After a promising start to a new era on the Korean Peninsula in 2018, talks between the hermit kingdom, the US and other powers endured a rocky phase following the breakdown of the Hanoi Summit. While many observers note that the window for any form of substantial agreement has grown smaller in recent months, the opportunity still awaits. To achieve success, there must be a change in the tone of dialogue to prevent misunderstanding, new actions to increase incentivization and avoidance of strategies based on short-term calculation.
Posturing And Dialogue
The United States has been accused by North Korea of dealing in bad faith and using the process to build support for President Donald Trump domestically. If Trump wishes to secure a deal in the near future, making statements such as his “in no rush” comment is counterproductive to this goal. The blame does not rest with the President alone, however. Former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s firing seems to have left a void among US officials, causing them to revert to traditional talking points that could further cause the North Koreans to conclude that the United States does not intend to attempt any fresh approaches to negotiations.
North Korea has also contributed to the chaos by making a series of ambiguous and imprecise statements. Chairman Kim Jong Un’s end-of-year deadline and the DPRK’s “Christmas present” comments are examples of how poorly thought out rhetoric has caused confusion to those watching. Although North Korea has left the door open to continued negotiations, they should strive whenever possible to avoid confusing language that might escalate a situation needlessly.
Trump and Kim continue to maintain an amicable relationship that could provide the backbone for renewed talks. Precision and frequency of communication between the US and DPRK are what is needed to break through the current impasse rather than infrequent meetings and statements issued periodically through media and public channels. Talk often and with purpose.
Incentivize Positive Outcomes
To kickstart talks, the United States should make a tangible showing of good faith by putting some form of sanctions relief on the table. This path has recently been supported by groups such as the Brookings Institute and could be a way to ease the burden on the DPRK’s civilian population in return for measures that will cap production of their nuclear weapon and ICBM stockpiles at current levels. This step, which has support from senior South Korean figures, would create momentum for future deals and eventually result in a permanent solution to the current crisis. The partial easement of United Nations sanctions was recently supported by both China and Russia, although the United States could also also offer to remove their own with the understanding that they would return in the event that North Korea did not honor agreements.
A fresh set of proposals is particularly needed now that Korea hawks are in temporary retreat with Bolton out. There is plenty of room for other distinguished thinkers to propose radical new directions for American grand strategy on the Peninsula, but they must be coupled with genuine efforts to break the deadlock and incentivize dealmaking.
Avoid Short Term Thinking
Although Kim Jong Un stated his intention to pursue a spirit of unification and détente several years ago, there are worrying signs that he has reverted from a focus on long term strategy to thinking primarily about the immediate future.
In his New Year’s address, Kim mentioned “belt-tightening” in an apparent reference to potential sacrifice of the civilian economy in favor of military development. The cautious use of this phrase may represent domestic demands Kim is facing from North Korea’s elite class. Kim’s path to open the DPRK has faced stringent opposition from those who benefit from the status quo. On March 15, 2019, Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui revealed that Kim was facing “much opposition and challenges” from the military and defense industry within his own country over his attempts to reach a denuclearization agreement. Isolation is commonly credited as being a major part of the Kim dynasty’s ability to control their nation, but it also gives the broader ruling class greater influence over the family’s decision-making. Pursuing economic development and opening the country to a degree would not only allow Kim to enjoy a legacy similar to Deng Xiaoping but is likely to help him maintain greater autonomy in policy creation.
The DPRK has made it clear that development of its conventional military capabilities is a priority. But this cannot truly occur unless it is supported by a healthy economy. Since threatening to revert back to old habits, North Korea has lost opportunities to interact with countries in the broader region, improve relations with a South Korea that is currently quarreling with Japan, secure sanctions removal, develop infrastructure and benefit from inclusion in trade deals being contemplated between China, Russia and South Korea. Unlike many of the policymakers working beneath him, Kim has spent enough time living outside of the propaganda-laden isolation of his country to realize the counterproductivity of adopting old policies that induced sanctions in the first place.
Move Past Hanoi
While the events of 2019 may have delayed eventual denuclearization, they have not precluded fresh attempts to regain momentum and move in a positive direction. An arms agreement and official peace accord could both be pursued on the road to the final destination. If both parties are genuine in their intent to leave the door open for further negotiation, new attempts at providing incentives and emphasis on long-term thinking can help get the job done. Hanoi may have caused a hitch but it need not derail the entire train.
While the new decade has already been beset by unrest in other regions of the world, the Korean Peninsula can still go down in history as a textbook example of how to solve multi-generational disputes. Time to tone down the hyperbole and get back to work.