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The North Korean Conundrum

by Ejaz Haider

Jung Yeon-Je—AFP

Despite Donald Trump’s rhetoric, the U.S. has few options other than diplomacy to resolve current crisis

On Monday, Sept. 11, the United Nations Security Council unanimously imposed new sanctions on North Korea, slapping a ban on textile exports, capping crude oil shipments at the current level, placing a ceiling on refined oil products, barring countries from issuing new work permits to the North Korean labor force and cutting off natural gas shipments to punish Pyongyang for its Sept. 3 thermonuclear test, the sixth since 2006.

The sanctions regime also bans joint ventures and places the names of senior North Korean officials and three entities on a U.N. sanctions blacklist that provides for assets freeze and a global travel ban.

China and Russia went along with the resolution following tough negotiations with the U.S., which saw the U.S. drop more stringent demands for a full oil embargo, a freeze on the foreign assets of Kim Jong-Un and a travel ban on him.

Monday’s sanctions were the eighth in a series of sanctions that began in 2006 and comes on the heels of another set of sanctions last month that saw banning exports of coal, lead and seafood in response to North Korea’s Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile test on July 4.

The sanctions have been hailed by Japan and South Korea. China and Russia, while going along the toned down version, have, nonetheless, insisted on talks. Both had suggested a proposal for a freeze on Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear tests in exchange for suspending U.S.-South Korea military drills. While the U.S. has rejected the freeze-for-freeze proposal, Moscow and Beijing insist that this is the only way forward toward a negotiated framework.

The U.S. and its allies also continue to insist on North Korea’s denuclearization. How will this play out?

Since memories are generally short, it’s helpful to cast a quick glance at the past, especially the 1994 Agreed Framework/Six Party Talks that negotiated to freeze Pyongyang’s nuclear program in return for normalized U.S.-North Korea relations.

In June 1994, the U.S. nearly went to war with North Korea. Reason: the U.S. determined that North Korea was violating its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (the North hadn’t yet opted out of the NPT) and seeking to make bombs. Pyongyang had shut down its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and started removing spent fuel rods. Intelligence and expert assessments said the rods contained enough plutonium to make five or six bombs. Since North Korea had prevented the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors from gaining full access to its sites, the IAEA sent the matter to the UNSC. The U.S. began lobbying for sanctions against the North and also sent reinforcements to South Korea to shore up defenses in case the North decided on a shooting war.

Trouble had begun in late 1991-early 1992 with both sides issuing aggressive statements and making moves that increased the North’s threat perception and the U.S.’s frustration. Coercive measures had failed to stop the North from developing its nuclear program. The June 1994 crisis was, therefore, a crescendo of the previous three years. But it also became a turning point in the U.S.’s diplomatic approach. High-level diplomacy by former president Jimmy Carter helped defuse the ’94 crisis and Washington began negotiating with Pyongyang seriously to resolve the stalemate.

Robert Gallucci was Washington’s point person. Negotiations led to a four-point broad framework with finer details embedded in those points. North Korea agreed to “remain a party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and… allow implementation of its safeguards agreement under the Treaty”, freeze and ultimately dismantle the program (“to strengthen the international nuclear non-proliferation regime”) in exchange for “the full normalization of political and economic relations with the United States.”

The four broad points required steps taken on both sides: a U.S.-led international consortium was to build two light water reactors in North Korea by 2003 to recompense for lost power (2000MW); Until those LWRs came online, the U.S. were to supply North Korea with 500,000 tons of heavy fuel per year (“Deliveries of heavy oil will begin within three months of the date of this Document and will reach a rate of 500,000 tons annually, in accordance with an agreed schedule of deliveries”); “As progress is made on issues of concern to each side, the U.S. and DPRK will upgrade bilateral relations to the ambassadorial level” (this was an important point because relations are still governed by the ceasefire under the 1953 armistice. Technically, this means the war hasn’t ended); both sides would provide “formal assurances” against the threat or use of nuclear weapons. (for full text, see http://www.nti.org/media/pdfs/aptagframe.pdf )

