Despite denuclearization discussions with North Korea currently at a standstill, there are nonetheless those who want to add other issues to the agenda for when talks resume.
This is foolhardy for a number of reasons. To begin with, neither American nor any other negotiators have the mental or political bandwidth to do that. Spreading attention over many issues dilutes the focus and facilitates poor discussions due to not having the time to spend on getting the details right.
Similarly, not all issues competing for attention are of equal importance. Washington must evaluate the issues to rank them in priority order, from highest to lowest.
However, since Pyongyang clearly sees issues differently that the U.S., one complication is that an agreement on which issue is most important must be reached.
A FEW FAVORITE THINGS
Many advocates of issues have their favorites, most often depending upon their line of work. That is to say, those in the field of X unsurprisingly claim that problem X is most important. A few of such matters involving North Korea – in alphabetical order – are:
• Building adequate national, regional, and local infrastructure in North Korea • Democratization of society in the North • Denuclearization of the North • Establishing cultural exchanges and political interactions between North and South • Free marketization/private enterprise development in North Korea • Human rights violations in North Korea
It is not difficult to prioritize these issues once the breadth, significance, and immediacy of the adverse effects that ensue from those issues is analyzed. No credible argument can be mounted against the claim that the threat of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems exists right now, that the threat is serious, and that the threat applies not only to South Korea but to all of Northeast Asia and beyond – even spanning the Pacific Ocean to the U.S. mainland.
THE PRODUCT OF JIBBER-JABBER
The United States and its regional allies having been engaging North Korea and its patrons for roughly 30 years and – despite the claims of idealists – nothing of enduring substance has resulted despite the Agreed Framework, the Six-Party Talks, the Leap Day Deal, ad nauseam.
The current impasse is due to Kim’s insistence on sanctions relief while Trump stipulates (some form of) denuclearization first
One very basic reason for this is that few Westerners demonstrate an adequate understanding of how Pyongyang views the world and reacts to it. As but one example, seasoned diplomats and political advisors in the West insist that the only way to negotiate with the North is through working groups.
But that clearly has not worked, for the simple reason that no North Korean working group member can make decisions. Everything must be approved by the ruling Kim in Pyongyang.
Experts decry the fact that U.S. President Donald Trump has met with North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Un. They appear to not recognize that Kim has always demanded a meeting with a sitting U.S. President — that Trump agreed to meet with Kim is what got us this far, even if talks are presently stalled.
The current impasse is due to Kim’s insistence on sanctions relief while Trump stipulates (some form of) denuclearization first. It is a wicked Catch-22: The North’s development of nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems spawned the imposition of UN and other, unilateral sanctions, yet Kim will not denuclearize so long as major sanctions are in effect.
Moreover, those sanctions prevent other issues being addressed. Inter-Korean projects of any significance – other than sporadic humanitarian aid – cannot occur under the sanctions regime.
Yet, despite this, South Korean President Moon Jae-in continues to push for economic and financial projects with North Korea. Moon’s position is partly traceable to his liberal pedigree: He professes to see the path to peace on the Korean peninsula as being attainable only through dialog and engagement.
Yet there is a practical component to his thinking as well. The major projects encouraged by Moon are the reopening of both the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) and the Mt. Kumgang resort. Moon seeks these ventures to benefit the sagging South Korean economy, while cash-strapped Kim wants to resume skimming the wages of the North Korean KIC workers – perhaps by as much as 80% in some cases.
As long as sanctions against the North exist, these projects remain on hold. Pyongyang is frustrated with the South over Seoul being prevented from offering economic and financial engagement with the North – another wicked Catch-22.
The single-most important explanation behind the failures of past agreements between Washington and Pyongyang is simply that the North does not live up to their end of any deal. The history on this is quite clear that, despite occasional slow-walking by the United States, the blame for broken accords lies exclusively on North Korea.
The latest illustration of this is a report suggesting that nutritional ingredients donated by humanitarian organizations in response to requests from the North have been used in making processed foods for export in order to generate much-needed cash for the state.
