Just over two months have passed since the Singapore summit, and it is increasingly clear that North Korea is reluctant to make further concessions to the U.S.
Many experts believe that American diplomacy has suffered yet another defeat, and they might be right. However, not all is lost: there are still ways to achieve a significant reduction in the North Korean nuclear threat.
We are talking of “arms reduction,” of course, not “denuclearization,” which has always been a pipe dream, and will remain such as long as the Kim family (or their approved successors) stay in power.
For decades the North Korean leaders have spared little in resources, money, and human lives in order to establish and advance their nuclear weapons program which they (with good reason) see as the only meaningful guarantee of their regime’s long-term survival. They are determined to keep some nuclear weapons capability no matter what.
But this does not mean that they are unwilling to make compromises when it is required by the circumstances.
This has been vividly demonstrated by recent events. The “maximum pressure” policy of Trump administration worked – to an extent, at least. Last year the bellicose rhetoric from Washington created the impression that the U.S. President was willing to use military force if North Korea did not give in.
At the same time, China abandoned its long-held ambivalent attitude to the North Korean nuclear issue and effectively established a joint front with the U.S., not merely voting in the UN for the harshest set of sanctions ever, but also implementing these sanctions with unprecedented thoroughness.
In due time, many reasoned, these tough sanctions would undermine the economy of North Korea.
So, facing the dual threat of the U.S.-initiated military strikes and China-induced economic crisis, the North Korean leaders decided to make concessions, and began negotiations in earnest early this year.
Things changed soon, however. Trump administration initiated a trade war with China, so Beijing now sees no reasons to maintain its hard stance on North Korea.
Predictably, the U.S.-China united front collapsed. This does not mean that China will now openly violate sanctions, but it will suffice if the authorities turn a blind eye to ongoing large-scale smuggling, and to start using loopholes in the sanctions system to assist the North Koreans. This is what is happening now, and this dramatic change in the Chinese position has greatly emboldened North Koreans.
STALLING FOR TIME
In the new situation, the North Korean leaders’ main goal now is simple: they want to win time. They are still afraid of an overreaction from Trump, and they are careful not to provoke him. They understand that it is vital to maintain the impression of an ongoing “process” and, therefore, some concessions will surely be made.
However, the North Korean side will ensure that these concessions will be as small as possible, will be largely of symbolic and/or reversible nature, and will be given as infrequently as possible.
Their immediate task is to outwait Donald Trump, whom they see as dangerously unpredictable adversary, potentially capable of striking North Korea despite the risk that such strikes will escalate into a full-scale war.
In recent months, it has been the North Koreans who have been in the driver’s seat.
But this does not mean that U.S. diplomacy has no tools in its disposal. One very powerful tool, which can be used to make North Koreans to reconsider their position and make considerable concessions, is the UN sanctions regime.
In recent months, it has been the North Koreans who have been in the driver’s seat
Let’s make it clear: I do not believe that the US should return to the “maximum pressure policy,” even though such option is widely discussed in Washington DC nowadays. “Maximum pressure, 2.0” cannot count on Chinese support, and hence will produce little apart from another period of high tensions and dangerous brinksmanship. The full-scale enforcement of existing sanctions requires wholehearted Chinese participation, and such participation is not forthcoming.
The partial relaxation of sanctions, however, could be used as a reward for North Korea’s willingness to make meaningful and irreversible, if partial, concessions.
Without sanctions relaxation there will be no South Korean money, and North Korea will remain in the suffocating embrace of China
Sanctions make it impossible for the South Koreans to fully engage the North, and this is not what the North Koreans want. In the current situation, the Kim regime is receiving life support only from China, that is, from the country the North Korean elite tend to despise and fear.
Additionally, North Korea has always being remarkably good in exploiting cracks in the relations of its great power sponsors – but in order to do so, they need to have more than one such sponsor to play with.
In other words, Pyongyang decision makers are wary of their excessive dependence on China, and want to diversify their sources of aid. This is why they badly want to cooperate with the Moon administration, which is ready, and even eager, to subsidize Pyongyang.
However, South Korea cannot afford to annoy the U.S. and openly violate the sanctions regime, so without sanctions relaxation there will be no South Korean money, and North Korea will remain in the suffocating embrace of China.
The compete lifting of sanctions is politically impossible as long as North Korea remains nuclear (read: forever). However, it would suffice if sanctions revert to their early 2016 levels, that is, to the time when sectoral sanctions (bans on particular types of North Korean exports, like coal or seafood) were first implemented.
STEP BY STEP
However, if North Koreans want sanctions removed, there is a price they have to pay. As a reward for yet another part of the sanctions regime removed, North Korea must surrender some key components of its nuclear and missile development program.
For example, the DPRK side wants the international community to lift the ban of sales of mineral resources. In exchange, the North Koreans must be required to make some important and irreversible concessions.
No goodwill declarations or easily reversible freezes will do, only hardware will matter – like, say, shipping overseas a couple of thousands of HEU-producing centrifuges.
It is up to the technical experts to name the key components whose destruction or removal will seriously reduce North Korea’s ability to advance its nuclear program.
Among these key components are nuclear reactors (which can be ‘poisoned’ and rendered unusable) and HEU-producing centrifuges, as well as some precision metal-working equipment. All these can be swapped for partial sanctions relief.
The proposed formula is simple: partial relieve of sanctions in exchange for partial dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear and missile production and R&D facilities.
So far, however, this solution has met much resistance from the U.S. diplomacy. The U.S. position is simple and tough: sanctions can be relieved only when North Korea surrenders its nuclear weapons.
This position reflects the belief of a handful of hard-line optimists who have a great deal of power in Washington DC these days. These people are not willing to consider partial solutions, they simply believe that the U.S. government should never tolerate the existence of a nuclear North Korea.
This stance is understandable, but it has a major shortcoming: their goal of “complete, verifiable and irreversible” denuclearization is not achievable. No matter what they will do, but the North Korean government will keep its nuclear force, however small.
Still, the hard-liners believe, that if (or rather ‘when’) North Koreans show no willingness to denuclearize through concessions and negotiations, Washington could and should re-launch the “maximum pressure policy.”
The North Korean leaders’ main goal now is simple: they want to win time
The hardliners are not interested in compromises and partial solutions, their battle cry is simple and clear: “All or nothing!” Sounds good, and sells well to voters, no doubt, but in real life it likely means that they will get nothing.
Alas, the stubborn pursuit of an unachievable dream is getting in the way of what is an achievable, if imperfect, compromise. One can only hope that it will change before it is too late.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
Just over two months have passed since the Singapore summit, and it is increasingly clear that North Korea is reluctant to make further concessions to the U.S.Many experts believe that American diplomacy has suffered yet another defeat, and they might be right. However, not all is lost: there are still ways to achieve a significant reduction in the North Korean nuclear threat.We are
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.