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The North Korean peace train is leaving backwards

Posted By on June 9, 2018 @ 09:00

The 12 June summit between Kim Jong‑un and Donald Trump is almost upon us, and already some pretty fundamental shifts have occurred in the US negotiating position. Previously the US has sought to apply ‘maximum pressure’ through economic sanctions against the regime in Pyongyang in order to get North Korea to make concrete steps towards complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation (CVID) as part of any deal.

Now, the US seems ready to sit down with Kim and negotiate a peace agreement, eschew ‘maximum pressure’ and put off CVID for another day. All while giving Kim the prestige of a face-to-face meeting with a sitting US president, and in doing so, implicitly recognising North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state.

Never have so many concessions been offered to North Korea for so little in return.

The North Koreans have frozen nuclear and missile testing. Both freezes are entirely reversible. Let’s start with nuclear testing. The supposed destruction of the Punggye‑Ri nuclear test site was largely stage-managed. Only the entrances to the testing tunnels collapsed—not the tunnels themselves. At least two of the three tunnels could be quickly re-opened. Also, all critical equipment and material related to nuclear testing was moved from the facility before the show opened for international media—sans nuclear inspectors from the IAEA—who arrived after riding in a sealed train for 11 hours.

The missile freeze is just that—a freeze that could quickly be reversed. In any case, North Korea is pretty close to perfecting a long-range delivery system for its nuclear weapons with its Hwasong 15 and Hwasong 14 ICBMs, and already has a potent medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missile capability that can threaten Japan and Guam.

Certainly, North Korea has released three US hostages as well. That’s an easy concession to make: it costs nothing, but delivers big dividends by making it easier for the Trump administration to talk to Kim.

Finally, in late April, Kim stepped across the border in South Korea and engaged in cross-border photo‑op diplomacy in late April with President Moon Jae‑in, but the Panmunjom Declaration was long on rhetorical fluff and had little of meaningful substance. Yet the Moon–Kim summit psychologically paved the way for Trump to quickly embrace the idea of a summit with Kim and a possible quick foreign policy victory (with cries of ‘Nobel Peace Prize’ echoing in his ears).

Talk they will on 12 June (barring unexpected Twitter storms). Trump has indicated that it’s now a ‘get to know you’ summit, where the emphasis would be on working towards an agreement to bring the technical state of war between the two Koreas to an end. Yet a peace treaty between the two Koreas, China and the US would immediately imply that economic sanctions be lifted and security assurances be provided.

That’s something Trump has hinted at in now refusing to talk about ‘maximum pressure’, and that weakens international resolve to re‑impose pressure if the North Koreans, as they have done in the past, cheat on any agreement going forward.

Most worryingly, the North Koreans might very well insist that US forces in South Korea be scaled back, removed or given a non‑combat role because ‘peace in our time’ is at hand.

Signing a peace treaty does nothing to force North Korea to give up its nukes or its long-range missiles. Trump seems to have accepted that ‘denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula’—a phrase used by Pyongyang, and which Trump used in a recent press conference with Japanese PM Shinzō Abe—is now going to be achieved only by an extended and protracted process, rather than a rapid elimination of the North Korean nuclear arsenal. Yet, so far, there’s no firm and explicit commitment from Pyongyang to eliminate its own nuclear weapons and its full range of ballistic missiles as part of this process.

The North Korean definition of ‘denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula’ is important because it implies a likely demand for not only withdrawal of US forces in South Korea at some point, reinforced by a peace treaty, but also a withdrawal of US nuclear security guarantees to both South Korea and Japan.

Pyongyang would argue that US nuclear forces for extended nuclear deterrence to Japan can equally target North Korea. They’ll accept that the US won’t eliminate those forces, but it’s quite possible they’ll demand the elimination of extended nuclear deterrence security guarantees as an alternative, as part of broader security assurances to the regime.

Trump would be extremely foolish to accept such a demand. Pulling US forces off the Korean peninsula would send a signal of a lack of US resolve and commitment to partners. Compounding that with a diminution or weakening of extended nuclear deterrence security guarantees would only weaken US influence further. That could drive Tokyo towards acquiring its own nuclear deterrent forces.

If the summit—or any continuing diplomatic phase that follows it—is to founder, it’s going to be around this issue of the North’s definition of ‘denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula’. While caught up in the drama of the off‑again, on‑again summit, and whether Trump will ‘wing it’ on the day in the hope of a deal he can sell to his domestic base as a foreign policy victory, there’s a real danger that assumptions are being made that the North Koreans are willing to denuclearise when, in fact, they most likely won’t.

Also, the North Koreans have to agree to eliminate their full range of ballistic missiles—not just ICBMs. Allowing short-, medium- and intermediate-range weapons to remain leaves South Korea and Japan still under threat, and that would further weaken US–Japanese security ties. Trump shouldn’t accept an offer by Pyongyang to eliminate its ICBMs only.

The reality is that Pyongyang will use the summit, and follow-on diplomacy, to play for time and extract further concessions. It may make token gestures to entice Trump to sign a deal he can sell at home and string the Americans along. It’s highly unlikely that North Korea intends to denuclearise. At some point, the Trump administration may realise that its dream has become a nightmare.

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[1] shifts: https://www.vox.com/2018/6/7/17439070/trump-north-korea-summit-white-house-normalization

[2] peace agreement: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-usa-peace/trumps-north-korea-summit-may-bring-peace-declaration-but-at-a-cost-idUSKCN1J121B

[3] eschew: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2018/06/04/north-korea-isolation-crumbling-donald-trump-singapore-summit/668839002/

[4] stage-managed: https://edition.cnn.com/2018/06/01/politics/north-korea-nuclear-test-tunnel-gesture-propaganda/index.html?utm_medium=social&utm_source=twCNN&utm_content=2018-06-01T22:13:01

[5] Panmunjom Declaration: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-04-27/panmunjom-declaration-for-peace2c-prosperity-and-unification-o/9705794

[6] ‘get to know you’: https://www.cnbc.com/2018/06/06/june-12-summit-donald-trump-softens-tone-on-north-korea.html

[7] press conference: https://twitter.com/CNN/status/1004791450784161794