The evidence points to contributed foodstuffs not being given to their intended recipients. It calls into question whether the North really needed the foodstuffs in the first place. Worse, it makes one wonder whether any aid given to the Kim regime is getting where it needs to go or whether Pyongyang is using it for economic gain.
Cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo has always been somewhat problematic due to the unresolved history that the two countries share going back to at least the end of the Nineteenth Century.
Now, however, with South Korea abrogating the pact out of spite over an escalating trade war with Japan, sharing sensitive material between the two countries is reduced to using the United States as an intermediary.
And even though this plays well to Moon’s domestic audience in light of rising anti-Japan sentiment, it is – as one American commentator labeled the decision – a “strategic stupidity.” Now, Washington must expand its efforts to deal not only with Pyongyang but to mitigate a petty squabble of two ersatz allies.
All of this is on top of the need to keep Moon aware that his intended economic and financial projects involving the North are no more than giving aid and comfort to the enemy.
AN OUTSIDE-THE-BOX PROBLEM
In dealing with North Korea, the problem has always been the inability of the West to put itself in the shoes of the ruling Kim, to view the world – China, Japan, South Korea, and the United States at a minimum – as Pyongyang perceives it, not as the West and its allies think it should be seen.
One of the fundamental realizations of that would be understanding the prime goal of Kim Jong Un’s government is survival. Possession of nuclear weapons and the means to send them anywhere in Asia and the United States is the North’s guardian “treasured sword.”
Sanctions relief is secondary to survival. But it is only after sanctions are rescinded that Kim can make good on his promise to grow his economy so that (1) the average North Korean prospers sufficiently so that (2) the bribes, fees, and other charges levied on them by Pyongyang are enough to provide the regime with the requisite revenue so that (3) the elites and senior military can continue in their accustomed luxurious lifestyles. It is yet another wicked Catch-22.
In dealing with North Korea, the problem has always been the inability of the West to put itself in the shoes of the ruling Kim
Given this understanding, what outside-the-box enticements are there the West can offer to get Kim to denuclearize? The choices are few – and none of them are of benefit to either South Korea or its benefactors.
Conventional thinking has not achieved the West’s desired goals. Even so, any unconventional solutions must be practical, not merely unusual. Two examples of outside-the-box thinking illustrate unconventional thinking – but one is so unlikely as to be of no value and the other faces long odds.
The first is the 2018 proposal by a South Korean politician to somehow get Kim Jong Un to switch from using China as an economic partner and security guarantor to the United States. The devil is in the details, and the details of that proposal were conspicuous in their absence.
That example is not outside-the-box thinking; it is – as one South Korean newspaper editor familiar with the person explained in a personal communication to this writer – perhaps the product of too much alcohol.
Conventional thinking has not achieved the West’s desired goals
A better example of unconventional thinking is a report that South Korea is considering North Korea as an attendee to its eighth annual Seoul Defense Dialog (SDD) this week.
Although Pyongyang was invited to the event in 2015, it declined. Even so, the SDD would be the perfect venue for Pyongyang to express its concerns about its own national security.
Should Kim send a delegation to the SDD, it could be a learning experience on what North Korean concerns are – along with clues on how to deal with them – if the West and its allies attend to what the North might say.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
Despite denuclearization discussions with North Korea currently at a standstill, there are nonetheless those who want to add other issues to the agenda for when talks resume.This is foolhardy for a number of reasons. To begin with, neither American nor any other negotiators have the mental or political bandwidth to do that. Spreading attention over many issues dilutes the focus and facilitates
Robert E. McCoy is a retired U.S. Air Force Korean linguist and analyst/reporter who was stationed in Asia for more than fourteen years. He continues to follow developments in East Asia closely. Mr. McCoy’s book Tales You Wouldn’t Tell Your Mother is now out. He can be contacted via his website http://musingsbymccoy.com/ which also lists his previous essays and has personal vignettes on Asia (Tidbits) not published elsewhere.