Demanding Denuclearization Of North Korea Is A Non-Starter
Vice-President Pence said at the conclusion of his trip to South Korea that included being present for the Opening Ceremonies of the Winter Olympics that the United States is willing to sit down to talks with North Korea, but the criteria he puts forward for such talks seem guaranteed to ensure that such talks either won’t take place or that they will be destined to fail:
Despite the mutual chilliness between U.S. and North Korean officials in South Korea last week, behind the scenes real progress was made toward a new diplomatic opening that could result in direct talks without preconditions between Washington and Pyongyang. This window of opportunity was born out of a new understanding reached between the White House and the president of South Korea.
Vice President Pence, in an interview aboard Air Force Two on the way home from the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, told me that in his two substantive conversations with South Korean President Moon Jae-in during his trip, the United States and South Korea agreed on terms for further engagement with North Korea — first by the South Koreans and potentially with the United States soon thereafter.
The frame for the still-nascent diplomatic path forward is this: The United States and its allies will not stop imposing steep and escalating costs on the Kim Jong Un regime until it takes clear steps toward denuclearization. But the Trump administration is now willing to sit down and talk with the regime while that pressure campaign is ongoing.
Pence called it “maximum pressure and engagement at the same time.” That’s an important change from the previous U.S. position, which was to build maximum pressure until Pyongyang made real concessions and only then to engage directly with the regime.
“The point is, no pressure comes off until they are actually doing something that the alliance believes represents a meaningful step toward denuclearization,” Pence said. “So the maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify. But if you want to talk, we’ll talk.”
Pence and Moon worked this out during their bilateral meeting Thursday at the Blue House and their joint viewing of speedskating heats in PyeongChang on Saturday evening. Pence conferred with President Trump every day he was in Asia. Before these meetings, the Trump and Moon administrations were not aligned on whether Seoul’s new engagement with Pyongyang should continue after the Olympics end.
Moon assured Pence he would tell the North Koreans clearly that they would not get economic or diplomatic benefits for just talking — only for taking concrete steps toward denuclearization. Based on that assurance, Pence felt confident he could endorse post-Olympic engagement with Pyongyang.
“I think it is different from the last 20 years,” Pence said. I asked him what exact steps Pyongyang would have to take to get real sanctions relief. “I don’t know,” he said. “That’s why you have to have talks.”
The initial move the United States wants is for North Korea to put denuclearization on the table and take steps toward it, though that is not a condition for preliminary talks. That may be a bridge too far for the Kim regime, which is adamant that the international community accept its nuclear status. Pyongyang is also sure to want concessions from Washington, such as a delay in U.S.-South Korean military exercises, a non-starter for the alliance.
During a stop in Tokyo, Pence also mentioned another factor that could pose problems for any future negotiations. Specifically, the Vice-President announced a new round of sanctions that he said would be the “toughest ever.” These sanctions would be aimed at further putting pressure on the DPRK to abandon its current path both in terms of the belligerent tone it has taken over much of the past year and the nuclear and ballistic missile tests that it engaged in during that time. The problem, of course, is that this could potentially complicate any diplomatic efforts that the United States and South Korea are undertaking in an effort to get the North Koreans to the table. After all, if we’re further tightening the economic noose around Kim’s regime at the same time that we’re also saying that we want to engage in diplomatic talks, it’s as likely that Kim will react by pulling back from the opening that we saw develop at the start of the year, at least with respect to South Korea, as it is that he will feel compelled to agree to talks of any kind. This would be especially true if, as Pence seems to be suggesting that any agreement to reduce sanctions would have to include the premise that denuclearization is a realistic short-term goal or even one that can be achieved at all.
