Is diplomacy on North Korea leading up the garden path and over the cliff?
15 Jan 2019|

Pyongyang recently issued a couple of statements that reinforce the view that North Korea has no intention to denuclearise. On 20 December, KCNA, the official North Korean news agency, published a commentary providing North Korea’s definition of ‘denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula’. The statement sought to correct the US’s ‘misguided understanding’ of the phrase, stating: ‘[I]t means … removing all elements of nuclear threats from the areas of both the north and the south of Korea and also from surrounding areas from where the Korean peninsula is targeted. This should be clearly understood.’

Kim Jong-un then gave a New Year’s address in which he emphasised that ‘if the US fails to carry out its promise to the world but seeks to force something upon the DPRK unilaterally … and remains unchanged in its sanctions and pressure upon the DPRK, we might be compelled to explore a new path for defending the sovereignty of our country’.

Through these two statements, the regime in Pyongyang is pressuring the US to not only end all economic sanctions, but also withdraw its nuclear-capable forces from South Korea and the surrounding region. That would imply ending extended nuclear deterrence guarantees to the South to eliminate ‘nuclear threats’ to the North, and potentially ending such guarantees to Japan as well. The US must give all the key concessions up front before North Korea will consider putting its nukes on the table. It’s highly unlikely that the US will make such a bad deal.

It’s also important to judge the success, or lack thereof, of diplomacy by North Korea’s actions. In May, a key nuclear test site at Punggye-ri was supposedly demolished by controlled explosions. However, questions have emerged about whether the act was more show than substance. The authoritative blog 38 North notes that the site may in fact have only been mothballed. North Korea has also offered to dismantle its missile test site at Sohae, while at the same time expanding its nuclear- and missile-testing facilities elsewhere in the country.

Pyongyang’s move to expand its nuclear facilities—potentially to increase the number of nuclear warheads available—and its missile facilities suggests North Korea’s true intent. US President Donald Trump’s boast that with the signing of the Singapore declaration on 12 June last year, the North Korean nuclear threat was over, was, to quote the Bard, ‘a tale told by a fool, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’. North Korea can continue to make nuclear warheads if it chooses and produce a full range of ballistic missiles that will, over time, increase the nuclear threat to the United States.

Certainly, proponents of diplomacy—and that includes South Korean President Moon Jae-in—would argue that for North Korean denuclearisation to happen, Kim Jong-un must feel secure. So, peace must come before denuclearisation. Yet this is a strategy of hope on the part of Moon, and others, who apparently believe Kim is sincere about trading nukes for economic growth. That’s a nice idea, but photos of North and South Korean military personnel taking down guard posts and shaking hands don’t translate to real military drawdowns; they are cosmetic steps at best. The huge offensive potential of the Korean People’s Army—including massed artillery against Seoul—remains in place.

The main problem is it’s by no means certain that, once a peace treaty is signed, and once sanctions are lifted and US forces withdrawn, Kim will put his nuclear weapons on the bargaining table. Why would he? He’s gotten everything he needs in terms of a compliant South Korea that’s open to signing a peace agreement. The nukes remain his key source of leverage to coerce Seoul in securing the bigger goal of achieving reunification on his terms.

In any case, the sanctions are already decaying badly. And with a peace agreement in the offing between the South and North, there’s little hope for the US to strengthen the sanctions in the face of opposition from Seoul and to prevent further deliberate Chinese and Russian violations. There’s a growing risk of division between South Korea and the US on how to respond to North Korea’s expanding nuclear and missile capabilities. Kim knows that and has everything to gain and nothing to lose by keeping his nuclear weapons off the table.

Although Trump might be willing to do another bad deal with Kim, like he did in Singapore, his key national security advisers will push back strongly against further concessions to North Korea for little in return. With all the signals out of Pyongyang suggesting no movement on nukes, what’s the point of further diplomacy?

The US is now effectively boxed into a corner. It could try to return to the military, economic and political pressure of 2017—a ‘fire and fury’ Mark II—to force Pyongyang to make real moves towards denuclearisation. The problem is that the 2017 campaign ultimately did not force Pyongyang to negotiate seriously. Kim came to the table not because of pressure from the US, or to give up nuclear weapons, but because he saw an opportunity to gain an advantage over South Korea, divide it from the US and exploit Trump’s ego to secure concessions—and it worked.

A resumption of US harassment in 2019 is likely to encourage more North Korean missile testing and, potentially, additional nuclear testing—perhaps even the threatened atmospheric nuclear test. The US would have to respond, and we would begin the slide back towards a major military confrontation on the peninsula. (To get an idea of what that might look like, read Jeffrey Lewis’s excellent 2020 Commission report on North Korean nuclear attacks against the United States.)

Or the US could accept North Korea’s status as a nuclear-weapon state and embrace strategic patience. Of course, we’ve been down that path before, and it leads nowhere. Such a step would seriously weaken norms against nuclear non-proliferation globally. It would show that a state can break out of arms-control agreements, acquire nuclear weapons, ride out any international opprobrium and emerge as a nuclear weapon-state that other states will do business with.

But adopting a policy of strategic patience doesn’t mean the US should continue to engage with Pyongyang or accept normalised relations. The focus should instead switch to bolstering Seoul’s resolve against likely North Korean pressure to accede to Pyongyang’s demands.

At the height of the fire-and-fury crisis of 2017, I argued for enhanced deterrence against Pyongyang. I still do.

A nuclear-armed North Korea should not be rewarded with economic investment. It should be deterred from using its nuclear weapons—either for threat of use to coerce or from actual use—through a comprehensive, explicit and strengthened US extended nuclear deterrence posture that reinforces the security of both South Korea and Japan. That posture must be complemented with enhanced missile defence and a non-nuclear prompt-strike capability allowing ‘left of launch’ options for the future. Kim Jong-un should be forced to realise that, in the end, nukes have really gained him nothing.