Time Is Running Out on North Korea Diplomacy

The window for resuming productive negotiations with North Korea will be closing soon. The Biden administration has not treated diplomacy with North Korea as a priority in its first six months in office, and it has shown no sign of pursuing a more creative and moderate policy focused on arms control rather than disarmament. Despite South Korean President Moon’s requests that the U.S. resume its engagement with North Korea, the US has taken no meaningful action. Even Biden’s North Korea envoy is working on the issue only on a part-time basis. As Moon’s term in office draws to a close next spring, the chance for a closely coordinated diplomatic effort by South Korea and the US is slipping away and could easily be lost.

Much of the discussion in the US surrounding North Korea remains stuck in an earlier era, so that fairly serious proposals for a diplomatic settlement with Pyongyang rely on the fantastical notion that North Korea would agree to the dismantling and destruction of its nuclear arsenal. Vincent Brooks and Ho Young Leem, two former military commanders from the US and South Korea, have drawn up a proposal for how to re-engage North Korea diplomatically with the goal being full normalization of relations and an end to North Korea’s isolation. Some of their suggestions are reasonable enough, but the assumption that an agreement would require "the verified destruction of nuclear weapons" renders their proposal dead on arrival.

Brooks and Leem are right that the US and South Korea should endorse a declaration of the end of the Korean War. That is a necessary first step to building trust between our governments. Peace on the peninsula should no longer be held hostage to chasing the will o’ the wisp of denuclearization and disarmament. Fostering closer economic links between North Korea and South Korea is also the right thing to do, but it would require significant sanctions relief from the US that has so far not been forthcoming. Brooks and Leem insist on conditioning these moves on North Korean action on denuclearization, but this fails to take seriously how important the nuclear arsenal is to the North Korean leadership. It is difficult to imagine what security guarantees that the US can provide that North Korea would believe. It is unreasonable to expect full disarmament from a government as preoccupied with its own survival and paranoid about foreign threats as North Korea’s is.

The two former commanders say that they want to "offer Kim a path toward what he desires most: a way out of his economic and political woes." It is a mistake to assume that this is what Kim desires most of all. If he were not so wedded to keeping and developing a nuclear arsenal, he would have made a bargain for economic benefits during the ill-conceived Trump summits. What someone in his position presumably desires most is personal and regime security, and he believes that a nuclear deterrent gives him that. The US approach to North Korea has taken for granted that enough economic hardship will eventually force major concessions on the nuclear issue, but that has not been the case because there are things more important to their government than getting out from under US and international sanctions. If the promise of economic benefits were going to persuade Kim to capitulate, he would have done so years ago.

The thinking inside the administration is arguably even worse, since they seem to be paying even less attention to possible incentives for North Korea to cooperate. Last week, the US national intelligence officer for North Korea, Sydney Seiler, said that the US would never accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state. While it is understandable that US officials cannot formally endorse North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons, it is absurd at this point to think that North Korea’s status as a nuclear-weapons state will be reversed. Any agreement reached with North Korea will have to include at least tacit acceptance of their nuclear weapons as a fait accompli. No other nuclear-weapons state that is currently outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has any intention of giving up their weapons, and there is no reason to think that North Korea would be more inclined to disarm than any of them.

Declaring an end to the longest of long wars in Korea would be a way to restart negotiations and provide Moon with something he can show to his own people as proof that his policy is working. Getting US sanctions out of the way of inter-Korean rapprochement would be the next step. Ideally, that would be followed by a determined effort to work out the details of a formal peace treaty with North Korea, but that will likely have to wait for a while until there is a Senate capable of ratifying it. In the meantime, the US and South Korea should cooperate on securing a more modest arms control agreement with North Korea that doesn’t seek to eliminate their arsenal but would try to constrain its size. It is possible than an arms control approach to North Korea will not yield the desired results, but it would represent a major improvement over a disarmament policy that tries to do the same thing after repeatedly failing for 15 years.

Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.