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View more articles by Mintaro Oba
Mintaro Oba is a speechwriter at West Wing Writers and a former Korea Desk Officer at the U.S. Department of State.
65 years ago this year, a U.S. Army Lieutenant General and a chain-smoking, pencil-breaking North Korean general locked in the status quo that defines the Korean peninsula today.
The Korean War armistice — signed in 1953 after 400 hours of negotiation in over close to 200 sessions in which the North Koreans postured, delayed, and lied so much the Americans wondered if Pyongyang was at all serious about an agreement — was no one’s idea of a great outcome.
It was intended to be temporary, a step on the way to a “final, peaceful settlement.” But in one of the great ironies of the Korean peninsula, the agreements we hoped would last turned out to be temporary, while the agreement we thought would be temporary is still in force sixty-five years later.
With such a difficult matter at stake, treating the armistice as temporary was the only viable way to get any agreement, no matter how imperfect and unpalatable, that moved the ball forward.
It’s a lesson we should keep in mind as we consider how to make the most of the diplomatic process currently in play between the United States and North Korea.
Today, after a year of summit diplomacy and ambitious talk of “final, fully verified denuclearization,” the United States and North Korea head into 2019 less flexible than ever.
With Washington unwilling to entertain sanctions relief without denuclearization and North Korea unwilling to take major steps on denuclearization without sanctions relief, the two sides appear to have reached an impasse, a state of mutually assured frustration.
We ought to now consider an explicitly temporary U.S.-North Korea agreement, one that allows both sides to be more flexible than they would in negotiations over a comprehensive and permanent agreement.
The most important difference a temporary agreement could make is that it could help offset overly high expectations and alleviate the pressure to achieve comprehensive, ambitious outcomes quickly.
The Trump administration’s poor public messaging, in which it has repeatedly suggest Kim Jong Un made commitments on denuclearization in Singapore that he did not make, coupled with breathless reality-show style coverage of every single high-level interaction with North Korea, has exacerbated a sense of frustration and put pressure on both sides to make major progress.
A temporary agreement of, say, two years would help relieve that pressure for that length of time and create more space for more comprehensive negotiations, just as the two-year Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) did for the talks that led to the Iran deal. The JPOA put a short-term freeze on parts of Iran’s nuclear program in return for some sanctions relief.
Done right, a temporary agreement could also give the United States and North Korea something more significant to lose if the current diplomatic process ends.
Certainly, there have been small gains that keep both countries invested in the process for now, such as increased diplomatic options and a weakened consensus behind sanctions enforcement for North Korea, and a halt to Pyongyang’s provocations and greater stability for the United States.
But with a year of engagement producing few substantive changes to the status quo, neither country has anything hugely compelling keeping them at the table. The temporary nature of an agreement could provide cover for taking bigger steps the two countries have been reluctant to agree to, thus creating a new status quo that both countries have a stake in preserving.
Our reluctance to acknowledge that arms control is a much more viable goal than disarmament has limited what we can do
Even small steps to stop the advancement of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and relieve sanctions could represent a step up that neither party wants to backtrack from, putting constructive pressure on the two countries at the end of two years to either conclude a comprehensive agreement or renew the temporary agreement.
Providing temporary cover also helps countries recognize an unpleasant status quo that already exists for their own good without conceding on the principle of the matter.
The two Koreas may have wanted to keep fighting the Korean War until one of them secured an independent, unified Korea on their own terms, but the “temporary” armistice effectively recognized the status quo that already existed – a divided Korean peninsula – and allowed them to move beyond the destructive war.
Today, we also face a status quo that U.S. policymakers are loathe to accept: North Korea is a nuclear weapons state. They have advanced their nuclear and missile programs, and the likelihood of securing complete denuclearization on peaceful terms is close to zero. Our reluctance to acknowledge that arms control is a much more viable goal than disarmament has limited what we can do.
Working through temporary agreements may well be the only viable way we can start to tacitly acknowledge the status quo no one wants to acknowledge, and move forward to create more stability and security.
Proposing a temporary agreement could also be the most effective way to take the initiative ahead of Kim Jong Un’s critical New Year’s address, putting the onus on North Korea to react to a reasonable proposal instead of allowing Pyongyang to do what it expertly does on a regular basis: seize the initiative, force the United States to react on its terms, and create a high-profile public situation where Washington appears to be the obstacle to progress if it doesn’t agree to those terms.
Our distinct unwillingness to recognize this key element of North Korea’s playbook and muster the flexibility to take the initiative ourselves in a public manner remains a major failing of U.S. North Korea policy.
We can change that now. The United States should publicly announce before the New Year’s address that it is ready to negotiate some sanctions relief in the context of a temporary agreement where North Korea takes some steps to mitigate the nuclear and missile threat and the two sides set parameters for two years of formal, lower level talks on a comprehensive agreement.
It should invite other key actors like China or other former Six-Party Talks members to join it in multilateral working-level negotiations to achieve such an agreement.
Including other actors could help build early consensus around the proposal, put pressure on North Korea to accept, and crucially, get China and Russia committed to an agreement where their support is necessary if the sanctions relieved under the agreement need to be snapped back and we need to return to maximum pressure.
Of course, other actors – like South Korea or the UN Secretary General – could make the proposal instead, thus alleviating any baggage that comes with a U.S. proposal and putting public pressure on not only China and Russia, but the United States.
U.S. officials should make clear that we consider this a major olive branch
If the United States chooses to propose an interim agreement, this could allow Washington to take the initiative very publicly with something that seems eminently reasonable – a demonstration of U.S. flexibility and an ask of both sides to take small, largely reversible steps.
At the same time, U.S. officials should make clear that we consider this a major olive branch, and that if North Korea can’t even agree to a short-term agreement under these terms, it’s hard to see how we could make further progress through this diplomatic process.
And while some of us recognize the value in a sustained, long-term diplomatic process that creates stability and reduces threat levels even if there is no concrete progress toward denuclearization, the general public and most U.S. politicians likely will not accept this.
The longer President Trump goes without something to show for his summit, the more he’ll feel pressure to save face through the bluster and aggression of the “fire and fury” days.
A temporary agreement that gives President Trump something substantive to brag about and relieves pressure on him by formalizing a real process for a comprehensive agreement will help keep him under control for the duration of his term – and it will reduce the likelihood that a future administration will come in and leave diplomacy for dead.
In fact, a three-year agreement might well be better than two years – to make sure part of the process carries over into the next presidency.
With recent KCNA statements taking on a tone of increasing tactical and genuine irritation with the United States and reports circulating that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is frustrated with a lack of progress with North Korea, it’s clear we need a new approach.
In an era of deep impatience and public demand for progress (the Singapore summit was less than a year ago, remember, and yet articles and op-eds lamenting a lack of major gains are a dime a dozen), we need a new framework to relieve pressure on the parties for immediate outcomes, allow them the flexibility to make reciprocal concessions, and create a new status quo that both countries have a vested interest in maintaining.
If the Korean War armistice had been billed as a final, comprehensive agreement on the status of the Korean peninsula, would the parties have agreed to its terms? No.
But it froze an unpalatable but real status quo that the Koreas didn’t want to accept, allowed them to bring the fighting to a de facto end, and move on. Ultimately, the situation it created was far from ideal, but it was better than war – and it endured.
Whether or not an interim agreement with North Korea leads to a more comprehensive one, or, like the Korean War armistice, persists because there is no better alternative but plenty of worse ones, it would represent a step up from the diplomatic process we have now. It’s time for the United States and North Korea to think temporary.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Kevin Lim/THE STRAITS TIMES