[Park Sang-seek] North Korean nuclear issue: Maximum pressure or engagement?

By Park Sang-seek
  • Published : Aug 20, 2017 - 18:11
  • Updated : Aug 20, 2017 - 18:11
Since North Korea conducted another intercontinental ballistic missile test on July 28, the US has become more confrontational rather than conciliatory toward North Korea. US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley declared at the UN Security Council that the “time for dialogue is over.”

The Trump administration has adopted the maximum pressure and engagement policy, abandoning Obama’s strategic patience policy. It has first concentrated on a confrontational approach, resorting to mainly three paths: sanctions through the UNSC; secondary boycotts by member states, particularly, the four major powers directly concerned with the Korean crisis; and continued joint South Korea-US military exercises and deployment of all kinds of anti-ballistic missiles in Korea.

The US has left the door open to negotiations on conditions the subject of the talks be the North Korean nuclear issue. All these measures have failed to stop North Korea’s continuous nuclear and missile development. Aside from South Korea, the US and Japan, other UN members have not actively imposed or have been negligent about sanctions, particularly secondary boycotts.

Moreover, China and Russia are either negligent or reluctant in implementing the UNSC sanction measures fully and instead advocate negotiations. Particularly, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, whom President Donald Trump has nearly begged to put stronger pressure on North Korea, has been evasive about his plea and instead has advocated direct negotiations with North Korea. China and Russia, which can influence North Korean behavior more than other countries, are more concerned about the impact of the North Korean nuclear issue on the regional power structure than cooperation with the US. Taking advantage of this situation, North Korea has become bolder and more self-confident about its nuclear program.

Experts and pundits in Korea and abroad put forward numerous solutions to the issue: They can be divided into advocates of stronger pressure and those of engagement. A majority of them are advocates of stronger pressure.

Some emphasize stronger and more comprehensive financial sanctions and secondary boycotts. Others advocate the overthrow of the Kim Jong-un leadership, a popular insurgency, the dismantlement of North Korean nuclear and missile facilities, and the placement of tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea.

But the above kinds of economic sanctions are bound to fail and the second kinds of actions are most likely to lead to a military confrontation. Advocates of engagement are numerically much smaller than the advocates of strong pressure. Their suggested measures include direct contact between the US and North Korea without preconditions; the reconvening of six-party talks; US assurance to China the US will never station its military forces in North Korea in any circumstance; the simultaneous suspension of South Korea-US regular military exercises and North Korean nuclear and missile tests; and the conclusion of a peace treaty between the US and North Korea. North Korea has been advocating for a US-North Korea peace treaty since 2010.

Advocates for the peace treaty propose the US and North Korea hold a bilateral meeting to discuss the following items:

1) North Korea’s denuclearization process should be conducted in three stages (initial, intermediate and final) and supervised and verified by a competent and impartial international organization (e.g. IAEA).

2) Both Koreas can maintain their defense treaties with the US and China respectively.

3) The US and China maintain their commitments to extended deterrence to their respective allies.

4) The US withdraws its ground forces in South Korea in stages as the latter achieves its self-defense capabilities.

5) The Northeast Asian Peace and Security Mechanism envisaged by the 2008 Six-Party Talks agreement should be established. This organization is to guarantee peace and security on the Korean Peninsula by supervising the South Korea-US and North Korea-China mutual defense treaties on the one hand and the US-North Korea Peace treaty on the peninsula and by preventing intervention in inter-Korean affairs by any of the big powers on the other.

Some peace advocates include all the above items on the agenda and others some of them. Bu they all agree that in order to hold US-North Korea peace talks, South Korea and the US should suspend their regular joint military exercises.

If we review the history of the North Korean nuclear program, we find the following facts. First, after the humiliating defeat in the Korean War, the founder of North Korea became convinced that the only way to survive any confrontation with South Korea and the US was for North Korea becomes a nuclear power. His successors have become more convinced of this. A nuclear North Korea can catch two birds with one stone: It can maintain military balance with the South Korea-US alliance and control its people with an iron hand by keeping them mobilized under a war threat from the South.

Second, it can use the nuclear issue as a bargaining chip for any negotiations with the US and South Korea. Finally, its nuclear program can provide the rationale for “South Korea passing.” In other words, it can insist that it has to negotiate with the US first on major security issues on the Korean Peninsula because South Korea is a puppet of the US and its nuclear weaponry aims at the US, not South Korea and therefore the US should be the party directly concerned. Finally, the North Korean leadership is absolutely convinced the perfection of its nuclear weaponry and missile system is the best tool for negotiations with the US.

Now South Korea and the US have reached a crossroads: continuation of extreme pressure or engagement? The goals of the two approaches are the same: the denuclearization of North Korea. In view of the above, the confrontational approach is likely to make North Korea more hostile, while the conciliatory approach is risky but more realistic. War is often triggered by misunderstanding and miscalculation.

By Park Sang-seek

Park Sang-seek is a former rector at the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies, Kyung Hee University and the author of “Globalized Korea and Localized Globe.” – Ed.