The North Korean leadership keeps a careful eye on US domestic politics. They read the presidential polls with the same level of interest as the candidates themselves.
US observers often complain about dramatic shifts in North Korean policy, strategy and tactics, but predicting US policy can be just as difficult. Clinton’s “Agreed Framework” gave way to Bush’s “Axis of Evil.” Obama’s “Strategic Patience” preceded Trump’s “Fire and Fury.” The historic US outreach in Singapore ended with the United States walking out in Hanoi.
Like many Americans, the North Koreans are trying to guess what might come next.
Kim gave Trump until the end of the year to put up or shut up. He also sat on a white horse in front of a sacred mountain and promised “a great operation to strike the world with wonder.” Not long afterward his government warned the United States was “misjudging its patience and tolerance.” If Trump fails to return to the negotiating table before the Iowa caucus, there is a very good chance this election season could see some very tense moments on the Korean Peninsula.
Trump’s potential replacements might be able to forestall a return to North Korean nuclear testing, or worse, with public statements in support of continued negotiations. That was the unanimous consensus of an international panel of experts who discussed the North Korean nuclear weapons program at a recent arms control conference in China.
What Should They Say?
The message from the candidates should be addressed to the North Korean leadership, not US voters. They shouldn’t bash the current US president for his willingness to meet and talk. The candidates should focus on prospective solutions not past failures. Ideally, they should coordinate their responses and articulate a consensus rather than look for an opportunity to distinguish themselves.
That’s an extraordinary thing to ask of any US presidential contender, much less all of them, but the international panel warned this is an extraordinary moment. Kim isn’t kidding and time is running short.
Focus on Security, Not Sanctions
International sanctions are less effective than many US decision-makers believe. They have an impact, especially on women and the poor, but many North Koreans, as well as their government, find ways to get around them. Non-governmental international observers who visit North Korea once or twice each year reported the North Korean economy continues to show signs of improvement despite the sanctions. I heard the same from a North Korean representative during another international gathering earlier this fall. The relatively porous border with China helps. “Maximum pressure” from the United States only increases the size of the holes in the sanctions strategy.
Kim asked for sanctions relief in Hanoi. He may have thought he was entitled to it for continuing to freeze the nuclear testing program and the testing of long-range ballistic missiles. The international panel at the Chinese arms control conference argued Kim would have been willing to offer much more had Trump not decided to walk out. One panelist said North Korea put the entire plutonium program in Yongbyon on the table but the offer came after the United States unilaterally decided the meeting was over.
In the wake of that debacle, North Korea has de-emphasized sanctions relief and focused on security guarantees. One panelist said North Korea believes it may be more fertile ground for producing productive US concessions.
Support Ending the Korean War
The most important security guarantee the candidates could offer North Korea is an enthusiastic and clear cut statement of support for its request to formally put an end to the Korean War. Although the war is ancient history to most Americans, it is still the paramount security concern in the minds of the North Korean people, whose leaders say they must continue to suffer and sacrifice as long as the war drags on.
Ending the war is a relatively small up-front cost for the United States to pay for a potentially huge long-term benefit. It won’t change the balance of forces on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea said it does not expect a withdrawal of US forces from South Korea in return. It does, however, expect a firm US commitment to bring a permanent end to large-scale military exercises with South Korea.
Prudence requires North Korean leaders to treat each such exercise as the beginning of a potential invasion. Putting the entire country on an emergency war footing every time they are held is, as you might imagine, a costly and stressful experience.
The North Korean regime is not immune from public pressure. Ending the war and the exercises will significantly increase domestic expectations for accelerating economic development. Normal relations with the United States will remove the most important justification for the impoverished state of the North Korean economy.
According to one of the panelists in China, the meeting in Singapore already set those expectations quite high. Kim feels compelled to respond, especially after he announced the nuclear weapons program had achieved its aims and his focus would shift to rebuilding the North Korean economy. International sanctions may mean more to a regime that can no longer blame the war for the economy.
Emphasize Long Term Denuclearization
North Korea spent decades acquiring the nuclear weapons and missile technologies it has today. The candidates should express an awareness that it may take years for North Korea to give them up. Insisting on complete and immediate denuclearization is a non-starter. The candidates should make it clear they understand that.
The panel of international experts who discussed denuclearization in China believe there are some simple but meaningful steps North Korea would be willing to take right away. Preserving the freeze on nuclear and long-range missile tests is extraordinarily valuable and shouldn’t be taken for granted. The late North Korean offer in Hanoi to halt its plutonium production program at Yongbyon is worth exploring as soon as possible.
At this precarious moment, however, it is more important for the candidates to focus less on the particulars of a short-term agreement and more on the magnitude and difficulty of the denuclearization process.
Simply letting the North Korean leadership know the candidates are listening and willing to negotiate could help prevent another nuclear crisis on the peninsula during the upcoming presidential campaign. If they are successful, it will put whoever ultimately wins the White House in 2020 in a better position to solve the longer term problem.