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Visiting senior fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul.
We cannot expect to find a new, silver-bullet idea that will magically and quickly solve the North Korea problem. It will require the right configuration of existing options—both carrots and sticks—timed with developments on the ground.
As Pyongyang gains options and confidence with qualitative and quantitative advancements in nuclear-missile capabilities, time is not on our side. The challenge is getting North Korea to talk and preventing Washington-Seoul cleavages if a progressive South Korean president is elected in May.
How to use the right mix of tools to bring Pyongyang to the table and stop further escalation of the crisis? Diplomacy and coercive measures each invite risks. But after two decades of trial and error, Pyongyang’s growing capabilities, and consistent provocations, the reality is that diplomacy can be effective only if backed by effective and credible pressure.
The Trump administration is examining the once off-limits military option. It is natural for a new administration to want a different policy from its predecessor and to consider kinetic tools in its policy review. But an over-reliance on hard power at the expense of diplomacy runs the risk of miscalculation and triggering inadvertent conflict.
Equally, a narrow, nonproliferation approach will not solve this problem or related regional challenges. A mere freeze will undermine U.S. credibility, encourage Iran and others to follow Pyongyang’s playbook, and tempt Japan and South Korea to go nuclear. The end goal can only be denuclearization and resolution of security concerns. Canceling U.S.-South Korea military exercises or holding early peace treaty talks won’t work. And Beijing will not solve the problem for Washington. A comprehensive policy is imperative.
The fact of a new U.S. administration offers a chance to try negotiations with eyes wide open. A new factor—an unconventional and unpredictable Trump—could be the unforeseen key in dealing with an unconventional Kim Jong Un. Striking a “grand bargain” over hamburgers might even be plausible now, if done right.
Professor at Kookmin University in Seoul
One thing should be clear by now: as long as the North Korean state exists, it will not surrender its nuclear weapons. North Korea’s decision makers see nuclear weapons as virtually the sole guarantee of their political and even physical survival. They saw what happened to Saddam Hussein in Iraq and to Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, the only strongman in history who agreed to swap his nuclear program for economic benefits.
Nuclear weapons are necessary for the survival of North Korea’s elite, and when the issue is survival, other concerns, such as economic growth or the wellbeing of the public, fall into second place. North Korea’s leaders will neither yield to sanctions and pressure, nor can they be lured by the promises of economic benefits.
This means the only possible solution—even if it is a seriously flawed one—is a nuclear freeze. This is a deal which entails North Korea halting its production and testing of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, in exchange for generous aid and political concessions from the US and other interested parties.
Unfortunately, there is little chance of striking this kind of deal in the immediate future. North Koreans will not consider this option until they develop “second strike” capability against the United States – that is, for a few more years. The U.S also has good reasons to be hostile to a compromise, which looks suspiciously like “paying the blackmailer” (which is undoubtedly how opponents of the deal in Congress will describe it).
These concerns are well founded, but real politics is generally a choice between bad and worse options. In the absence of an agreement, North Korea’s missile and nuclear program will develop unchecked, creating even greater threats for international security. But it will take time for international actors to accept that there are few realistic alternatives to the imperfect compromise of a nuclear freeze.
Director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council
North Korea is perilously close to developing nuclear warheads and long-range missiles to deliver them. It is willing to negotiate, but not on U.S. terms: that it first commit to full denuclearization. President Obama instead adopted a stance of “strategic patience”—sanctions without talks.
Sanctions take time to work, proponents say. How long? Meanwhile, how many nuclear and missile tests will North Korea carry out? How much fissile material will it produce? How long before it fields ICBMs? Even sooner, President Trump will face pressures to wage preventive war. That could rupture alliances with South Korea and Japan.
The only way out of this predicament is to resume talks to probe whether North Korea will suspend its nuclear and missile programs in return for scaling back joint military exercises, modest sanctions easing, and commitment to a peace process.
Negotiations have been tried before with some success. The 1994 Agreed Framework shut down North Korea’s plutonium production for a decade, but collapsed after Washington did little to end enmity—“move toward full political and economic normalization”—and Pyongyang began to acquire the means to enrich uranium. A 2005 six-party accord induced North Korea to stop making plutonium and testing missiles for two years, only have South Korea fail to provide promised energy aid.
Candidate Trump often embraced negotiations during his campaign. He first broached the subject on January 6, 2016, the very day North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test: “You have this madman over there who probably would use it … but nobody is talking to him whatsoever, and nobody is discussing it with China.”
President Trump backed up his words with deeds. He extended U.S. aid—the first in five years—for flood relief. Despite a KN-11 ballistic missile launch and the assassination of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, his State Department issued visas for DPRK officials to attend meetings in New York, only to reverse that decision shortly thereafter.
The artist of the deal needs to try again—soon.
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