By Troy Stangarone
As tensions increased for much of last year the threat of a preventative war hung over the Korean Peninsula. The Trump administration had made clear that it would not tolerate North Korea developing nuclear weapons capable of reaching the United States and that it was willing to remove North Korea’s nuclear capabilities by force, if necessary. By the end of the year, a stalemate had been reached. North Korea demonstrated that its inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) could reach all of the United States, but had shown no indication of a willingness to talk.
As 2017 came to a close, the leadership in Pyongyang faced a strategic decision. It could continue its weapons development and risk either increasing international sanctions or potentially an attack by the United States, or it could engage in a preventative diplomatic strike to limit and forestall U.S. action. By offering to take part in the PyeongChang Olympics and extending summit invitations to South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump, North Korea has been able to move the dynamics from confrontation to dialogue. Its intentions may not truly be denuclearization, but it has been able to forestall talk of a preventative attack for the foreseeable future and provide its researchers time to perfect its ICBM reentry technology. It has also created an opportunity to explore if it can divide the allies or achieve sanctions reduction without fully denuclearizing. It has also achieved one long-term goal; direct communication with a U.S. President.
In making its moves, North Korea has been highly pragmatic. It knew that the U.S. and South Korea would not postpone military exercises for talks, so Kim Jong-un is reported to have said that he understands they will move forward. North Korea has also agreed to not conduct nuclear or missile tests during the talks. At the same time, we should be cautious about the impact of “maximum pressure” on North Korea’s decisions. It has only been since December that sanctions have truly begun to cut into North Korea’s trade with China. It seems likely that North Korea is trying to change the dynamic before the sanctions have truly begun to bite to improve its own negotiating position.
With the expectation that a U.S.-North Korea summit meeting will take place by May shortly after the initial inter-Korean summit, there will not be time for the United States, its allies, and other parties to reach a negotiated solution with North Korea on denuclearization. Trump will be meeting Kim at the beginning of the process rather than the end. If the first summit is a success, the process will most likely consist of a series of interlocking summit meetings rather than only a single U.S.-North Korea summit. Since the initial summit is not intended to lead to a resolution, a second U.S.-North Korea summit would likely be required to conclude any negotiation.
If the process is successful, rather than a return to the Six Party Talks, the initial summits could result in an initial framework or an agreement on general areas for discussion that are followed up with working level discussions. One key question moving forward will be how South Korea and Japan fit into any process. Summit meetings between the U.S., South Korea, and Japan would likely be needed to flesh out these interests and make sure each country’s concerns are met. Inter-Korean summits could be used as needed to move the process forward. Additionally, since both Trump and Kim see themselves as the only key decision makers, the two could engage in direct diplomacy via calls when their negotiators reach stumbling blocks.
Even if North Korea is sincere in its efforts to engage in talks on denuclearization, that doesn’t mean that it will not try to maximize its own interests. While the details of the summit are still to be determined, a meeting in Pyongyang would hold significant risk. It would provide North Korea with a significant domestic political coup, but also an opportunity to flatter Trump with the pageantry of a military parade and a new version of the mass games with the hopes of charming him into a better deal. If the talks move forward, a more neutral location would be best.
If the initial summit doesn’t go well, the situation could quickly deteriorate. The United States, South Korea, and Japan would be left with three options. If the United States and its allies determine that the summit fails because pressure has not truly changed North Korean calculus, they could choose to increase maximum pressure and look for an opportunity for dialogue after North Korea has concluded it cannot talk its way out of this by splitting the allies and it is more open to a genuine dialogue. The other alternatives would be to bolster long-term deterrence or to consider a preventative strike.
In addition to close coordination with U.S. allies, the United States will need to maintain coordination with China. While Beijing is likely pleased that the prospect of conflict has receded for the moment and the United States and North Korea are talking, direct talks between Pyongyang and Washington run the risk of excluding Beijing from the process. If China believe that its interests are being undermined by direct U.S.-North Korea talks it could be tempted to loosen up on sanctions to give North Korea more leverage. If the U.S. is to maintain maximum pressure until a deal is reached it needs to work to maintain Chinese cooperation.
The movement towards potential talks has happened much more swiftly than one would have imagined and could create an opening for denuclearization. The United States should view the summit as exploratory to determine if North Korea is sincere in its willingness to denuclearize or if its preventative diplomacy is an effort to gain time. At the same time, it would be prudent for the United States, South Korea, and Japan to consider what the possible outcomes of talks might be and begin discussing alternative courses of action should the talks not lead to a genuine process for the denuclearization of North Korea.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.