A recent report claims that the United States is taking a softer position regarding North Korea. The claim is based on the fact that the United States scrubbed a chance to bring United Nation Commission of Inquiry Report on Human Rights in North Korea once again into public scrutiny when it cancelled a speech scheduled in December on that topic by American Vice President Mike Pence.
The rationale behind the decision was apparently based upon a desire in Washington to not do anything that could possibly derail any second summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Un.
It is not a productive move, given the correct understanding of the flurry of diplomatic activity by North Korea in the last several months. First was Pyongyang’s desire to join Seoul in representing Korea at the 2018 Winter Olympics held in Pyeongchang, South Korea. That led to a paroxysm of speculations about how relations between North and South Korea were on such an upswing that the future looked rosy.
Under the cover of smiling faces and kind words, Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in met for the first time on 27 April in the Demilitarized Zone’s Joint Security Area between the two Koreas. This set the stage for the truly historic meeting between Kim and Trump in Singapore on 12 June.
Despite the vagueness of the Kim-Trump joint statement afterwards, Trump was sanguine about peace on the Korean peninsula. But why is Pyongyang willing to talk with Washington now, after the exchange of insults such as “dotard” and “little rocket man” in 2017? The answer is lays in the timing.
UNDERSTANDING THE PAST
It is tempting to claim that it was sanctions that brought North Korea to the negotiating table, and while that would not be completely erroneous, it is not the chief reason that Pyongyang decided to initiate denuclearization discussions with Washington after all this time.
Even though sanctions have been in place for some time and each Kim regime has long desired a sit-down with an incumbent American leader, the true impetus was North Korea finally achieving its ultimate goal of becoming a true nuclear power
Through having deliverable nuclear weapons – seen as the key to the survival of the regime – only now does Kim Jong Un feel that he has a strong position from which to negotiate denuclearization – of the entire Korean peninsula.
This becomes clear when one realizes that UN sanctions were initially being enforced by China and Russia for the first time ever in response to North Korea’s latest nuclear test and missile launch in late 2017.
Even though enforcement by Pyongyang’s ostensible allies was at times porous, sanctions did significantly stifle Pyongyang’s economy. Even so, Kim Jong Un remained resolute in his pursuit of membership in the nuclear club.
BACK TO THE PRESENT
A recent piece of mine pointed out that Kim Jong Un may have placed himself in a box when it comes room for negotiation. Kim has publicly committed to improving the economy in North Korea, but by having done so, he has concurrently taken on the burden of getting freed from sanctions so that engagement with South Korea and other investors can take place.
It is that engagement – along with increases in exports and imports – that will allow him to make good on his promise.
Understanding that, the United States has the upper hand in the negotiations. Kim needs Trump’s good will to get sanctions relief far more than Trump needs any deal on denuclearization from Kim. Though Trump wants a deal to ensure his legacy, it is unlikely that Kim will agree to any meaningful pact. In the meantime, there is still a freeze of sorts: no nuclear detonations and no missile launches by the North since 2017.
If Pyongyang were to tire of negotiations when Washington hangs tough, the contingency position of the United States ought to be continuing the existing détente.
However, with Trump turning to a softer form of engagement, he gives the appearance of caving in to pressure from North Korea – as well as from South Korea – demanding a more considerate approach. Remember that Seoul also needs sanctions relief so that South Korean plans for economic engagement with the North can be set into motion.
The question… is how to keep maximum pressure on North Korea
While it is still worthwhile to engage in dialog with the North for other reasons, South Korean and American negotiators need to keep uppermost in their minds that (1) denuclearization by Pyongyang is not going to happen any time soon – and that it may not ever happen, (2) the United States and its allies can maintain what passes for détente with North Korea, and (3) continued pressure will help to move North Korea toward some sort of permanent rapprochement between the Koreas as well as with the United States.
TO THE FUTURE
The question then is how to keep maximum pressure on North Korea even though China and Russia are now easing their enforcement of sanctions.
While sanctions will lose some of the impact they originally had due to leakage allowed by Beijing and Moscow, execution by others will remain, enough to prevent any substantial sanctions relief for Pyongyang – or for Seoul either.
Moreover, pressure on Pyongyang can come from an alternative direction. There is another tool to employ, one that is seen as being new but that is, in fact, nearly five (5!) years old.
That “new” tool is the aforementioned United Nation Committee of Inquiry Report on Human Rights in North Korea. Those with good memories will recall the outburst of outrage from Pyongyang when the report was first published in February 2014.
The North’s reaction showed clearly that the report had struck a raw nerve. Washington should revive the report to bring additional pressure on Pyongyang.
Instead, the United States threw away the opportunity to put human rights violations once again in the spotlight in favor of betting on a very unlikely positive outcome from an expected second summit between Kim and Trump.
That is not the way to get what is needed out of North Korea. This will be seen as weakness, and Pyongyang is sure to take advantage of Washington’s unwillingness to stand up to them.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: White House
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