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A peace regime on the Korean Peninsula?

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un looks on during a ballistic rocket test-fire through a precision control guidance system in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) 30 May 2017.

In Brief

An apparent outcome of the Mar-a-Lago summit between US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping was renewed commitment to rolling back North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Trump muted his aggressive rhetoric towards China, particularly on economic issues.


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In return, China promised to pull North Korea back to the negotiating table — but is it possible to keep such a promise?

As with most presidential turnovers, Trump originally took great pains to differentiate himself from his predecessor by arguing that the era of ‘strategic patience’ was over. This Obama-era strategy involved a dual track approach of offering to negotiate on denuclearisation, but gradually tightening sanctions for both strategic and defensive reasons in the interim. The Trump administration, by contrast, emphasised that sanctions would be tightened significantly and that ‘all options were on the table’.

But in the wake of Mar-a-Lago, this new strategy of ‘maximum pressure and engagement’ quickly hit predictable roadblocks. While all options might be on the table, most military ones are either not good or entail significant risks to South Korea. And while the United States does have some residual instruments for toughening sanctions, the nuclear crisis that started in 2002 has had the perverse effect of pushing North Korea’s economy deeper and deeper into China’s embrace. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s claim that China now accounts for about 90 per cent of North Korea’s trade is not an exaggeration.

If the United States wants to significantly tighten sanctions on North Korea, one of two things has to happen: either China has to acquiesce or the Trump administration has to escalate pressure on Pyongyang through secondary sanctions — an approach that China has consistently and roundly denounced. For the Chinese leadership, sanctions are not a tool that will lead directly to denuclearisation, and they are almost certainly right. Sanctions are but one instrument in a broader effort to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table.

But what is to be negotiated? Here is where the idea of a peace regime enters the picture.

The United States has long insisted that negotiations begin with denuclearisation before seeking to replace the armistice. But over the last several years, Pyongyang has advanced quite a different negotiating sequence. A peace regime would be negotiated first in order to build confidence. Only with such an agreement in train or in place could progress be made on denuclearisation. Yet it is unlikely that a US president would permit negotiations on a peace regime with a nuclear North Korea.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has advanced a proposal that tries to square the circle. In a first phase — known as ‘suspension for suspension’ — mutual trust would be built by North Korea announcing a freeze on its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for the United States foregoing joint military exercises with the South. In the second phase, negotiations would commence not only on the nuclear issue but on a peace regime as well. This might occur in an omnibus negotiation or in separate but parallel fora.

The basic outlines of a peace regime are well-known, but the details are bounded only by the imagination. In the first instance, the armistice — an agreement among the militaries to stop the fighting — would be replaced by a peace treaty. South Korea was not a signatory to the armistice, as its forces fell under a UN Command headed to this day by a succession of US generals. Still, this core component of the peace regime would involve the four parties. A crucial element would be mutual recognition and the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and North Korea. The peace regime would no doubt include understandings between South and North Korea as well, building on the two North–South summit documents of 2000 and 2007 and perhaps security assurances from China.

But to date, North Korea has shown little interest in the Chinese proposal or in negotiating at all. China, desperately concerned that its influence in Pyongyang is slipping, is caught between difficult choices: whether to acknowledge that North Korea is a liability and push harder on bilateral sanctions to force Kim Jong-un’s hand, or to continue its maddening evenhandedness at the risk of gradually alienating the United States.

The Mar-a-Lago summit promised a 100-day honeymoon. That honeymoon is set to run out in July. To complicate matters, South Korea is also re-emerging as a player in the drama after being sidelined by the Park impeachment. South Korean President Moon Jae-in is well-known for favouring engagement and that issue will dominate his summit with Trump in Washington in late June. Can Moon move Trump to make a more explicit commitment to advancing the Chinese proposal? Or will Moon take the more conservative course of aligning with the United States around the nuclear and missile issue, slowing the pace of his engagement with the North?

US–South Korean relations may now determine the fate of denuclearisation negotiations — assuming, of course, that Kim Jong-un can be moved, and that issue remains far from clear.

Stephan Haggard is the Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of Global Policy and Strategy, University of California San Diego.

3 responses to “A peace regime on the Korean Peninsula?”

