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Trump's North Korea conundrum

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visiting Mangyongdae Revolutionary School in an undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang (Photo: KCNA/Reuters).

In Brief

Since North Korea declared its intention to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty in 1993, the international community has worked overtime trying to denuclearise the isolated state.


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These efforts included the 1994 Agreed Framework to freeze operations at North Korea’s indigenous nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. That led to the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (1995–2006) under which the United States, South Korea, Japan, the EU, Australia and others agreed to provide North Korea with two ‘proliferation resistant’ light water reactors. And there followed the Six-Party Talks (2003–09) between the United States, Japan, South Korea, China, Russia and North Korea. They aimed at a comprehensive resolution which would see North Korean denuclearisation in exchange for the establishment of a permanent peace treaty, international economic and energy cooperation, and normalisation of diplomatic relations with the United States and Japan.

Under the Obama administration ‘strategic patience’ was the policy of the day. The idea was that the United States should leave North Korea to suffer under economic sanctions and could afford to wait for it to come back to the negotiating table after it committed to abandoning its nuclear weapons. Strategic patience was indistinguishable from not actually doing anything and served to give North Korea more time to develop its nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems. For all the wishful thinking, a North Korean collapse does not appear to be on the horizon.

During the transition after the US election late last year, President Obama reportedly told Donald Trump that North Korea would likely be the most urgent problem he would have to face as president. President Trump seems to have paid attention to this message and put out some tough talk. During a visit to South Korea last month, US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, announced the end of strategic patience, declared that ‘all options are on the table’ in order to denuclearise North Korea, and refused to rule out pre-emptive strikes. What ‘all options’ means is still unclear.

As the comprehensive approach in the Six-Party Talks illustrates, nuclear negotiations with North Korea are inextricably entangled with the geopolitical circumstance that troubles the divided Korean peninsula. The Korean War, which ended in 1953, is still technically in a ceasefire as the United States and South Korea have yet to negotiate a permanent peace treaty with the North. North and South Korea both claim legitimacy as the sole sovereign state over the entire peninsula and are constitutionally committed to removing the other from the map through unification. The nuclearisation of North Korea has implications for nuclearisation in South Korea and Japan. This geopolitical reality severely complicates efforts to denuclearize North Korea.

If there is any flickering possibility that diplomatic efforts may persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal, it requires North Korean trust that the United States won’t take its nukes now and pursue regime change later. The example of Libya and the fall of the Gaddafi regime serve as a stark reminder to the North Korean leadership about the importance of getting the sequencing right for survival.

As David Kang notes in our lead essay this week ‘the nuclear and security situation looks almost identical to 20 years ago’. While North Korea has significantly improved its nuclear and missile capabilities in the interim, there is a sense of déjà vu surrounding the continuing North Korean conundrum.

Sanctions are the politically easy option in a gridlocked Washington. But intensifying sanctions or other measures to contain or pressure North Korea are unlikely to coerce its capitulation. ‘Given the extensive sanctions already imposed on the country, it’s hard to believe that even more pressure will somehow lead the country to choose a new direction. …Pressure has not worked on North Korea in the past, and there is no evidence that more pressure will work today’. Sanctions that hurt the general population rather than the top-tier elites serve to strengthen regime propaganda and unite the country against its perceived external enemies.

Pre-emptive strikes to take out North Korean nuclear facilities or instigate regime change appear highly risky if not reckless. There is no guarantee that all North Korea’s nuclear weapons can be accurately located and many North Korean military facilities are thought to be protected in underground strongholds making them difficult to destroy surgically. It is also probable that North Korea would retaliate. ‘Pyongyang can take out Seoul with its conventional weapons, and could even target Tokyo’. The greater Seoul area, not far from the DMZ and North Korea’s amassed heavy artillery on the other side, is home to about 25 million people, or half of South Korea’s population. ‘Starting a war would put millions of lives at stake’.

It’s been fashionable to blame China for failing to apply enough pressure on North Korea. The idea of secondary sanctions against Chinese banks or companies dealing with North Korea has been canvassed as a means to pressure China into serious action on North Korea. But cooperation and coordination with the Chinese state will be needed to make such measures effective.

What’s not well understood is China’s own frustration with Kim Jong-un. While his father, Kim Jong-il, made a number of trips to China and met with Chinese leaders keen to show him around Zhongguancun (China’s silicon valley) to extol the virtues of reform, Kim Jong-un ‘has purged or executed the small number of senior North Korean officials known to Beijing, most prominently Kim’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek’. Official meetings between Chinese and North Koreans are at best sporadic while Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping have never met and are unlikely to in the near future.

China is hesitant to put the squeeze on North Korea not because it thinks of it as an ally. The days of China–DPRK relations being as close as ‘lips and teeth’ from their shared experience fighting together in the Korean War are long over. Rather China has thus far calculated that a pesky North Korean neighbour is preferable to a North Korea with its back against the wall lashing out, or a chaotic collapse scenario where potentially millions of refugees flood into Northeast Asia and nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction could potentially fall into the hands of whoever got hold of them.

To avoid these worst case scenarios the international community, including all Six-Party Talks members, will need to work together to steer North Korea toward a soft landing. If all options really are on the table they should include highly targeted pressure against the very top-tier North Korean elites while further empowering the market forces which emerged after the famine and collapse of the state distribution system in the mid-1990s in order to coax North Korea into credible negotiations.

As Kang explains, ’40 per cent of North Korean incomes, if not half, now derive from the market economy. People’s livelihoods are less tied to their government today than ever before. These changes have been so transformative that the regime has attempted to roll back market forces and rein in the people out of fear of losing its power. Pyongyang is worried that the more people operate in the market, the less control the government will have’.

Working over the long term and ‘slowly changing the way North Korean people think about their own government and the outside world’ provides a better, albeit still risky, bet in joint efforts to manage tensions and avoid the catastrophic scenario where North Korea actually one day uses its nuclear weapons.

The EAF Editorial Group is comprised of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Ryan Manuel, Amy King and Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

One response to “Trump’s North Korea conundrum”

  1. This is a thoughtful exploration of the rather limited set of choices facing the USA and its allies. All the arguments have been laid out with devastating clarity.

    The USS Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group now approaching Korean coasts may help to make a point following Trump’s “killing the cat to scare the monkey” cruise missile-strike on Syria, but unless Washington actually attacks and destroys the DPRK’s deterrent in a decapitating first-strike, this show of force is just another episode in a long series of such potent displays in impotence.

    In the end, and however long it might take the parties to get there, negotiations will have to be held, and a broadly consensual resolution fashioned. Nobody will gain all they seek, but a compromise will have to be struck, one that they all can live with. Anything else will be either short-term, or avoidably painful, or both. With nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles in play, the choice could not be starker.

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