Deadline Desperation: Can Denuclearization Diplomacy Be Saved?
By Mason Richey, contributing writer; associate professor of international politics at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Seoul, Korea
Over the last six months, nothing has agitated Korea watchers more than the prospect of reaching the end of year “deadline” the Kim regime set in April 2019. The failed Stockholm working-level meeting between US and North Korean nuclear negotiators in October really set the final countdown ticking. If no credible signs of a sufficient breakthrough on sanctions relief are visible by year end, presumably North Korea will embark on a “new way” of approaching the US. This “new way” is unclear, but it augurs nothing good, if the hints till now are indicative. Pyongyang’s increasingly hostile and dismissive rhetoric, frequent SRBM and MLRS launches, progress on its Gorae-class submarine and Pukguksong-3 SLBM, and two static rocket motor tests at the restored Sohae site are all steps on an escalation ladder potentially leading to an MRBM/IRBM launch over Japan, an SLV launch, an ICBM test, or even a nuclear test (in the worst case scenario, an atmospheric detonation as part of a ballistic missile test).
What will North Korea do? Is it a bluff, or real? What announcements will emerge from the upcoming North Korean Worker’s Party Central Committee Plenum? On what will Kim Jong-un’s annual New Year’s Speech focus? How will (and should) the US respond? Will it cave? Will it initiate another round of “fire and fury?” Does the deadline and its follow-up mark the end of the current phase of US-North Korea nuclear negotiations, or is it a tactic to increase Pyongyang’s leverage?
How one answers those questions depends quite a bit on one’s priors, of course, and there is considerable variation and nuance in how Korea and US foreign policy experts interpret the deadline. In general, however, there are three groups with different strategies for dealing with North Korea nuclear negotiations in their current state: advocates for substantial concessions to North Korea in exchange for arms control; “maximum pressure 2.0” proponents calling North Korea’s bluff and arguing for greater sanctions and other forms of heightened coercive diplomacy; and supporters of the current diplomatic process hopeful that North Korea and the US will find an off-ramp. Each of these positions is pathological in its own way—not because the reasoning behind them is pathological, but because the entire US-North Korea relationship is poisonous. Let us examine each of the above strategies.
Advocates for arms control with North Korea rightly begin with the judgment that current US-North Korea denuclearization diplomacy has failed: there is little hint of a feasible denuclearization deal, and North Korea expands and improves its nuclear program and arsenal every day. An arms control agreement with North Korea would have the benefit of limiting (perhaps freezing) the growth and improvement of Pyongyang’s nuclear program and arsenal. It would also imply de facto recognition of North Korea as a nuclear power, but this may just be the price we have to pay for the fact that nowhere in International Relations is it written that the good guys always win.
Under an arms control regime with North Korea, there are obviously very serious questions about agreement verifiability, problematic effects on US extended deterrence, knock-on incentives for South Korea and Japan to acquire nuclear weapons, and the negative impact that such a deal would have on the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT). Again, that might be the—very high— price of making a deal with devil you know. The real problem is that North Korea arms control advocates are in denial about a simple fact: even if they are right on the merits, and even if the Trump administration magically came to share their viewpoint, the US does not have unilateral authority to relieve sanctions in place pursuant to United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions. And make no mistake, North Korea will not entertain the prospect of arms control for even a second unless substantial removal of UNSC sanctions is on the table. The Russians and Chinese would likely be on board with this (indeed they have recently called for UN sanctions relief)—the difficulty is with the Europeans. This goes mostly unremarked. Both the UK and (especially) France have principled, strong opposition to any UN sanctions relief absent a credible North Korean commitment to CVID (complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement) of its nuclear weapons and program. This is due both to reasons of international order, and fear of nuclear proliferation in the MENA were sanctions relief for North Korea prior to denuclearization to send the message that eventually the international community will cave if rogue states violate international law and norms regarding nuclear weapons development.
