This is the first part of two-part series by Stephan Haggard on prospects for the upcoming North Korea-U.S. summit.
It is increasingly evident that the United States will need to put something on the table to make the upcoming summit work. What might be on offer? Before turning to possible bids, however, it is important to understand how summitry works.
First, the standard summit process involves lengthy prior negotiations to avoid surprises. Yet leaders who rely less on inter-agency process or have a lot of discretion (ie., Kim Jong Un) are more prone to use the summit itself to strike deals.
This approach involves risk. You cannot know what might transpire until the summit itself; uncertainty is higher.
Second, we know that the North Koreans have—until the announcement of the summit itself—shied away from working-level technical talks. Moreover, they have not been altogether cooperative with respect to so-called “high-level” talks involving Secretary Pompeo either.
Pyongyang is no doubt taking a firm position at the outset in order to calibrate the negotiations. However given the concessions that North Korea got in Singapore, they may believe they can only get a deal—or the best deal—at the summit itself.
Finally, however, we should not expect that President Trump—even with his political stature in decline following the shutdown—will make that mistake again.
Kim Jong Un made three, modest concessions prior to and at Singapore, and none were particularly painful.
First, he undertook some cosmetic actions with respect to nuclear and missile tests sites that were reminiscent of the blowing up of the Yongbyon cooling tower in 2008. Second, he committed publicly to denuclearization, albeit “of the Korean peninsula.” And third—in classic blackmail fashion—there was a tacit assumption that nuclear and missile tests would remain frozen.
Pyongyang is no doubt taking a firm position at the outset in order to calibrate the negotiations
The common thread? Neither side has really committed to anything irreversible.
So what might the two sides offer? In this installment I review what the U.S. might put on the table; in a subsequent column I will examine the more complex issue of how North Korean concessions might be structured.
Sanctions Relief I: the UN Security Council Resolutions
North Korean objectives have clearly shifted away from symbolic gestures such as an end-of-war declaration to the main game: sanctions relief. National Security Advisor John Bolton has recognized the inevitable in this regard, but there may be less on the table—at least from the U.S.—than appears.
In the same interview, Bolton reiterated two other principles of U.S. policy: that the maximum pressure strategy would continue in parallel with negotiations; and that UN Security Council resolutions would similarly remain in place until significant denuclearization had been achieved. A third, unstated point is that secondary sanctions remain on the table.
The reasons for Bolton’s qualifications about sanctions relief are clear. If you believe—as I do—that sanctions have played at least some role in the recent détente, there is no reason to concede on them prematurely.
Moreover, there is a crucial political reason not to go back to the UN Security Council (as was done, for example, following “implementation day” in the Iran deal). If multilateral sanctions are unwound prematurely, it would be difficult if not impossible to reconstruct them given the acrimony in U.S.-Russia and U.S.-China relations.
North Korean objectives have clearly shifted away from symbolic gestures such as an end-of-war declaration to the main game: sanctions relief
Sanctions Relief II: U.S., Chinese and South Korean Options
If multilateral sanctions are not unwound, then the action would have to come from other parties in the region. In this regard, it is important to underscore that there is surprisingly little that the U.S. can do unilaterally that would have material effect.
The U.S. sanctions regime on North Korea is extraordinarily complex, involving both bilateral and secondary measures with many written into U.S. law. Even if this complex regime were completely unwound—a political impossibility—it is doubtful that either major U.S. companies or global European and Japanese firms would jump into the fray. The risk remains too high.
Yet there are several other routes to effective sanctions relief, some more material than others. The first is, in my view, not really sanctions relief but appropriate policy: the U.S. could do more to relax constraints on humanitarian engagement with North Korea, both on its own part and with respect to multilateral agencies and NGOs.
But this doesn’t really get to the core issue regarding the future of North Korea’s commercial trade where China, South Korea and, to a lesser extent, Russia would play a role.
Giving China carte blanche would only accelerate its well-documented sanctions evasion, which can only be addressed—and then only partially—by secondary sanctions.
The most obvious alternative therefore is to allow the Moon administration to take incremental steps that would show intent, but phased in a way that the payouts would only come with continued progress on the nuclear and missile front.
These might even involve actual investments, such as cleaning up Kaesong and Kumgang or undertaking rail improvements in the North, but with full use to only come down the line.
The process through which this would occur would be through exceptions granted to UN Security Council resolutions, which is easily done among consenting adults; who would object?
The risks here are obvious: unless the U.S. can tightly control this unwinding of the sanctions regime—an extraordinarily but perhaps not impossible task—then the incentives for North Korea to stall go up sharply.
President Trump’s stream-of-consciousness press conference in Singapore generated an unexpected win for the North: not only were exercises suspended but he even labeled them as provocative, a PR boon for Kim Jong Un. Conducting scaled-back exercises or continuing to cancel them could be another good will gesture on the part of the United States.
But it is far from clear how valuable such a concession would be to the North. To be sure, when tensions are high, and particularly when the U.S. is talking openly about decapitation, the leadership might well feel that exercises are an existential threat. And curtailing them permits similar resource-conserving moves on the part of North Korea’s stretched ground forces.
Declining priorities don’t generate meaningful trades
But North Korean rhetoric about exercises could well be disingenuous. In an ideal world, Pyongyang would clearly like to see smaller and less frequent exercises over more robust and frequent ones, particularly those involving strategic assets around the peninsula.
But would they really see such moves as something that they will pay for given the fact when relations have thawed? The North Korean know perfectly well that the United States has the power to project lethal force from over the horizon.
I am therefore skeptical. If the United States can get something for trading some exercise relief—being careful to keep the South Korean conservatives and military on board—fine. But I am skeptical it will do much bargaining work.
An End of War declaration?
The North Koreans have themselves gradually signaled that this is a declining priority, and declining priorities don’t generate meaningful trades. Yet it could contribute an air of mutual gain to the summit.
The U.S. has already made the concession that it is open to peace regime negotiations, and in any case a future settlement—if in the cards—would have to replace the armistice.
The international legal issues are tricky, but everyone knows that the significance of such a statement would depend heavily on forward momentum.
Thinking outside the box
A variety of other ideas have been vetted, but one might address the question of normalization: setting up liaison offices.
For a number of reasons, this is pure symbolic politics. Nothing significant is likely to transpire through a small U.S. delegation sitting in Pyongyang beyond some limited intelligence gathering, monitoring the humanitarian situation, and some public diplomacy.
But measures of this sort could also contribute to the win-win feel of a summit, even if the real action has to take place through a more enduring negotiation channel.
The first summit was a calculated risk with obvious downsides; even the most optimistic viewed it as an icebreaker. The second summit is unlikely to give away as much.
But as National Security Advisor John Bolton—a registered North Korea hawk—has admitted, something has to be on the table. Next time, a review of possible North Korean concessions.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
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