvement in bilateral relations, a code word for sanctions relief. Second, the summit failed to define a coherent implementation process, with mechanisms to verify compliance.
As a result, we are now seeing complex “talks over talks”: an effort to work out the sequence of U.S. and South Korean summits, and the high- and working-level talks that will both precede the summit and follow it.
Critics of the Trump and Moon Jae-in administrations have made much of the fact that the North Koreans have yet to make any serious concessions. But the United States has also made few. For months in the fall, the administration even seemed intent on blocking the small space President Moon was trying to carve out for a revived South-North relationship.
In the end, however, the belief that the United States could secure meaningful denuclearization before offering any compensating quid pro quos was a fantasy. We are therefore finally in the process of thinking about how denuclearization and the corresponding quid pro quos will be sequenced.
There are many technical ideas out there. One would be to focus on shutting down Yongbyon, as the six party talks sought to do in 2007-08. After building trust, negotiations could move on to other issues, including stocks of fissile material, weapons and missiles. Another approach — and probably the best we can do — would seek a verifiable cap on North Korean fissile material, nuclear weapons and perhaps missiles first, securing information on each along the way toward reductions.
But focusing on what the United States wants on the nuclear front is only half the issue: work has to be done on what to give up in return.
The United States has wasted an opportunity in not signing the end of war declaration that the Moon administration has so desperately wanted. Such a declaration would have no binding legal force, but would simply state the obvious: that fighting has ceased, that the parties recognize this fact, and that they commit to work toward a broader peace regime.
Such a declaration still seems like a good idea. But the North Koreans seem less interested and are now focusing on sanctions relief. The Moon administration would desperately like to relax sanctions, and at a trilateral summit in Moscow, both China and North Korea jointly called for a partial lifting of sanctions.
Going back to the United Nations Security Council for new resolutions would roll back a decade of diplomacy and award North Korea before anything has been done. Moreover, Trump would get hit both left and right if he were to give away too much at the outset.
The obvious alternative: provide greater breathing room for South Korean engagement with North Korea as progress is made on the nuclear front. The creation of a bilateral working group in November signals that the United States and South Korea are thinking along these lines. Once a set of denuclearization proposals are put on the table and Moon and Trump agree on comparable steps, then the risks associated with a second summit can decline.
The North Koreans are firmly opposed to linking the nuclear and South-North tracks. But North Korean leader Kim Jong-un also has to ask himself how much he wants economic normalization. His speech exuded confidence that he can survive without a deal, yet he also seems quite anxious to get to a second summit. If he thinks it can repeat the puffery of the first summit, he is sorely mistaken; there will be pressure on both sides for real moves.
One thing we have learned: the status quo leads nowhere. If Trump can’t live with a nuclear North Korea forever, he and his team will have to decide what is on offer. Cooperation with South Korea on calibrated quid pro quos is the most obvious way to go.