Take Northeast Asian states on board to solve North Korea crisis

By Robert A. Manning Source:Global Times Published: 2018/6/17 11:44:25

The Trump-Kim summit, though heavier on symbolism than substance, has stirred new hope and momentum for resolving the North Korea problem. But it remains a mystery what the framework or process will be to turn good intentions on both sides into the implementation needed to achieve the desired outcome.

The US-North Korea joint statement only makes vague references to the North Korean commitment to complete denuclearization and the US pursuing a "peace regime," and a new relationship with North Korea.

What appears to make this a unique opportunity, different now from previous failed diplomatic efforts to address the nuclear issue, is the presumed intentions of Kim Jong-un. Trump emphasized North Korea's economic potential if it makes a strategic choice to open its economy and engage commercially with the world. 

If Kim is having a "Deng Xiaoping moment" and has decided that Chinese-type economic reforms are key to North Korea's future, then such logic could indeed replace that of being a nuclear state.

But it will require not just US-North Korea cooperation, but that of all of Northeast Asia to foster a stable post-nuclear security environment as well as to facilitate North Korean efforts to integrate itself into the regional economy.

Unfortunately, Trump's unilateralism may cause difficult problems and challenges that only complicate diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula. By defining it as a US-North Korea issue, Trump has not only discounted the interests of key actors in the region, but also ignored important lessons from previous diplomatic efforts, most notably, the Six-Party Talks. 

With all the other major frontline Northeast Asian actors (China, Russia, Japan, South Korea) cut out of the current diplomacy, each is acting independently, trying to define their own respective roles: the inter-Korean reconciliation talks are moving on a separate track; Chinese President Xi Jinping has met Kim twice, presumably resulting in China-North Korea understandings; Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has met Kim in Pyongyang to align Moscow's policies with North Korea, and an anxious Japan has sought meetings with Kim, unsure of its role. 

All this autonomous diplomacy can only complicate efforts to achieve the desired outcomes of a non-nuclear Korea integrating into the region. Such concerns were one reason why the Six-Party Talks, which China hosted, were launched at the beginning of the previous nuclear diplomacy in 2003. 

While the 2005 Joint Statement resulting from the Six-Party process ultimately fell apart, one important lesson from those efforts is that the interests of the five major actors overlapped sufficiently with regard to the North Korean nuclear problem, that they demonstrated an ability to cooperate as mutual stakeholders in the process. 

Each of the five, for example, chaired a working group managing the implementation of one of several key elements of the accord - denuclearization, energy and economic assistance, peace and security in Northeast Asia, etc. Importantly, each issue was sequenced with progress in denuclearization and could only move forward in harmony with the dismantling of Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program.

It is difficult to see how the current US-North Korea diplomacy can succeed without the cooperation of the frontline Northeast Asian states. A peace treaty, for example, requires four-party talks involving the US and China as signatories to the armistice and the two Koreas. China and South Korea are likely to lead in developing economic cooperation to provide the benefits Kim is seeking. But unless this is synchronized with denuclearization efforts, it could undermine pressure on North Korea to dismantle its nuclear and missile programs.

 In order to maximize cooperation and harmonize the respective diplomacy of the US, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea, a framework including all five actors could be an important tool to bolster US efforts. As the situation moves from general principles and commitments to actual implementation, such cooperation will be imperative. From working with the IAEA to verifying nuclear dismantlement, removing nuclear warheads and fissile material, to providing economic aid and training, collaboration would enhance prospects of success. 

The US would be wise to consider such a multilateral dialogue as a diplomatic umbrella over the entire process. China remains enthusiastic about such a framework, and I suspect the other Northeast Asian actors would also have an interest in such partnership. Demonstrating cooperation could also help improve volatile US-China and US-Russia relations, as well as clarifying Japan's role.

Absent such concerted efforts, Pyongyang is likely to drive wedges between the various key actors. If the goal is rapid denuclearization, that objective will only be more difficult without  such united efforts. 

The author is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative. He served as a senior counselor to the UnderSecretary of State for Global Affairs from 2001 to 2004, as a member of the US Department of State Policy Planning Staff. from 2004 to 2008, and on the National Intelligence Council (NIC) Strategic Futures Group, 2008-12. Tweet: @Rmanning4 

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