America’s diplomatic approach with North Korea is flawed. It’s time to change tack
Last Sunday, US envoy to North Korea, Sung Kim, called on Pyongyang to stop “provocations and other destabilizing activities” and “engage in dialogue”. On Monday, the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, said he would redouble his efforts to establish a “new order for peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula … through dialogue and diplomacy”. Up to this point, the North Korean leadership has been cool to the overtures. It’s not hard to figure out why.
While US envoy Kim called for dialogue on Sunday, he also reiterated one of Washington’s longstanding objectives that has obstructed any movement towards a diplomatic breakthrough. “Our goal,” the US envoy declared, “remains the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” What remains to be explained, however, is how the Biden administration interprets that statement.
The Obama administration and eventually the Trump administration defined the “full and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” as meaning North Korea had to first give up its nuclear weapons and program before the US would grant any sanctions relief – a complete non-starter for Pyongyang.
The North Koreans are assessed to have at least 60 deliverable nuclear warheads. Kim Jong-un regards his nuclear arsenal as being the best guarantee against a US military attack against his country and regime. It would be irrational, therefore, to expect the North Korean leader to willingly hand over his only strategic deterrent in exchange for mere promises from Washington. It’s not going to happen.
The good news is US national security is assured regardless of what does or doesn’t happen diplomatically on the peninsula. The nuclear genie, so to speak, is out of the bottle, and we can never put it back: Kim has a credible nuclear option that effectively deters the US from launching any wars of choice or so-called “pre-emptive” wars.
In an even stronger way, however, the United States – with its 4,571 to 60 advantage in nuclear weapons – can deter Kim Jong-un indefinitely from ever using his nuclear arsenal in a war of choice against us. Yet there are plenty of actions Washington can take to reduce even the chances for accidents or miscalculations that could inadvertently lead to military clashes between the US and North Korea.
On Monday, South Korea’s chief nuclear envoy, Noh Kyu-duk, tried to breathe new life into the idea of declaring a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean war. Such an action – which is distinct from a peace treaty – could have the effect of serving “as a gateway for talks on achieving complete denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula”, Noh explained, “and the establishment of a permanent peace”.
If the Biden administration follows the failed playbook of virtually every other administration since the early 1990s and holds out for a complete denuclearization by North Korea as a prerequisite for progress, Biden will come up short as all those before him did.
But if he instead places denuclearization as an eventual aspiration – as, pointedly, both Moon and Kim Jong-un have done – featuring instead a step-by-step approach in which we make a number of progressively small steps matched by Pyongyang making steps of their own, the chances of even accidental war will continue to diminish and the prospects for peace rise.
For example, the United States can offer limited (and reversable) sanctions-relief for major steps by North Korea, such as nuclear freezes, the dismantling of major nuclear production facilities, and other meaningful concessions. But it is important to acknowledge that in order to get a major concession from North Korea, we have to be mentally prepared to give them something of value as well; no party will every negotiate away something important for nothing in return.
America’s overriding primary objective on the Korean peninsula is to avoid unnecessary war and preserve economic opportunity for our country. A maximalist policy that demands Pyongyang denuclearize before the US offers anything in return offers little maneuvering room for meaningful diplomacy. The US already has the military power to deter Pyongyang indefinitely. The administration should therefore do whatever it takes, in a diplomatic step-by-step process, to lower the tensions and increase the chances for peace.
10. Veterans Day Svg
Last Sunday, US envoy to North Korea, Sung Kim, called on Pyongyang to stop “provocations and other destabilizing activities” and “engage in dialogue”. On Monday, the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, said he would redouble his efforts to establish a “new order for peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula … through dialogue and diplomacy”.…