Efforts Afoot to Solve the Korean Problem
The year 2017 witnessed an unprecedented downward trajectory in US-North Korea relations. The successful conduct of the sixth, and the most powerful, nuclear test ever by North Korea, the test-firing of a slew of ballistic missiles including IBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) that can carry nuclear warhead to the US mainland, exchange of naked threats of nuclear war between US administration and Kim Jong-un regime and the unending diplomatic wrangling have brought the bilateral ties to the brink of a nuclear war as Trump threatened to eliminate North Korea with fire and fury and Kim responded by a warning of raining the US mainland with nuclear bombs.
Amidst naked threats of aggression and extreme sabre rattling, the South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who came into power with the mandate of solving Korean issues through negotiation and dialogue, helped turn the Winter Olympics 2018 into an opportunity to seek peaceful resolution of problems. Held from 9 to 25 February at South Korean City of PyaongChang, the Winter Olympics attracted worldwide attention mostly due to political and diplomatic significance, instead of sport-related activities. The participation of Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of North Korean leader and the marching of both Koreas’ teams under one flag as well as the participation of NK’s highest military officials and Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump in the closing ceremony of the Olympics broke the ice and the world saw something that was unimaginable only a few months ago. Both Koreas agreed to carry forward the newfound rapprochement and turn it into a meaningful and result-oriented dialogue to settle the long-festering bilateral disputes. As a follow-up, the telephonic conversation between the two presidents further improved the relations. The announcement by South Korean president that North Korea was open to talks on every matter including denuclearization and normalization of the relationship has given the world community a pleasant surprise. The biggest surprisal was the announcement by the US State Department that President Donald Trump had accepted the offer of holding face-to-face meeting with his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-un and the rendezvous would take place in the end of May this year. This sudden, albeit shocking, acceptance of the offer extended by Kim Jong-un has helped generate fierce debate regarding success or failure of the proposed summit and what type of give and take both leaders would afford to make the dialogue successful and meaningful.
Talks with North Korea would not be an unprecedented development; the United States and the world community have long tried to engage the belligerent state so as to bring stability to the Korean Peninsula – and the world at large. Ever since the NK has signed Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985, US policymakers and interlocutors have utilized exhaustively all their political, economic and diplomatic resources to convince North Korean leadership to honour the commitment. The Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula (1992), President Jimmy Carter’s visit (1994) and laying down the contours of further diplomatic talks, Clinton administration-led “Agreed Framework” to freeze North Korean nuclear programme, China-led initiative of Six-Party talks – held intermittently since 2003 and attended by China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the United States for the purpose of dismantling North Korea’s nuclear programme – and many other diplomatic endeavours indicate that there are many precedents and initiatives upon which the proposed talks would be moulded.
Multiple factors have played their role in softening Kim’s stance on dialogue with the United States and its allies in the Pacific. Most prominent of them are: the crippling US diplomatic and economic sanctions that are hitting the North Korean economy hard, the South Korea-led sport diplomacy in the form of Winter Olympics that revived the hope of ultimate reunification of the Korean Peninsula, recent tensions with China that have compelled Kim to reduce dependency over China and, above all, the milestone achievement of Kim regime, that is, the development of IBM that can hit US mainland with nuclear warhead. Now that the Kim-Trump meet is scheduled in May, it is right time to dwell upon the possible scope and composition of the dialogue and underline the potential challenges and opportunities being associated with the eagerly-awaited negotiations.
Both countries would come up with their own sets of interests. For the United States and its allies, denuclearization, fully normalized relations, peace treaty that may officially end the state of war between the two Koreas, the concrete groundwork that may pave the way for ultimate reunification and the non-proliferation of Korean nuclear and missile technology and assets, as well as the permission of international inspection to the North Korean nuclear installations would be the main objectives. For North Korea, the chief objectives would be the international acceptance of its nuclear programme, an end to the diplomatic and political blockade that is hurting its economy and boost in its global standing in order to engage the US in dialogue on equal footing. The negotiation would be tough and demanding and would require considerable political sacrifice and political capital.
The long-term US objectives such as denuclearization, peace treaty and reunification should not be the immediate goal of the upcoming talks. Instead, the US negotiators need to focus on pursuing the near-term goal of reducing the threat posed by a nuclear-armed North Korea. In this regard, following diplomatic initiatives would serve as a beacon of light for engaging North Korea more deeply for the settlement of major issues:
1. The establishment of a channel of communication between the US and North Korean senior officials with an aim to reduce the risk of conflict in the event of an accident or crisis should be the topmost priority. The reliable channel of communication could be used to avoid local skirmishes arising out of some misunderstanding.
