There are three important anniversaries with North Korea all taking place within a few months, which provide a fitting moment for reflection on the status and potential future for US-DPRK relations. Indeed, an obvious first step would be to get Beijing to convince Kim Jong Un that it is in North Korea’s interest to return to negotiations with the US and that the US is prepared to be fair and flexible in its negotiations for complete and verifiable denuclearization, in return for the eventual lifting of sanctions and a path for normal relations.
Three Key Anniversaries
The first anniversary recently passed. The Singapore Summit, held on June 12, 2018, resulted in a joint statement and was a step forward in US-DPRK relations. It spoke of establishing a new US-North Korea bilateral relationship and building a robust and sustainable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula while also working toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. This set a solid agenda for negotiations that addressed both sides’ political and security needs to achieve mutual benefits. Unfortunately, the follow-on summit in Hanoi in February 2019 was unsuccessful in moving that agenda forward and bilateral dialogue thereafter literally ceased. When and whether it will pick back up under the Biden administration is yet unclear.
The second anniversary will take place next month. The Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, signed July 11, 1961, renewable every twenty years, confirms the military commitment of China to North Korea. The 60th anniversary will reconfirm this close allied relationship which, pursuant to Article 2, commits each to oppose any country or coalition of countries that might attack either nation. Despite strained relations at the beginning of Kim Jong Un’s rule, Sino-DPRK ties have been strengthened in recent years, with five summits between Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping held in 2018 and 2019, and Xi visiting Pyongyang for the first time in 2019.
The third anniversary is the signing of the Six Party Talks Joint Statement on September 19, 2005, which reaffirmed the goal of verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner, with North Korea committing to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and reaccepting IAEA safeguards. In this joint statement, the US affirmed it has no intention to attack or invade North Korea and committed to taking steps to normalize their relations, subject to their respective bilateral policies. Furthermore, the six countries committed to economic cooperation and joint efforts for peace and stability in Northeast Asia and a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. After some progress towards dismantling the 5 MWe Reactor and North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex, cooperation ceased in late 2008 when North Korea refused to sign an agreement to permit nuclear monitors to visit non-declared suspected nuclear sites.
The lessons learned from these past events is that: leadership meetings, especially with adversaries, are a critical part of negotiations. As the DPRK appears to be reluctant to meet the new Biden administration to see what can be accomplished, China and the US have shared interests in convincing North Korea to work toward the dismantlement of its nuclear weapons and related facilities. It is therefore in Beijing’s best interest to do more to get North Korea to resume negotiations with the US for complete and verifiable denuclearization.
Room for US-China Cooperation?
US-DPRK communication essentially dropped off in late 2019, and between US presidential elections and the pandemic of 2020, there were few openings for restarting talks in the last year of the Trump administration. While the new Biden administration has announced the completion of its North Korea policy review and the rollout of a new policy, the question remains how to bring the North Koreans back to the table. Recent statements from Pyongyang have provided mixed signals about whether that might occur, but if not, there may be other options.
In the past, Chinese cooperation helped facilitate dialogue when US-DPRK relations were at a standstill. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell worked closely with China’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Li Zhaoxing, in 2003 to get North Korea to join the Six Party Talks process—a negotiation forum including the US, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia, with Beijing hosting and chairing the talks from 2003-2009. Without China’s cooperation at that time, it is unlikely that this forum would have ever gotten off the ground.
Despite the tense bilateral relationship that currently exists between the US and China, there is some cooperation taking place. A nascent dialogue on climate change, for instance, is ongoing, focused on what is necessary to better address carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Trade talks are also underway to reduce the significant US trade deficit with China and gain greater reciprocal market access for US companies in China. Indeed, another logical issue area ripe for cooperation, where the US and China have common interests and stand to gain mutual benefits, is dealing with North Korea.
Given China’s close allied relationship with North Korea, often referred to as a “lips and teeth” relationship, and North Korea’s economic dependence on China for over 90 percent of its trade and over 90 percent of its import of crude oil and petroleum products, Beijing has unique leverage over Pyongyang. It succeeded in convincing North Korea to join the Six Party Talks in 2003 and may be able to encourage North Korea to sit down again with the US and resume denuclearization talks in return for security assurances and an eventual path to normal relations. This should be a priority for Beijing, to help prevent the potential for conflict on the Korean Peninsula and as an overture to the US and others who may doubt Beijing’s commitment to the complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Although North Korea withdrew from the Six Party Talks in 2009, there may also be value in determining if North Korea would be willing to re-enter multilateral talks with the US and others if bilateral US-DPRK talks remain at a stalemate.
What North Korea Wants
There is legitimate skepticism that North Korea will ever dismantle its nuclear weapons and facilities. Nuclear weapons ensure the survival of the regime, so why would the North commit to denuclearization? What we also know from multiple attempts at negotiations, in multiple formats, is that North Korea wants a normal relationship with the US and the resultant international legitimacy, as well as acceptance as a legitimate and responsible nuclear weapons state. They often cite Pakistan, saying the US did it with Pakistan and they can do it with North Korea.
However, North Korea continues to be told that while normal relations are possible, retaining nuclear weapons is non-starter. Accepting the North as a nuclear-armed state could encourage other countries in the region to seek their own nuclear weapons, despite extended deterrence commitments from the US. Furthermore, North Korea’s nuclear program poses a serious proliferation challenge, increasing the chances that a nuclear weapon or fissile material for a dirty bomb would be sold or transferred to a rogue state or terrorist organization. For those obvious reasons, most would agree that accepting North Korea as a nuclear weapons state would not be wise or prudent.
Another important lesson learned is that when negotiations ceased, as they did from 2009-2016, North Korea intensified efforts to produce more nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. And when the rhetoric from the US became heated, as was the case in 2017 with “fire and fury,” North Korea doubled down and produced even more nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles, with a thermonuclear test and the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could target the whole of the US. Therefore, once negotiations resume, it will be important to keep North Korea at the table for tough and professional negotiations, no matter how difficult or frustrating they may get.
Hopefully, North Korea returns to negotiations with the US on denuclearization and resumes dialogue with South Korea on the inter-Korean agenda laid out in the Panmunjom Declaration. If China can do more to convince Pyongyang to respond to these overtures, it’s possible we could eventually see progress toward a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue, assuming we learned from past failures. We should expect and be fully prepared for negotiating in an action-for-action process, tangible deliverables such as sanctions relief, security assurances, and a path to normalization of relations, as North Korea dismantles its nuclear weapons and facilities, similar to the process established in the Six Party Talks Joint Statement of September 2005.
If direct bilateral US-DPRK relations remain at a stalemate, we should keep open the option for a multilateral process if that better suits the security situation we face today. As in past efforts, Beijing could once again assist in convincing North Korea that it’s in Pyongyang’s interest to return to dialogue and negotiations to build on the Singapore Joint Statement and in the spirit of the September 2005 Six Party Agreement.
Regardless of how skeptical one may be about North Korea’s willingness to denuclearize, the options for dealing with North Korea are finite: negotiations with the goal of complete and verifiable denuclearization, in return for a path to normal relations; acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear weapons state with the myriad of national security risks this would entail; or containing and further sanctioning North Korea while enhancing our deterrence posture in the region, with greater missile defense deployments and a likely discussion of the re-introduction of tactical nuclear weapons in the region. Stumbling into accidental conflict on the Korean Peninsula is a real possibility once we stop negotiating, assuming we do not accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state and do not engage the North in arms control negotiations.
Unilaterally or multilaterally re-engaging with North Korea to establish a road map for verifiable denuclearization of a North Korea that wants normal relations with the US would continue to be the best approach for dealing with a nuclear North Korea.