As for the denuclearization idea, Peter Van Buren, a 24-year veteran of the State Department and author of several books on American foreign policy points why it’s basically a non-starter for the foreseeable future:
The essence of North Korea is written into its national philosophy of juche, which above all emphasizes survival. The Kim family has been remarkably good at that since 1948. They’ve endured total war, the collapse of their patron the Soviet Union, famine, natural disasters, and decades of sanctions. North Korea exists under a survivalist philosophy, not an apocalyptic one. A senior Central Intelligence Agency official has confirmed that Kim Jong-un’s actions are those of a “rational actor” motivated to ensure regime survival. “Waking up one morning and deciding he wants to nuke Los Angeles is not something Kim is likely to do,” the official said. “He wants to rule for a long time and die peacefully in his own bed.”
The path to some form of peaceful co-existence on the Korean Peninsula lies in understanding survival, and that means North Korea can never denuclearize, a precondition the United States has insisted on before negotiations can move forward. If denuclearization was ever possible, perhaps through some form of security guarantee, the chances were reduced in March 2003 when Saddam Hussein, who had lost his weapons of mass destruction, found his country invaded by the United States. And the possibility evaporated completely when, after Moammar Gaddafi agreed to eliminate Libya’s nuclear weapons program, he was driven out of power by American bombs in 2011.
One Korea University professor has argued that Pyongyang’s leaders felt “deeply satisfied with themselves” after Gaddafi’s fall. In North Korea’s view, the Libyans “took the economic bait, foolishly disarmed themselves, and once they were defenseless, were mercilessly punished by the West.” Only a national leader bent on suicide would negotiate away his nukes after that.
The Libya example, of course, is only one of the lessons that the North Koreans have learned over the past eighteen years or so. They have also seen what happened to Saddam Hussein, another autocratic leader who gave up his weapons of mass destruction program only to see his country invaded, him being forced into hiding and eventual capture, after which he faced a trial and ultimately executed. By contrast, the Iranians have shown them that going forward with nuclear weapons research program yields far different results, namely an international agreement that provides significant sanctions relief and, at least to some extent, has led to the Islamic Republic being accepted back into the world community from which North Korea has largely been excluded for the better part of at least the last twenty-five years. Other lessons can be found in examples such as Pakistan and India, both of which pursued nuclear weapons development notwithstanding international pressure and now possess what is arguably a sufficient nuclear deterrent for each nation to adequately assure its own survival. From all of these examples, one can see the leaders of the DPRK, who I have long argued are far more rational actors than they have been given credit for, or which would be suggested by some of their more fiery rhetoric.
To put it simply, as Van Buran states the primary concern for Kim and those around him is survival of their regime. Given this, the fact that they have pursued both a nuclear weapons program and a program aimed at delivery of missiles capable of reaching as far as the Continental United States makes perfect sense. While the impression that Trump, Pence, and many commentators on the cable news networks seem to get out of this is that North Korea might launch a nuclear missile at the United States as soon as its able to. Such a move would, of course, ultimately be suicidal since it would inevitably result in a retaliatory strike from the United States that would mean the end of the Kim regime in a matter of milliseconds. The same is true regarding a land war on the Korean Peninsula. While it’s true that the DPRK could impose significant casualties and losses on South Korea with its conventional forces alone, the ultimate result of a land war would be the destruction of the North Korean regime since its unlikely that China would come to the aid of the Kim regime as it did during the Korean War unless the United States and South Korea would make the same mistake MacArthur did when he pushed American forces all the way to the Yalu River border with China. The Kim regime has survived for more than sixty years now, and it seems clear that Kim Jong Un is as concerned with his own survival in power as his father and grandfather were. To believe that he’d engage in unilateral, unprovoked action that would ultimately lead to his downfall simply doesn’t comport with reality and with sixty years of history.
If the United States is as interested in talking to North Korea as Pence seems to indicate, then it’s going to need to recognize this reality. This means in no small part realizing that emphasizing denuclearization as the ultimate goal of any diplomatic talks simply isn’t a viable option is at this point, and that demanding it is going to be a non-starter with the North Koreans. As Daniel Larson puts it, “[t]he Trump administration may be paying lip service to the idea of talking to North Korea, but until they stop chasing after the mirage of denuclearization there won’t be meaningful diplomatic progress between Washington and Pyongyang.”