Polarizing Political Economy Risk & Security 

Breakthrough on the Korean Peninsula?

By James H. Nolt


There has been a broad media consensus that Donald Trump’s major foreign policy initiatives are all stalled. His tariff threats against China have not induced major Chinese concessions to rebalance trade, which may even be beyond the power of Beijing to accomplish. He exited the Trans-Pacific Partnership last year and withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal earlier this week, while all the other countries involved are sticking with both agreements, leaving the U.S. on the outside with even less influence. The media is also highly skeptical about the possibility of a deal to eliminate North Korean nuclear weapons.

Yet of all of these major foreign policy arenas, the chance for successful negotiations with North Korea seems the most plausible. More than a year ago, when I first wrote about the North Korean nuclear confrontation, I suggested that Trump’s threats of war with North Korea were serious and credible, not the least because a tough stance against North Korea, even at the risk of violence, was more likely than any other potential conflict to win the president public approval and domestic political benefits.

Most of the media were unanimous in contending that there was no viable military option against North Korea. Trump, I argued, did not see it this way. There was a real danger he might deliberately provoke war rather than let North Korea develop long-range nuclear strike capability. Trump might view his own political success as more important than the prospect of vast suffering on the Korean peninsula. As the months wore on, the president’s words seemed to reflect this attitude—he kept escalating his threats.

China did not react at first, but eventually appeared concerned that Trump might indeed start a war to eliminate the North Korean nuclear threat once and for all. China had long resisted joining other members of the international community in imposing severe economic sanctions on North Korea for fear of destabilizing the Pyongyang regime and creating potential chaos on its border. However, during the later part of 2017 when China finally began to believe Trump might resort to war, it judged that any fighting in its neighborhood would be vastly more destabilizing than economic sanctions. Since China is North Korea’s main trading partner, its cooperation was essential for sanctions to be effective. The United Nations Security Council passed 11 resolutions from 2006 through December 2017 adding ever-increasing sanctions against North Korea after its nuclear or ballistic missile tests. China enforced these by blocking most North Korean exports by last fall, including coal, steel, minerals, sea food, and textiles, while capping Pyongyang’s oil supplies. Yet North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests continued. Even strong sanctions seemed to fail, as had Trump’s threats.

Yet now there seems to be an opening for real diplomatic progress. What changed? Trump is, of course, claiming all the credit. His tough talk may have scared the Chinese into tightening sanctions, but even after all that, North Korea’s behavior remained the same. The change began when South Korean President Moon Jae-in invited North Korean participation in the Winter Olympic games. Long-range missile tests, nuclear testing, and even North Korea’s war of words ended with the “Olympic peace.” Events played out as they did in ancient times, when all Greek city-states were expected to suspend war for the duration of the Olympic games.

The North-South dialogue that began at the Winter Olympics continued at the end of April with a successful summit meeting between the two Korean leaders. Before that, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled secretly to North Korea to consider a first-ever meeting between a North Korean leader and a sitting U.S. president. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are expected to meet next month. Prior to the summit in April and again this week, Kim also traveled to China to patch up his thorny relations with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Beijing seems to be pressing Kim to resolve the nuclear standoff.

Although Trump’s bellicose threats may have engaged China’s attention to the Korean issue, they do not explain the timing of Kim’s change of heart. It may be that carrots were more powerful than sticks. Both China and South Korea have been emphasizing to Kim not just Trump’s credible threats, but also—more importantly—the advantage of redirecting the entire North Korean strategy toward Chinese-style economic development, rather than remaining impoverished as the world’s most militarized state. Kim now appears to grasp the opportunity at hand, with both South Korea and China, and perhaps even the U.S., willing to help with an economic transition. He began speaking publicly about a shift from military to civilian development during the week prior to the Korean leaders’ summit.

Yet today most U.S. media remains dubious of this apparent diplomatic opening. This media line reflects similar views from most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. This skepticism has multiple roots: historic disappointment with North Korean backtracking after previous denuclearization agreements, doubt that Pyongyang would give up expensively developed nuclear weapons at an acceptable price, and concern that the Trump foreign policy team is too extreme or ill-prepared to make a deal.

I am more sanguine. All parties understand that total nuclear disarmament of the Korean peninsula must be the final result of any agreement. Disarmament must take place fairly quickly, verified by intrusive inspections. North Korea expects a quid pro quo that is more than just economic aid, as in previous agreements, but also includes a definitive peace ending the Korean War, diplomatic recognition of both Korean states, and normalization of relations, including trade and investment. This combination could benefit North Korea much more than the aborted agreements financed by one-time aid packages that could be (and eventually were) withdrawn. Today, a permanent reduction of the North Korean military threat would be paired with a permanent integration of North Korea into the global economy. This remains a difficult goal. The negotiations might still hit a roadblock. But the chance now is better than ever, largely because of the attraction to North Korea of securing a stake in the broader East Asian economic miracle.

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James H. Nolt is a senior fellow at World Policy Institute and an adjunct associate professor at New York University.

[Photo courtesy of South Korean Government]

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