Responding To: In Search of Resolution on North Korea
Getting North Korea Back on Track
Dealing with a nuclear-armed North Korea can be a daunting task. The implementation of harsher sanctions under a unanimous Security Council vote in September did not stop an isolated Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) from earning its hard currency. Meanwhile, despite President Trump’s threats of raining “fire and fury,” the likelihood of the destruction of Seoul and the possibility of millions of people’s death—including those Americans living in Guam—seem to leave a conventional war out of the question. While diplomacy appears to be our last open door under such circumstances, the frustrations of the past negotiations have put a striking question mark on the next talk: whether, to begin with, it is possible to have them?
Contrary to the assumption of many observers, Pyongyang did not build its nuclear weapons merely as bargaining chips for its homeland security guarantee and its diplomatic normalization. Kim has been fairly indifferent to the proposal for negotiations, which could be considered as rational for a dictator who has witnessed the outcome of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. Having lived with the idea of the threat of war with the United States ever since the Korean War, which has to a large extent shaped its national identity and foreign policy, North Korea seeks to maintain its regime’s survival—which is its primary concern—and to have the United States deterred through what it regards as the best way, that is, the possession of nuclear weapons.
Therefore, given North Korea’s long history of mistrust of the United States, it could be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to give the DPRK a sense of security that is strong enough for it to engage in a complete denuclearization. Even if China is willing to impose much stronger sanction, and in an extreme case, a full embargo to pressure North Korea, considering Pyongyang’s long-standing position of “eating grass to keep nuclear arsenal,” this move will only worsen North Korea’s self-isolation and its antagonism towards China, which needs to serve as a buffer zone for the negotiation to happen between Washington and Pyongyang. Given that our immediate priority is to initiate talk on nuclear weapons, it is necessary to first drop our list of preconditions to even start a talk (such as Secretary Tillerson’s unspecified period of no missile tests) and to forsake the unrealistic demand of a full denuclearization in the near future. We need to assure Kim, through some means, of his regime’s security for the time being if it could be helpful to get all the parties on the table. In other words, just as Michael E. O’Hanlon has indicated, to ask China for more “sticks,” Washington should be willing to give out more “carrots” to make the potential talk happen while both sides stop passing the buck. A coordinated approach through the cooperation between United States and China to North Korea is the key to the dilemma.
Building trust is not an easy thing, but it has to start somewhere. North Korea’s deep-rooted mistrust towards the United States will undoubtedly be a huge setback to a productive negotiation even if Washington is willing to make the concessions mentioned above. However, a collective guarantee involving both Washington and Beijing may be more reassuring to Kim. A phased approach, proposed by Robert Einhorn, starting with interim limits on North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities should be considered because setting the bar too high will only be self-defeating. The United States and South Korea should consider adjustments in the scale of the military exercises, while China should participate more actively using its influence on North Korea’s economy as a leverage. The situation would be more favorable to the United States and China if the crises could be dealt with in long-term step-by-step negotiations, because the importance of food and oil to ordinary North Koreans will be more prominent once we can at least decrease the scale, or even call a halt on the frenzy narrative of nuclear weapon in North Korea.
Moreover, there is more we can do in the long-term scenario. In North Korea, the regime’s existence relies on keeping the population ignorant of how terrible they are compared with nearly every other country in the world, but it is not devastatingly “hermetically sealed.” South Korean pop music and soap operas are smuggled in on flash drives and DVDs from China despite the fact that watching them is a serious criminal offense, and primary school students are required to learn English from about the third grade. More attention should be paid to the normal citizens, especially the young generations in North Korea, who are still open and curious to know about the world outside, because although as far-fetched it may sound, in the long run, instead of military threats or economic constraint, it may be a flash drive in the hand of a Chinese smuggler that causes the first crack in Kim’s regime.
Yunxin Wang is a junior at Beijing Foreign Studies University majoring in English with a minor in economics.
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