Negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington over North Korea’s nuclear weapons are stalemated.
The United States wants a complete list of Kim Jong Un’s various nuclear facilities before any sanctions relief can occur, while North Korea demands the Americans offer relief as a reward for Pyongyang’s destruction of its Punggye-ri nuclear test site and planned dismantling of the Sohae missile launch facility.
The root problem is that Kim Jong Un wants – and needs – sanctions relief in order to grow the North Korean economy as he has promised, but the U.S. refuses to grant that until Pyongyang makes irreversible steps towards denuclearization.
Washington sees the blowing up of the tunnel entrances at the Punggye-ri site as being meaningless since the mountain under which all nuclear tests to date have occurred as being no longer usable.
And with the North moving toward solid-fueled missile technology, the Sohae launch facility – required for preparing liquid-fuel missiles – may no longer be useful to the North and is therefore potentially another meaningless gesture.
From North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Un’s perspective, declaring a moratorium on UN-proscribed nuclear tests and missile launches has earned him sanctions relief.
All Kim did, however, was come into compliance with some but not all UN resolutions. Other sanctions are about money-making illegal activities. One ought not get rewarded for only partially complying with lawful obligations.
Further, Pyongyang reportedly continues extraction of bomb fuel for nuclear warheads and production of long-range missiles. All indications to-date – ignoring cheap publicity announcements – point to North Korea having no intent to denuclearize any time soon.
Some pundits worry that an opportunity to disarm North Korea will be lost if the U.S. does not dramatically change its position. Nothing could be further from the truth, for the fact is that no realistic opportunity for Kim to relinquish his nuclear weapons and their delivery systems has yet arrived.
WHO WANTS WHAT?
To see who has a stake in this game and who might hold the better hand, consider the following security needs and geostrategic interests of the regions players.
The question that needs to be answered boils down to who needs what the most.
China wants regional stability as well as a buffer between its northeastern provinces and West-leaning democratic South Korea. To be sure, Beijing does not like the idea of a nuclear Pyongyang but it is likely willing to accept the status quo rather than a unified Korean Peninsula under the auspices of Seoul.
It is why China supports North Korea – to keep it from collapsing into South Korean hands.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in needs economic projects with North Korea for (1) political credibility as a progressive and a pro-unification politician, and (2) the salvation of his languishing South Korean economy.
Seoul anticipates that international funding for the projects in North Korea would greatly benefit South Korean industries – and thus its own economy – as much as it would foster better living conditions in the North.
It is Washington that has the upper hand here, not Pyongyang
Kim needs to make good on his promise to the citizens of North Korea about building a better economy, now that the country’s security has been secured through the sacrifices made in acquiring nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.
The United States has no such needs, only an unwarranted fear that North Korea would be so foolish as to target American soil. Washington ought to realize that Pyongyang’s threats to strike the U.S. mainland – or its military bases in Asia – are akin to spitting into wind of a numerically and technologically superior military force.
Attacking the U.S. or even one of its allies would be the end of the North’s regime – and that is what really matters to Kim. Thus, there is a détente of sorts.
THE U.S. HOLDS THE BETTER HAND
The upshot is that it is Washington that has the upper hand here, not Pyongyang.
U.S. President Donald Trump, indeed, wants to accomplish something that nobody else has been able to do in more than three decades of dealing with Pyongyang – the nuclear defanging of North Korea. But that is a want and not a need.
Trump’s advisers and the Washington bureaucracy will hopefully prevent him from falling into yet another Kim family trap.
Most experts now recognize that the smiling faces and honeyed words currently emanating from Pyongyang merely sugar-coat the empty promises of a murderous dictator who callously sacrificed his own people for a seat at the nuclear club table.
If Trump avoids giving away too much too soon, Kim will eventually realize that it is he who has been snookered – by himself, no less. Trump can afford to wait out Kim because Kim dare not use his nukes.
But as long as Kim has them, even though they do deter an American preventive attack, there will be no sanctions relief.
Despite multiple protestations by North Korea, Kim realizes that his economy will – despite loosening sanctions implementation – continue to suffer and that his promise for a better life will be seen by the North Korean citizenry as more flummery.
That is the impetus behind the current diplomacy and the urgency of his demand for sanctions relief.
Without sanctions relief, Kim could return to provocations – the small-scale military hostilities of the past intended to harass and discomfit Seoul and its allies.
Kim realizes that his economy will – despite loosening sanctions implementation – continue to suffer
However, creating such incidents out of frustration or a desire to set up a reward for stopping them would concurrently destroy any political capital built up between Pyongyang and Seoul.
It would also further motivate Tokyo to modify Article 9 of its constitution, to facilitate becoming more of a traditional military power in the region.
Provocations could also result in China returning to a stricter implementation of sanctions as a tangible expression of Beijing’s displeasure for Pyongyang having yet again upset regional peace and tranquility.
Kim does not have a strong enough hand to demand sanctions relief. Washington should hang tough.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: 25th Air Force
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