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Breaking the impasse with North Korea

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un receives flowers from participants during the 8th Congress of the Korean Children's Union (KCU) in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang, North Korea 8 June 2017. (Photo: Reuters, KCNA).

In Brief

Recent tensions with North Korea remind us that the nuclear issue will continue to impede regional stability until we reach a lasting resolution. The efforts of the international community to convince North Korea to forsake nuclear weapons have met with little success over the past several decades


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— from the Agreed Framework and the establishment of the Korean Peninsula Economic Development Organization (KEDO) to the Six-Party Talks. Yet we must not fall into the trap of believing that a negotiated settlement with North Korea on denuclearization is impossible.

The alternatives to a negotiated settlement are too risky. Accepting North Korea as a nuclear power would only make matters worse. It would undermine the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and could drive other Asian nations to seek nuclear capabilities as well. A fully nuclear North Korea may also be emboldened if it believes that it will not be punished for acts of aggression. A pre-emptive strike has been raised as an option to take out North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, including underground facilities, but that is an unreliable strategy and would risk triggering a devastating war. Similarly, attempting to force a collapse of the Kim Jong-un regime would undoubtedly incur a high and bloody toll.

The primary objective of North Korea’s nuclear weapons is to acquire a deterrence capability vis-à-vis the United States and South Korea. Given the overwhelming asymmetry of conventional military capabilities in favour of the United States and its allies and partners, North Korea perceives nuclear weapons as the only way to guarantee its survival. As such, the current conventional wisdom is that, as long as the country is ruled by the Kim family, it will never give up its nuclear weapons, especially now that they are so close to a nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability. This defeatist conclusion, however, risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The only way to prevent this from occurring is for the international community to lay out an unambiguous calculus for North Korea: if it maintains its nuclear weapons it will not be allowed to survive, but without them, it will. This approach requires some key ingredients that have been missing from past initiatives: cooperation with China to effectively pressure North Korea, a strong assurance to North Korea that it will survive denuclearization both as a nation and an economy, and strong contingency planning. While the continued existence of North Korea — even a denuclearized North Korea — may seem politically unpalatable, it is preferable to either the cementing of North Korea’s nuclear status or the violent devastation that would surely accompany regime change or collapse.

The application of economic sanctions has made North Korea one of the most isolated countries in the world. Unfortunately, North Korea has demonstrated its unyielding resolve and an uncanny ability to find ways to evade the current sanctions regime. So, what can be done to make economic ‘sticks’ work this time?

While China has backed some tougher sanctions, including curbing coal imports from North Korea, it has been hesitant to apply the type of crippling pressure that is needed. This hesitancy stems from its own legitimate concerns. First, China fears an inflow of North Korean refugees. This fear is magnified given that 40 per cent of the residents of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, which straddles China’s border with North Korea, are ethnic Koreans. Second, China worries that regime collapse would result in a unified Korea that would align with the United States and Japan, removing its buffer zone and raising the possibility of US troops stationed along the Chinese border. Third, there is also the risk that a sudden collapse would bring devastation and violent conflict to the region. Additionally, there is the risk in a collapse scenario that nuclear weapons and technologies may end up in the hands of other countries or even terrorists.

In order to create conditions that would let China join in applying more substantial and effective sanctions on North Korea — such as cutting off hard currency and energy supplies (especially oil) — the United States, South Korea, and Japan must work together to reassure China. This reassurance should be founded on a common recognition that the North Korean threat has evolved to a new stage. It should involve discussions to work out a mutually acceptable agreement on buffer zones in exchange for Chinese cooperation. China will also need to be part of concrete contingency planning discussions in order to prepare for a worst-case scenario on the peninsula, including the question of how to deal with refugee flows.

Once the groundwork has been laid through cooperation with China, the door for credible denuclearization negotiations may open. The objective then must be to demonstrate to North Korea that if it refuses to give up its nuclear program, the sanctions will continue and it will not be able to survive. But positive incentives are required as well. Those ‘carrots’ should include diplomatic and economic reassurances regarding North Korea and the Kim regime’s post-denuclearization survival.

