With North Korea upgrading its nuclear and missile capabilities, the world should seek an interim agreement that would freeze the regime’s programs with a long-term aim of denuclearization, according to a renowned security expert.
Robert S. Litwak, vice president for programs at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said full denuclearization of Pyongyang is not feasible in the near future, and the alternative would be an “imperfect” deal based on a “transactional, rather than a transformational approach.”
Referring to the Iranian nuclear agreement reached on July 14, 2015 between Iran and “P5+1” countries -- comprising the five permanent United Nations Security Council members China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, plus Germany -- as well as the European Union, Litwak said the prerequisite for successful diplomacy is limiting the scope of negotiation to denuclearization itself.
“If the United States had pushed for broad negotiations, success on the Iranian nuclear issue would not have been possible,” he argued at a seminar organized by the East Asia Foundation last week.
“The Obama administration decoupled the nuclear question from the question of regime change in Iran. The crux of the issue was that when the agreement was made it was just a deal, not a grand bargain.”
Robert S. Litwak, vice president for programs at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington D.C. (East Asia Foundation)
The slew of criticisms in the aftermath -- including that of President Donald Trump, who called it “the worst deal ever” -- was leveled at leaving the “odious” regime in power, the policy wonk continued. But he acknowledged that the accord -- known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action -- forced Tehran to comply with multipronged stipulations: mainly eliminating its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium, cutting its reserve of low-enriched uranium by 98 percent and reducing its gas centrifuges by two-thirds over 13 years.
Under the accord, forged after an interim agreement signed in November 2013, Iran can enrich uranium up to 3.67 percent, but cannot build any heavy-water facilities for 15 years. The International Atomic Energy Agency is to conduct regular monitoring and inspection of its nuclear facilities.
In return for verifiably abiding by its commitments, Iran will receive relief from the US, EU and UNSC on sanctions on its international banking, petrochemical, oil and gas, telecommunications and automobile industries that had crippled its economy since 2010.
“Transactional diplomacy would decouple the nuclear issue from broader strategies and create conditions for success by not maximizing the interest of any party, but by optimizing the interests of all parties,” Litwak, the member of the Council on Foreign Relations, said.
“The optimal interest for Pyongyang is that it can retain a minimum deterrent via the moratorium, while for Seoul it would buy time capping the North Korean threat at its current level. For Beijing a freeze would preserve the buffer state in North Korea while adverting the strategic consequences of a nuclear breakout. For Washington the interim agreement would provide the long-term objective of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.”
The foreign ministers of the "P5+1" and Iran stand for a group photo at the United Nations building in Vienna on July 14, 2015, after the announcement of a landmark nuclear deal. (Carlos Barria/AP PHOTO)
On the downside, his proposal would enable the communist state to keep its nuclear arsenal, leaving an ethical problem of having compromised with a “rogue state,” the ex-adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service conceded.
But “when the choice of zero warhead is not on the negotiating table, a deal that leaves North Korea at 20 nukes is better than an unconstrained program leading to a stock of 100 nuclear weapons,” he said, adding that Pyongyang is on course to produce 100 atomic warheads by 2020.
“It is up to the political leadership to decide whether pursuing diplomatic engagement with North Korea to cap its nuclear and missile capabilities is feasible.”
Despite the optimistic outlook from Iran, analysts have pointed out that putting a brake on North Korea will be much more difficult, as the situations between the two countries are poles apart.
One crucial difference is that Pyongyang has reached a “point of no return” in its quest to be a recognized nuclear power. It sees its arsenal as a means to shield itself from outside attack and forced regime change. On the other hand, Tehran did not regard nuclear armament as an existential issue, but rather pursued it as a “status matter” of being a top Shiite regional power, former Korean diplomat Chun Yung-woo told the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (center) directs his generals during an artillery exercise. (Yonhap/AP Photo)
In addition, Tehran was far more vulnerable to sanctions with its economy deeply plugged into the global economy and its society more open and pluralistic, in contrast to the isolated and unitary North Korea. The Iran deal controversially did not include ballistic missiles, whereas the North says it is on the verge of miniaturizing a nuke and mounting it atop an intercontinental ballistic missile that could hit the US mainland.
Noting the “P5+1” format was a critical element of the whole process, Litwak pointed to the six-party talks as an ideal format of negotiation. He also asserted that a bilateral channel between Washington and Pyongyang would be instrumental, just as Washington and Tehran engaged in a separate diplomacy on the sidelines of multilateral pressures.
Responding to Moon Chung-in -- distinguished professor emeritus at Yonsei University Songdo Campus who has been tapped as the new administration’s special adviser on foreign affairs -- who advised the US and Korea temporarily suspend their annual military exercise in return for the North’s freezing, Litwak agreed.
“We need to reassure Pyongyang that we are not preparing for a preemptive attack,” the American said.
By Joel Lee (email@example.com