France and the UK are P-5 members, so their support for sanctions relief is a prerequisite. They are both against providing their assent. Indeed, in my very recent discussions with European security policymakers in both Europe and Korea, they have reiterated and reinforced this position. France, in particular, has taken a very hard line, and Macron is in no mood to do Trump any favors. In this environment, the UN sanctions relief requisite to get Pyongyang to the arms control negotiation table simply is not there. Denying this fact will not eliminate it.
Proponents of “maximum pressure 2.0” are delusional—about the past, present, and future. They are deluded in their belief that Trump’s 2017 “maximum pressure” campaign compelled the Kim regime to the denuclearization negotiating table. They are deluded in their belief that the current sanctions regime is bringing Kim to his knees. And they are deluded that an enhanced “maximum pressure” campaign would be feasible or desirable. In fact, it was North Korea’s sprint across the nuclear and ICBM threshold that allowed Kim to come to the negotiating table from a position of (still present) strength. Sanctions are biting, to be sure, but all available evidence indicates that it is not nearly enough to risk regime stability. And “maximum pressure 2.0” would require the highly unlikely support of China and Russia (who have just formally proposed sanctions relief at the UN), as well as South Korea (which would like to see sanctions relief also).
Even if heightened sanctions were feasible, they are only one part of “maximum pressure 2.0,” and many of the other proposed measures are both difficult to imagine or excessively escalatory and undesirably risky: US secondary sanctions against third-party institutions (especially financial) connected with North Korean trade, increased ship-to-ship transfer interdiction, cyber and information warfare against the North Korean regime, and a possible maritime embargo in the Yellow Sea and Sea of Japan. Such an approach would require a whole-of-government effort that is likely beyond the capacities of a US government at war with itself over impeachment, entering a contentious presidential election year, and sitting atop a highly polarized and fractured body politic. It would also require cooperation with the international community, which the Trump administration has been diligently alienating since inauguration. And even if all those hurdles were somehow miraculously overcome, “maximum pressure 2.0” would be as likely to cause the outbreak of kinetic conflict as it would be to cow Pyongyang into submission. The risk-weighted cost-benefit analysis simply is not there.
Supporters of the current diplomatic process are desperate: desperate to prevent the US striking a bad deal with North Korea (as Victor Cha somehow believes is “almost certain” before Christmas); desperate to prevent the return to “fire and fury”; and desperate to prevent the diplomatic breakdown augured by Kim’s year end deadline and promise of a “new way.” Desperation is hope’s sad cousin, and neither is a strategy. The US government’s efforts to delay breakdown look particularly bad. Secretary of State Pompeo’s assertion that the US does not have a deadline misses the point. It only takes one side to set a deadline—acknowledgement by the other side is optional. U.S. Special Representative Biegun’s mid-December trip to Seoul was, frankly, unseemly. He practically begged North Korea to contact him, left with no response from Pyongyang, jilted, and on his way to nervous Tokyo and a meeting in Beijing where he tried to bring back onside a Chinese government that has just formally called on UN sanctions relief for North Korea.
Kicking the diplomatic can down the road a bit farther appears the least immediately problematic course of action, even if it means that North Korea improves its nuclear program and arsenal every day. The problem is that Pyongyang does not want the status quo. Meanwhile the US is not bringing anything new to the table that North Korea wants. Those two positions clash irreconcilably, which is what puts us on the path to the “new way.”
No one knows what is going to happen to now. Perhaps China will restrain North Korea from the worst of its possible “new way” provocations. After all, the China-North Korea mutual defense treaty comes up for renewal in 2021, so Kim might not want to degrade his newly rebuilt relationship with Xi Jinping. China has also ramped up tourism to North Korea, which is playing a major part in keeping North Korea’s forex reserves afloat. Of course it is just as likely that Beijing has green lit an ICBM test. Even more likely is that Beijing, too, struggles to shape Pyongyang’s choices, and that the latter will do what it considers in its best interests regardless of Xi’s wishes.
No one knows exactly what Kim’s “Christmas gift” will be. But it will be a lump of coal, for sure.