Prospects for interim agreement
The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
In their April 2 trilateral at the U.S. Naval Academy, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his counterparts from Korea and Japan, Suh Hoon and Kitamura Shigeru, shared their assessments on the North Korea situation. The three top officials sounded a unified theme on the need for North Korea to comply with all UN Security Council resolutions and reaffirmed their own commitment to trilateral coordination. How much they talked about their diplomatic approach to the North is unclear, though press reports beforehand claimed that Sullivan was going to brief his counterparts on the U.S. review of North Korea policy. The details of the review are probably still not settled in terms of negotiating tactics — in part because no U.S. envoy has yet been chosen to lead the discussions. Still, the broad parameters of the Biden diplomatic approach to North Korea are becoming clear. It seems increasingly likely that the administration will emphasize deterrence and trilateral coordination with Korea and Japan while testing the possibility of a near term agreement premised on North Korean acceptance of the eventual goal of denuclearization (meaning real denuclearization as stipulated in the Six Party Talks joint statements and not the fake “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” language Kim Jong-un used to trick Donald Trump).
Setting aside the enormous challenge Biden will face even starting with North Korea given that Pyongyang no longer feels itself bound by denuclearization commitments in the Six Party Talks, what might that interim agreement look like?
Eric Brewer and my CSIS colleague Sue Mi Terry proposed a “realistic deal” in Foreign Affairs on March 26, that is quite ambitious for a known “hawk” on North Korea like Terry. For that reason, her view could carry some weight with an administration that includes real skeptics on North Korea and some of her former proteges from the intelligence community. As Brewer and Terry argue:
Washington should focus its initial efforts on limiting North Korean capabilities that could pose the biggest threat to U.S. security and that Pyongyang might consider giving up — likely those capabilities that it has not yet mastered. This means focusing primarily on delivery systems rather than on nuclear warheads themselves. For instance, the Biden administration could ask for limits or prohibitions on the development, testing, production, and deployment of long-range solid-fuel missiles, multiple reentry vehicles, and ICBM warheads. Mastery of these capabilities would enable North Korea to launch missiles faster and with less warning, improve its ability to successfully strike the United States, and potentially evade U.S. missile defenses. The United States could also seek to ban the development of tactical nuclear weapons that Kim might view as more “usable” and that might therefore generate greater instability during a future crisis.
The authors acknowledge this would be a test of North Korea rather than a “grand bargain” of the kind envisioned by Trump. And while they admit that it would be risky, they emphasize that it is “worth a shot.”
My guess is that the Biden administration would view this as a very long shot — maybe too long a shot — in part because the Brewer/Terry proposal does not include the price tag that would have to be paid to Pyongyang. One would expect that North Korea will expect essentially what they demanded from Trump in Hanoi for comparable caps on weapons programs —a price that reportedly included the elimination of sanctions imposed on Pyongyang since its first nuclear test. If so, that price tag will prove too high for the Congress and the Biden White House, particularly since North Korea could resume provocations at any moment. The other problem will be with allies, which the authors rightly argue must be on side with any diplomatic effort. Seoul would probably accept such a deal, but if the agreement only caps ICBMs capable of hitting the United States and not the growing arsenal of MRBMs and SLBMs aimed at Japan, Tokyo will balk.
It is possible that Pyongyang might reduce the price tag from the Hanoi Summit if the United States and other countries provide significant humanitarian assistance to deal with the enormous threat the North faces from Covid-19. Humanitarian assistance is much easier to justify than broad sanctions lifting, as long as that aid can be monitored. Mass vaccination sites with vaccines supplied by the U.S., Korea and Japan but run by North Korea might allow that monitoring as vaccines are delivered. Perhaps the vaccination program could even be a Six Party deliverable with some vaccines provided by China and Russia. The question is whether Kim Jong Un cares about vaccinating his population and not just his elites. Certainly, he will be safer if the country is fully vaccinated while the end of self-imposed Covid isolation would also help the North Korean economy.
Some of the big ideas floated by the Blue House are not likely to win support in the White House — particularly the idea that Biden should rush to negotiate an end-of-war declaration before Moon Jae-in leaves office. It is possible that Biden administration will give some lip-service to the idea of taking steps towards an eventual peace treaty or end-of-war declaration, but this will not be where the U.S. President is going to use his political capital and strategic influence. Any reading of his statements on North Korea would confirm this basic view. His mantra is real denuclearization steps and not symbolic agreements.
As the cliché goes, North Korea is the land of bad options. The U.S. North Korea policy review will likely lead to a decision to allow a new envoy to test an interim agreement on North Korea. Covid assistance provides a humanitarian basis for sweetening the deal for Pyongyang without reversing sanctions put on North Korea for violating UN Security Council resolutions. But Trump gave away too much and left many landmines that could undo his successor’s efforts, including Pyongyang’s expectations of summitry, major sanctions lifting and an end to U.S.-South Korea military exercises. Balking at any of these free gifts Trump offered the North could cause Pyongyang to pull out of talks and resume nuclear or missile tests. The tension in U.S.-China and Japan-South Korea relations will only embolden Pyongyang to think it can get away with more demands and more provocations.
But as Brewer and Terry note, it is worth a shot. The important thing is that we be ready to acknowledge when our diplomatic efforts have failed, if and when that happens — before we end up doing material damage to our own deterrence and alliance solidarity the way Trump did.