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Time to rethink North Korea strategy

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In Brief

North Korea’s recent nuclear test and ostensible satellite launch puts the spotlight on the failure of the international community to tame Pyongyang. Led by the United States, the international community has reacted strongly to the recent tests, pushing additional punitive sanctions against Pyongyang and raising the prospect of additional military deterrence measures.


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The UN Security Council has passed a resolution imposing tougher sanctions on North Korea, including banning imports of coal, iron and other mineral imports.

But it remains to be seen how effective any augmented sanctions regime will be. Pyongyang’s track record of circumventing sanctions, the regime’s seeming durability, and the unwillingness of China to squeeze North Korea too hard for fear of instability all call into question the likely efficacy of sanctions.

If sanctions may not be effective, would engagement be a more productive alternative?

In recent years, the idea of resuming negotiations has been discredited due to increasing mistrust after North Korea’s failure to abandon its nuclear program. The Six-Party Talks have been moribund since the end of 2008, while the breakdown of the 2012 Leap Day Agreement signalled the end of Washington’s patience in dialogue.

All sides have since imposed high preconditions as the basis for dialogue, which have proven unacceptable to the other. For the United States and South Korea, this involves tangible denuclearisation measures. For North Korea this entails the signing of a peace treaty and the dismantling of the US ‘hostile policy’ towards it.

Given current tensions, preventing any crisis from escalating must be the first priority. The deteriorating security environment is pushing the Korean peninsula in a dangerous direction. In reaction to the tests, South Korea has closed the Kaesong Industrial Complex and resumed loudspeaker broadcasts across the Demilitarised Zone. The United States and South Korea began a series of joint military exercises on 12 March and the deployment of strategic weapons remains a possibility. Meanwhile, North Korea has terminated North–South hotlines and a patrol boat is reported to have crossed the Northern Limit Line. Further missile tests and other military actions by the North are possible.

It is critical that both sides work to stabilise the situation. Diplomatic channels, both at official and unofficial levels, between the United States, South Korea and North Korea are urgently needed to clarify intentions and defuse tensions. Dialogue should focus on the speedy re-establishment of direct military hotlines, issuing prior notification of military movements and preventing unexpected incidents.

Beyond the immediate concern of military crisis management, after the end of the US–ROK military exercises, the next challenge is to resume negotiations. This will require the United States and North Korea to remove or lower the preconditions to more formal dialogue.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the United States had secretly agreed to hold talks with North Korea, just days before the North’s nuclear test, although Washington rejected further negotiations following the test. This suggests that the United States might be willing to hold peace treaty talks with Pyongyang on the condition that the discussions also deal with denuclearisation, rather than requiring verifiable denuclearisation measures as a precondition for any talks.

In finding a middle-ground as a starting point, one proposal could be the mutual signing of a non-aggression agreement whereby the two sides affirm they will not attack each other. This would guarantee a certain level of security to Pyongyang, in return for it declaring a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests.

This could then offer a basis for the resumption of multilateral negotiations to discuss more detailed steps. On 17 February, the Chinese foreign ministry proposed that the issues of a peace treaty and denuclearisation could be discussed at the same time under the framework of the Six Party Talks. In so doing, it is necessary for all sides to reaffirm that the end goals remain the full denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and the signing of a peace treaty.

North Korea’s nuclear program is largely motivated by its security concerns. Thus, there is a need to put greater focus on security building from the outset, rather than economic incentives, in return for denuclearisation measures. It is necessary to revisit previous agreements and decide which principles and aspects still hold relevance. The situation on the Korean peninsula has evolved and North Korea has enhanced its nuclear capabilities since previous agreements were inked.

There also needs to be more specific language and stipulations, stringent verification measures and clear steps outlined in case of noncompliance. Factoring in these considerations, it would be necessary to establish a roadmap that specifies mutually agreed on levels of reciprocity and sequencing. All of this will require political will as well as bold and imaginative diplomacy — which, unfortunately, seem to be lacking in the present context.

Attention is understandably focused on responding to and counteracting North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests. Sanctions signal to North Korea that the international community does not accept its nuclear program and can apply pressure on the regime by raising the costs of nuclear ambitions. But, if not complemented by serious long-term efforts to engage Pyongyang in dialogue, they risk further entrenching, not attenuating, its nuclear ambitions.

With each test North Korea conducts, and so advances its nuclear status, it will become harder to coerce or convince it to denuclearise. This reality should point all sides to the conclusion that they cannot afford to forgo dialogue any longer.

Sangsoo Lee leads the Korea Project and Alec Forss is editor at the Institute for Security and Development Policy

An extended version of this article first appeared here on ISDP.

4 responses to “Time to rethink North Korea strategy”

  1. This piece fails to explain why the DPRK would engage in a test after it had agreed in secret to resume talks with the USA. Is it that insecure that it feels it must demonstrate its ‘strength’ before engaging in talks again? Or is it so ambivalent about serious negotiations with the USA that it does something which it must know will undermine that intended course of action?

    From my admittedly Western point of view how can the USA, ROK, Japan, etc begin to trust the DPRK when it engages in such seemingly provocative behavior?

    • North Korea just wanted to talk about the peace treaty with the US. But the US refused further meetings because it is not acceptable for the US to discuss only the peace treaty without denuclearization issue. North Korea seems to request such treaty for granted as they think its nuclear weapon is now very powerful (and could attack the US).

      Of course, it is difficult to trust the DPRK now. That is why we need a dialogue as a trust building process.

      • Thank you for your reply. Let me try to elaborate on my pint some more: how can the USA and the DPRK engage in a dialogue when neither side is willing to compromise in order to make progress on issues like a peace treaty, nuclear weapons testing, etc?

        Perhaps I am taking a one sided view of the situation but the DPRK just fired two more missles. How can the USA, ROK, or Japan sit down and talk with them now?!? They will ask, if not demands that the DPRK stop doing this. The DPRK will refuse, of course.

        • The annual Key Resolve and Foal Eagle military drills are going on until April 30. As every year, there is lots of screaming and shooting in the air by both sides until that. A very uplifting scene for all spectators. North Korea will organize the 7th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea in early May, and at that time the leadership will be occupied with that. However, from late May or June onwards it will be time for NK, SK and the US to start discussing again politely with each other. Although the performances on stage are freshly new each year, they tend to follow an old manuscript.

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