2. The second short-term goal should be a ban on further nuclear and missile tests on the part of North Korea. The assurance would provide much-needed political support at home to the US and South Korean negotiators. In this regard, negotiations could be made to revive the Agreed Framework, with some adjustments to accommodate the contemporary ground realities.
3. The agreement through which North would be bound to stop producing fissile material for nuclear weapons, cap the number of nuclear weapons in its possession and open its arsenal up to international inspection programme in order to effectively implement the arms-control treaty must be the third goal of the upcoming Kim-Trump meeting.
4. The next goal must be the building of non-proliferation regime to ensure that North Korea does not share nuclear material and technology with other countries. In this regard, different non-proliferation frameworks such as the resolution of the UN Security Council that authorizes every country to inspect North Korean ships and the Proliferation Security Initiative that was launched by George W. Bush to stop nuclear trafficking could be employed to pressurize NK to adhere to the principle of non-proliferation. North Korean leadership must be encouraged to rejoin the NPT and meet IAEA’s nuclear safeguards.
Besides these short-term goals that would exclusively serve the interests of the US and its allies, the US must take some confidence-building measures (CBMs) in order to take the North Korean leadership into confidence and make it believe that world community is serious in addressing the economic and security-related grievances of the Kim regime.
The US policymakers would have to make commitment to ending open hostility in return for NK’s pledge not to target US aircraft and its possessions. The US commitment not to attempt regime change would also go a long way in building trust in the proposed summit. In this regard, the adherence to the policy of No First Use that forbids both parties from resorting to nuclear attack, except in retaliation, would also provide much-needed sense of security to the public of both countries.
US should also offer to scale down the military exercises – the biggest cause of NK’s rage and sense of insecurity. The US should be ready to halt or significantly reduce the size and scope of military exercise as it has done in 1994, 1995 and 1996 as a concession to engage North more deeply and meaningfully. In addition, the US policymakers should arrange high-level visits and resume diplomatic contacts in order to assure the NK that it values the ties and desires a mutually-respectable engagement.
US-led economic and diplomatic sanctions have seriously hampered the ability of North Korean economy to provide even the basic amenities to its public. The gradual and progressive lifting of these embargos would be the right step in the right direction. In this regard, the US must lift those sanctions that hard hit the North’s economy such as coal and oil embargoes. The sanctions enacted for crippling North’s nuclear and missile programme must be removed gradually and accordingly to concrete outcomes secured through dialogue.
The thorny diplomatic process in the form of proposed Kim-Trump summit would inevitably demand wrenching choices and considerable spending of political capital. There are multiple frameworks that are at the disposal of the US negotiators to enhance the chances of the success of the dialogue.
The freeze-for-freeze agreement, by which Pyongyang would be stopped from conducting missile and nuclear tests and Washington would, in return, abandon military exercises near the North Korean border, could be materialized by the already available Agreed Framework mechanism. This agreement collapsed in 2002 due to Bush’s accusations that North is pursuing secretly a uranium-enrichment programme. There is time to dissect the causes of the failure of the said agreement and move forward to revive the freeze-for-freeze agreement.
The revival of the China-led initiative of Six-Party talks, which collapsed in 2009 due to the impasse over granting permission to international inspectors to visit North Korea, could be employed as a formal coordination mechanism. The invaluable diplomatic experience drawn from the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA) must be followed in this case too. The discussion should be secret to shave off the undue domestic and international political pressure. Multilateral diplomacy involving Japan, South Korea and China must be adopted as a means to settle the long-festering disputes instead of bilateral approach.
The proposed Kim-Trump meet would be a tremendous opportunity as it would be the first time that a sitting US president would meet North Korean leader face-to-face. Although the talks could face multiple challenges due to Trump’s mercurial behaviour arising out of his lack of diplomatic experience and the repulsiveness of Kim resulting from lack of exposure. Failure would provide an alibi to North to restart nuclear and missile tests and pose existential threats to the global peace and security. Contrarily, concrete outcomes would provide the diplomatic world a successful and working framework for denuclearization, thereby effecting the emergence of sport diplomacy as a viable mechanism to settle bilateral and multilateral disputes. It will also remove the major irritants between the US and China and will convince President Trump that the negotiated settlement of disputes is the only way forward.