  1. It seems that the Chinese proposal represents a good compromise that may provide a solid and acceptable method to advance and resolve the nuclear and peace issues on the Korean peninsula. Both North Korea and the US should make and need to make some compromises and it is in their respective interests as well as that of the region and the world as a whole.
    A peace agreement may need also to bring into the picture of Russia at least and possibly Japan, given North Korea’s reliance on Russia and its opportunistic gaming in using China and Russia. The North may be more willing to have Russia on its side for a peace agreement with the US, one would think. And arguably, Russia would make a peace agreement more effective because it can provide much more weight in preventing the US into unilateral military actions, or a threat of such actions. China does not have and will not be able to provide such a deterrence.

  2. I almost hate to write this, because I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Haggard and his excellent work looking at the North Korean refugee issue and overall economic picture of the country, but in terms of political analysis, this article really offers nothing of substance. As Christopher Hill said in his piece for Project Syndicate a couple of weeks ago, the US ALREADY offered North Korea a peace deal, economic aid, and diplomatic relations back in 2005 during the Six Party Talks in return for a complete freeze on the North’s nuclear programs. The DPRK response was to turn that down and conduct the country’s first nuclear test, and since that time, the leadership in Pyongyang has consistently rejected any attempts to return to negotiations without an acknowledgment of the its nuclear status. That has become the prerequisite for any talks with the North; hence, that’s why apart from the ill-fated Leap Day Deal (which attempted to deal with the secondary issue of missile development), there haven’t been any meaningful discussions between the US and the DPRK since the Six Party Talks broke down back in 2009. No American president wants to be the one who legitimized the DPRK as a nuclear power, and I highly doubt Trump is going to be the first.

    Cutting through the flowery backdrop and getting to the crux of the issue, the Trump Administration essentially has four choices: 1) acknowledge the North as a nuclear state and enter into negotiations with the Kim regime. The problem, of course, is that if the end goal is a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, it’s counter-intuitive to basically remove that as a possibility from the outset. 2) continue the same lame policy of “strategic patience” and gradually tighten sanctions at the margins in the vain hope that the DPRK leadership might alter course eventually, someday, at some distant future date. 3) put sanctions on Chinese companies/banks doing business with the North and hope that this will inspire the Chinese to implement tougher policies (cutting off oil exports, perhaps?) against the regime, although this action will likely have the exact opposite effect and push the two sides closer together, making denuclearization even less likely. 4) take military action in order to stop the country from further developing its missile and nuclear programs.

    As long as the status quo remains in place, those are the choices. Period. Trump gets on Twitter and demands China take some tough action on North Korea? Well, he’d better be prepared to offer something concrete to assuage Beijing’s fears about the country falling apart. For my money, there’s only one thing that would make the Chinese even begin to consider taking the kind of steps that would be necessary to force the Kim regime to alter course, and that’s offering to pull US troops out of South Korea. Put that on the table, and suddenly you’ll find government much more willing to force the North into verifiable denuclearization, or conversely, finally implementing the kinds of actions that would put some real strain on the regime’s viability.

    A far-fetched idea? Perhaps. But unless the US is willing to do something extreme – war on the one hand, pulling the troops out on the other – you don’t have to be Nostradamus to see how this situation will progress. And continuing to dance around the issue by pretending there is some kind of third way does nothing besides provide click-bait for us armchair analysts.

    • Geoff:

      Good to hear from you.

      You are thinking too dichotomously. First, no one thinks that a resolution to the conflict is easy or even likely; any proposal has a low probability of success. If various options fail, you are basically in a containment world with a nuclear North Korea. Obviously, this is a possibility. Second, you tick off options that are not mutually exclusive. The current strategy–as it has been since Perry–is coercive diplomacy: to combine offers of engagement with various attempts at leverage, primarily sanctions but perhaps military ones as well. Aggressive secondary sanctions against China have not even been tried yet–the Dandong designation was the first effort–so it is hard to say that they will necessarily fail. It will depend on how much financial intelligence the US can bring to bear. China will be hard pressed to allow firms and individuals to operate who are violating UNSC resolutions they themselves have signed. Finally, you misunderstand the dynamics of negotiations and their temporal dimension in particular. It will take years to negotiate even a slowdown of the program; look at 2007-8. Putting a withdrawal of US forces on the table is cheap talk; it’s like telling the Chinese we won’t move above the 38th parallel. Such an offer only becomes credible given alliance relations once some significant progress is made, which you can’t do without entering into the negotiations in the first place.

      In short, don’t interpret this piece as a statement of confidence that negotiations will succeed. The point is only that IF North Korea is to denuclearize, it will only happen through negotiations that put a mix of mutual interests on the table. Whether Trump has the dexterity to navigate this narrow path, I leave to you.

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