On the diplomatic front, the current ceasefire under the Korean War armistice agreement should be converted into a permanent peace treaty, the United States and Japan should normalize their diplomatic relations with North Korea, and the Six-Party Talks countries should pledge not to intervene in North Korean domestic politics. Assurances on economic survival will need to include international economic and energy assistance to North Korea. But only through the use of enhanced sticks and carrots can the international community realistically bring North Korea back to the table and move forward to implement this agreement.

Understandably, the use of harsher sanctions to demonstrate to North Korea that it cannot survive if it maintains its nuclear weapons is an inherently risky strategy. Those risks are outweighed by the prospect of a full-fledged nuclear North Korea, but we must prepare for the possibility that North Korea may react aggressively to hard-hitting sanctions or that the regime might miscalculate how far it can push back until a collapse scenario is triggered. Multilateral contingency planning to prepare for a worst-case scenario on the peninsula must be bolstered and expanded.

Stronger contingency planning should start with increased US–ROK–Japan trilateral cooperation. There has been some progress on this front with the passage of security-related bills by the Abe government in Japan in September 2015 and the signing of a GSOMIA (General Security of Military Information Agreement) between South Korea and Japan in November 2016.

But contingency planning must move beyond the trilateral realm and also be coordinated with China. This is necessary not only to reassure China and enable it to join in applying more effective sanctions, but also in order to ensure that North Korea’s nuclear weapons can be secured as quickly and efficiently as possible in case of a collapse scenario.

The international community must act decisively to lay the groundwork for credible negotiations with North Korea. Given the risks that pre-emptive strikes, regime change, and collapse scenarios would entail denuclearization through a negotiated settlement is the only option. The time to act is now, before North Korea perfects its missile technology and nuclear warhead miniaturization capabilities, or else the chance may be lost.

Hitoshi Tanaka is a senior fellow at the Japan Center for International Exchange (JCIE) and chairman of the Institute for International Strategy at the Japan Research Institute, Ltd. He previously served as Japan’s deputy minister for foreign affairs.

This article is an extract from the East Asia Insights May 2017 issue, which is available in full here, and is reprinted with the kind permission of JCIE.

2 responses to “Breaking the impasse with North Korea”

  1. Thanks for a thorough analysis. While I agree that more needs to be done to get China more engaged and invested in trying to denuclearize N Korea, I think two things are lacking on the American side. First, Trump lacks the understanding as well as the patience to work through all the various complicated details such negotiations with China would require. His recent statements and tweets show he is already distressed about the lack of progress with China’s efforts. Second, Trump’s Secretary of State Tillerson lacks any experience with Asian diplomacy. Neither does he have any deputies in place to guide him or Trump through the process.

    Additionally, the author did not note one other factor that might be motivating China; perhaps Xi wants the situation with N Korea to remain uncertain because this keeps the USA, Japan, and S Korea so engaged as to have less resources to devote to their efforts to contain China.

    With the most recent missile launch on 7/4 in the context of the G20 meeting coming up there could be some interesting changes in the next few days.

  2. While this post contains some good analysis of and proposals for resolving the nuclear issue on the Korea peninsula, I am afraid it still runs the risk that it remains in the realm of largely one-sided western thinking. There are at least two areas to support such a conclusion. One is that it argues that China is able to apply much harsher sanctions but it has so far not done so. This may prove to be quite false. One could argue that that simply ignores the huge effort that China has made and is probably a handy excuse to use China as a scapegoat and for the US to take measures against china at will. Do people really think that North Korea will yield to harsh sanctions and gives up its nuclear and missile programs? Further, is it right to ignore the effects on the ordinary people in North Korea of a complete cut off of trade by the international community that may starve the people and harden the resolve of the North Korean regime but may not be able to stop its programs?
    Secondly, it only asks the North Korea to change but does not ask the side that the North Korea would argue and think to threaten or post threats to its security and existence to justify the development of its nuclear and missile programs as a response.
    In comparison, it seems the joint proposal by China and Russia that demands both North Korea and the US/South Korea to make some compromise is more balanced and superior.
    It is illogical and possibly irrational to only ask one side to compromise aimed at seeking a real solution, because that is unlikely to be a real solution and that may only prolong the resolution.
    While we can argue that North Korea has been at fault for illegally developing its nuclear and missile programs, we run the risk of ignoring that continuing the same and one-sided approach may have been a significant factor that has so far prevented a successful resolution that we have been trying to achieve!

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