U.S. and the North are far apart
The author is CEO of Soft Landing Consulting.
As we mark another anniversary of the 1950-53 Korean War’s outbreak, we humbly thank the men and women of several nations who sacrificed their lives for South Korea. Tragically, those people who witnessed and suffered during that war are passing each day without seeing reunification within their lifetime. As much as I wish that those who were born during the Korean War see a reunification of Korea within their lifetime, I remain more pessimistic than ever — regardless of who the leaders of Korea and the United States may be.
Earlier this month, I attended the Jeju Forum 2019 which was themed “Asia Towards Resilient Peace.” I hoped that I may gain insights that may soften my skepticism about Korea’s reunification. What I found were hopes and aspirations but little concrete substance, other than additional perspectives as to why various peace initiatives continue to fail.
Specifically, listening to various speaker and debates, it became painfully obvious the radical mismatch of the agenda held by the United States and North Korea.
What makes these discussions so chaotic is the continuing revision of what may be acceptable by the United States and Trump for a denuclearized North Korea.
According to a former State Department diplomat who represented the United States in prior nuclear talks, the negotiation objectives for the Hanoi summit in Vietnam worked out by the State Department were revised by Trump as he flew into Vietnam. There was little chance of success as the president stepped off the plane. At the same time, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un seems, for now, willing to go for a series of small wins or concessions in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.
Given that, one may naively hope that the United States may try charting a long-term peace strategy consisting of trust-building steps leading to a negotiated peace agreement, if not a peace treaty, with a non-nuclear North Korea. But that just will not happen.
The United States is sticking to an all-or-nothing bargaining position calling on the North to affirm that it will work towards the eventual removal of all of its nuclear weapons and production. Furthermore, John Bolton, while traveling with Trump to Hanoi, apparently convinced the president to add the removal of North Korean biological and chemical weapons to the end objectives. Without getting that kind of end-goal agreement, the United States refuses to lift any of its sanctions.
Kim Jong-un apparently has been hoping for some kind of intermediary step in exchange for at least a partial lifting of sanctions. So, at initial glance, it may appear that Kim was more reasonable than Trump during the Hanoi summit. But that only makes sense when one ignores what the North Koreans ultimately demanded.
The past summits and other negotiations have taken place without the prerequisites needed for a successful outcome. Namely, before getting into concessions, the two parties need to first come to a concrete, written agreement about what they are negotiating. Remarkably, this has yet to have been done.
The Americans clearly want the removal of all North Korean nuclear weapons and nuke processing capabilities from the peninsula. And thanks to John Bolton’s latest input, the Americans now have included removal of all chemical and biological weapons as part of the end objectives. At the same time, even with the removal of nuclear (and biological and chemical) weapons, Americans expect their forces to remain in Korea given various geopolitical considerations.
The North Koreans wish to be free of any kind of threat from America. That includes the removal of all land, sea and air-based nukes and other major weapons in and around the Korean Peninsula, including Japan, Midway and possibly even as far as Hawaii. In other words, Pyongyang will not feel secure until United States forces vacate Northeast Asia.
This huge and primary difference has not become an obvious issue, simply because both sides have purposely sidestepped mutually defining just exactly what are the so-called denuclearization talks.
If that was not enough, even possible intermediary agreements, such as a peace treaty or a peace agreement, seem pretty far fetched.
Only recently has North Korea acknowledged that South Korea may be included in these kinds of discussions, probably in hopes such agreements would lead to some kind of economic relief. Given North Korea’s unilateral aggression, what would Pyongyang hope to gain beyond economic relief? Maybe gaining economic benefits out of the peace talks with South Korea would be acceptable to the North, so long as the North retained its weapons of mass destruction. From the South’s perspective, what would be achieved by a treaty or agreement if the North remained nuclear? Perhaps an expedient, short-term political victory for the current South Korean president. But those accommodations would fall short of America’s minimum requirements.
In other words, so long as all sides fail to agree on the objectives of denuclearization and peace talks, ultimately it doesn’t matter what the negotiating strategy is. In the past, the traditional bottom-up process, where diplomats worked out the details and the heads of states sign an agreement, has consistently failed. More recently, the top-down approach of the leaders coming to a basic agreement and then having their subordinates work out the details has also not proven to be any more successful. Given this fundamental stalemate, the best we may hope for is a peaceful status quo.