Without going into too many details, here’s the gist: the U.S. failed, despite warnings by international and its own experts, to keep its end of the bargain both in building the LWRs and supplying heavy water. The Framework clearly stated that “When a significant portion of the LWR project is completed, but before delivery of key nuclear components, the DPRK will come into full compliance with its safeguards agreement with the IAEA (INFCIRC/403), including taking all steps that may be deemed necessary by the IAEA, following consultations with the Agency with regard to verifying the accuracy and completeness of the DPRK’s initial report on all nuclear material in the DPRK.”

Sanctions were not lifted until 2008, though some had been eased until 2000, six years later than envisaged in the Framework. Relations were never normalized. In other words, the Korean War has yet to end. Gallucci himself, who signed the Framework from the U.S. side along with Kang Sok Ju from “DPRK”, told the U.S. Congress that the “North Koreans have always been disappointed that more has not been done by the U.S.”

By 2002, under George W. Bush, the U.S. had come out with its Nuclear Posture Review, which, among other things, listed North Korea as part of the “axis of evil” and a country against whom the U.S. could use nuclear weapons.

In January 2003, North Korea, invoking Article X, Clause 1 of the NPT, withdrew from the treaty. X-1 reads: “Each Party shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country. It shall give notice of such withdrawal to all other Parties to the Treaty and to the United Nations Security Council three months in advance. Such notice shall include a statement of the extraordinary events it regards as having jeopardized its supreme interests.”

The present

North Korea is a paranoid, totalitarian regime. There’s no gainsaying that. However, its threat perceptions have to be understood within a realist framework. It is closely allied with China, which sees it as a counterweight to the string of U.S. allies in the Far East. The relationship is a complex one and while China would not like North Korea to start a shooting war on the Peninsula, its strategy seems to be to let Pyongyang increase the envelope in which it can play and tie down the U.S. That strategy makes eminent sense in the broader game that is being played and which is reflected in the U.S. strategy toward China and aggressive patrolling of the Sea Lanes of Communication leading to and in the South China Sea.

The situation has undergone a major change since 1994. North Korea is no more a striving nuclear-weapons capable and missile state. It is a nuclear-weapons capable state with a demonstrated full-spectrum missile capability. The 1994 Framework sought to prevent North Korea from getting there. That is no more possible.

This means two things: one, the U.S., for all the talk of fire and brimstone by President Donald Trump, has not many choices but to talk; two, the talks will have no meaning if the U.S. and its allies are looking for North Korea to disinvent and dismantle its nuclear and missile programs. That would amount to trying to close the stable door after the horse has bolted.

In any case, North Korea has learnt, following the 1994 Framework, that it can only neutralize the threat from the U.S. by retaining and advancing its nuclear and missile capabilities. Those capabilities are the only hand it can play. One doesn’t need to be a card player to know what that means.

The issue is also linked to the U.S. policy toward China and the latter deterring the former. This means Beijing has to play Pyongyang with great diplomatic finesse: keep the U.S. and its allies weighted down by North Korea but ensure that Pyongyang doesn’t miscalculate. According to the brokered bargaining model presented by Dr. Moeed Yusuf in his upcoming book, this means that if North Korea acts independently of China and moves toward keeling over the brink, China will stand with the U.S., despite the U.S. being a direct adversary to North Korea both in terms of the North’s threat to the U.S. as well as any threat to South Korea and Japan. That cooperation, as Yusuf posits, will focus on crisis management and de-escalation regardless of other issues between Beijing and Washington.

The best outcome would be for the U.S. to invoke the basic spirit of the ’94 Framework: agree to normalize relations with North Korea if North Korea agrees to play by the legal-normative rules accepted by the international state system, without insisting that Pyongyang dismantle its program because that will be a non-starter.

Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider 

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