Elephants in the Room
With North Korea, Good Intentions Aren’t Enough
Trump's unilateral negotiating strategy will fail unless the United States collaborates with its regional allies — and adversaries — to forge a lasting peace.
It is a mystery how, after two face-to-face meetings between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and at least five negotiating sessions at Panmunjom, the June 12 summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump only produced a vague, mushy 391-word statement, with denuclearization mentioned third after building a new U.S.-North Korean relationship and establishing a “peace regime” on the Korean Peninsula — whatever that may be.
But that is only the beginning of the many mistakes Trump is making that are likely to sabotage his own policy. To the president’s credit, dealing directly with Kim was a masterstroke, stirring new hope and momentum. Not meeting directly with the dictator making decisions was one flaw in previous efforts to denuclearize North Korea. But now what?
The larger structural problem is that there is no process in place to channel good intentions into the implementation of a denuclearization bargain. The United States doesn’t even have an ambassador in Seoul, nor does Washington have a senior negotiator there. The fear is that when Pompeo goes to Pyongyang in the coming weeks to work out the details he will simply present a take-it-or-leave-it road map. And that will lead us back to threats of military strikes.
By defining the North Korean nuclear problem principally as a U.S.-North Korean issue, Trump has unnecessarily complicated the process, sparking a free-for-all for the other actors in Northeast Asia — China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan — to actively carve out their own respective roles.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, who pointedly avoided Kim for the first five years of his reign, has now met Kim three times since March. You can be sure they have developed a game plan, and I’m guessing it is different from Trump’s.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov headed to North Korea last month to align Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policies with Pyongyang’s approach, not Washington’s. This was followed by Moon Jae-in making a trip to Moscow, where he spoke of building a Northeast Asian economic community with Russia. Moon is pursuing his vision of North-South confederation and an integrated region where Russia — with ample oil, gas, and hydropower to supply — builds pipelines and a regional electric grid. Moreover, the North-South reconciliation process is moving apace on its own separate track. Finally, in Japan, a distraught Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been left out in the cold, scrambling to define a Japanese role beyond writing checks to finance denuclearization and reparations from the colonial period after Tokyo and Pyongyang normalize relations.
The current U.S. administration suffers from two major problems. First, if this time is genuinely different from previous failed diplomatic efforts to address the North Korean nuclear problem, it is because Kim’s intentions are different from those of his predecessors. Trump emphasized North Korea’s economic potential if it makes a strategic choice to open its economy and engage commercially with the world.
If Kim is having a Deng Xiaoping moment — which could turn out to be more of a Gorbachev moment — and has decided that, at 34, he wants to be around for a few decades and needs market economic reforms similar to China’s to secure North Korea’s future, then such logic could imply that Kim seeks to change the country’s basis of political legitimacy from being a nuclear state to, as with China’s Communist Party, a legitimacy based largely on economic performance. The United States could test that proposition at no risk by inviting Pyongyang to begin a dialogue with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization about steps to membership in the Bretton Woods institutions.
Trump has declared that not a dime of U.S. taxpayer money will go to North Korea. So, providing economic incentives will require broad regional cooperation. If so, it will require not just U.S.-North Korean cooperation, but all of Northeast Asia to finance and facilitate North Korean efforts to reform and integrate itself into the regional economy. All of these countries will have to help foster a stable post-nuclear security environment and facilitate North Korean efforts to become a more normal state.
Unfortunately, Trump’s unilateralism may cause other challenges that complicate diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula. For example, the International Atomic Energy Agency can only inspect and monitor Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Removing fissile material or nuclear weapons should involve the U.N.’s five permanent members — or, in this case, the United States, China, and Russia, which has direct experience dismantling nukes, make the most sense.
Similarly, it’s not clear how Washington can verify that the sequencing of South Korean, Chinese, or Russian economic cooperation — through aid, investment, and trade with North Korea — is not proceeding faster than the pace of dismantling and destroying North Korean nuclear weapons. If such benefits to North Korea are not managed in a way that ensures that they accrue no faster than denuclearization proceeds, this will undermine U.S. leverage and likely result in a nuclear freeze rather than full denuclearization.
These sorts of concerns were one reason why the six-party talks — involving North and South Korea, the United States, Russia, Japan, and China — were launched at the beginning of the previous round of nuclear diplomacy in 2003. It’s no coincidence that in a speech last week to the Russian Duma, Moon called for resurrecting the six-party framework in order to coordinate policies.
While the 2005 joint statement resulting from the six-party process ultimately fell apart, one important lesson from those efforts was that the interests of the five major regional powers overlapped sufficiently with regard to the North Korean nuclear problem that they were able to cooperate as mutual stakeholders in the process.
Each of the five countries, for example, chaired a working group managing the implementation of one of several key elements of the accord — denuclearization, energy and economic assistance, normalization of relations, and peace and security in Northeast Asia. Each issue was carefully sequenced with progress in denuclearization and could only move forward in harmony with the dismantlement of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.
It is difficult to see how the current round of U.S.-North Korean diplomacy can succeed without active cooperation from the front-line Northeast Asian nations. A peace treaty, for example, requires four-party talks involving not only the two Koreas but also the United States and China as signatories to the armistice. China and South Korea are likely to take the lead in developing economic cooperation to provide the benefits Kim is seeking. But unless this is synchronized with denuclearization efforts, it could undermine pressure on North Korea to dismantle its nuclear and missile programs.
In order to maximize cooperation and synchronize the respective diplomatic efforts of the United States, China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea, some framework including all five actors is necessary. As negotiations move from general principles and commitments to actual implementation, such cooperation will be essential. Whether working with the IAEA to verify nuclear dismantlement, removing nuclear warheads and fissile material, or providing economic aid and training to North Korea, regional collaboration would enhance prospects for success.
If the United States fails to use regional collaboration as a mechanism to advance Washington’s objectives, it is unlikely to succeed. Absent such concerted efforts, Pyongyang will likely seek to drive wedges between the United States and South Korea, China, and Japan, making the end goal of denuclearization much harder to achieve.