All frontline states needed to resolve NK issue

By Robert A. Manning Source:Global Times Published: 2019/3/10 16:38:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT



Barely has the dust settled from the failed Hanoi summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, that fears of North Korea launching a satellite (in violation of a UN ban) from a newly rebuilt missile facility have replaced cautious optimism by a return to "fire and fury."

Regardless of whether Pyongyang's post-summit moves renew tensions or spark a new round of diplomacy, it is worth reflecting on why it failed and what impact it may have on the future of Northeast Asia. 

One reason for the failure was that both Trump and Kim had flawed assumptions and misread the situation. Trump overestimated his leverage and persuasion skills and misread Kim's intentions. Trump disregarded the advice of both the US intelligence community and his Korea policy team led by North Korea envoy Steve Beigun, whose preparatory talks told him Kim would not make a deal the US could accept. Another flawed assumption was that Kim was lured by Trump's promised North Korea economic miracle. Kim has so far rejected opening North Korea's economy to the international economic system as China and Vietnam did, and may see such benefits as "poisoned carrots."

Similarly, Kim underestimated Trump. Rather than letting senior working-level negotiators frame options for mutually acceptable first steps to partial scrapping of the nuclear program for suspension of a part of the sanctions, an end of war declaration and exchange of liaison officers, Kim overreached. Demanding majority of UN sanctions be lifted for dismantling most of the Yongbyon nuclear complex would have curtailed US negotiating leverage. But Kim apparently felt that Trump needed a "win" and could be persuaded to do so.

What next?

One lesson from the shortcomings of Trump-Kim summit should be that the problem cannot be ultimately solved without the cooperation of China, as well as Russia, South Korea and Japan - the other frontline states. The North Korea nuclear problem is part of a larger Korea question, which holds the potential to reshape geopolitics in East Asia toward either a more cooperative future or a confrontational one. 

The risks of nuclear war and proliferation, and how the eventual reunification of the Korean Peninsula occurs are likely to have a transformative impact on US-China relations, US alliance with South Korea and Japan, and the strategic equation. Trying to manage these complex issues was the underlying reason of the Six-Party Talks. While the talks failed to resolve the nuclear problem, they did demonstrate some important overlapping interests among the five major actors.

Nonetheless, in the aftermath of the summit, the geopolitical status quo remains in Northeast Asia. China would have preferred the summit to make substantive progress, lead to easing of UN sanctions and reach an agreement on follow-up implementation talks. South Korea was deeply disappointed, as President Moon Jae-in was hoping for UN sanctions relief that would have allowed a reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Zone at the Mount Kumgang tourist project as the next step in North-South reconciliation process during Kim's forthcoming visit to Seoul.

While the Trump-Kim summit ended amicably, with a willingness to continue talks, there was no agreed process. A US announcement earlier this month that it would end major US-South Korea military exercises and Pyongyang's continued moratorium on missile and nuclear testing point to a de facto "freeze-for-freeze" to lower tensions. Trump has stressed that he is "in no rush" to make a deal with North Korea. Moon's initial North-South summitry opened the way to the first Trump-Kim meeting. Moon is already gearing up to renew his mediator role, and use the next North-South summit to create a new opening for US-North Korea diplomacy. 

In any case, the US would do well to use the diplomatic pause to rethink its approach to North Korea in both style and content: Top-down, solely bilateral diplomacy has its limits. It might be useful to change the atmospherics and propose sports and cultural exchanges: a US-North Korea women's soccer match, or inviting Moranbang, Kim's favorite North Korea pop group, to play at Madison Square Garden in New York. Similarly, publicly encouraging Kim to begin membership talks with the IMF/World Bank and WTO would help demonstrate Trump's desire for North Korean economic success.

Another mistake by Trump has been defining the problem as solely a US-North Korea affair. This has led the other Northeast Asian actors pursuing their own diplomacy with North Korea, diminishing US leverage and complicating the benefits in the event of a nuclear deal. Multilateral diplomacy by calling for five-party - US, China, South Korea, Russia, Japan - consultative/coordinating mechanism, and/or talks among the three nuclear states - US-Russia-China - on potential cooperation to remove fissile material and warheads from North Korea in the event of an agreement - might be a useful planning exercise. The International Atomic Energy Agency can only monitor nuclear facilities and fissile material; only nuclear states that are members of the UN Security Council can dismantle and remove nuclear weapons and fissile material. 

Trump's willingness to personally engage Kim is admirable and has brought him goodwill and support in the Asia-Pacific region. Adapting US engagement to the new circumstances with more political insight and some old-fashioned diplomacy would build on that record.

The author is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4



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