US-North Korea: ready for renewed confrontation?

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US-North Korea: ready for renewed confrontation?

The failure of the Hanoi Summit exacerbates tensions between moderate and hard-line approaches to denuclearisation

By Alain Guidetti, Senior Diplomatic Advisor
26 March 2019

US-North Korea: ready for renewed confrontation?

The failure of the Hanoi Summit exacerbates tensions between moderate and hard-line approaches to denuclearisation

By Alain Guidetti, Senior Diplomatic Advisor

The promise of denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula, resurrected last year by the renewed dialogues between the US and North Korea, and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and Republic of Korea (RoK), was destined to be a long and arduous road flanked with perils and traps. After all, two precedent attempts failed after years of efforts in the 1990s and 2000s. The blunt threat from Pyongyang, in the aftermath of the failed Hanoi Summit between the US leader Donald Trump and his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong Un on 27-28 February, to quit the negotiations and resume nuclear and missile tests, provides a fresh reminder of this very truth. 

The North Korean reaction also reminds us of the fundamental fragility of the process, the absence of trust between the parties- despite apparent personal chemistry between the leaders- and the profound differences between the parties on the principles that should govern denuclearisation. As evident at the Hanoi Summit, Washington is demanding the elimination of the North Korean nuclear program as a precondition for any sanction relief, while Pyongyang insists on the lifting of the bulk of the sanctions regime for it to make a further step toward denuclearisation. With positions so far apart, rapprochement will be challenging.

In a normal negotiation process, lengthy discussions between both sides might eventually lead to some form of common understanding of the broad objectives and the means to reach them. At this point, when the parties deem the negotiation sufficiently advanced, the leaders might decide to bless the outcomes, perhaps helping to solve some minor differences, as a consecration of lengthy diplomatic efforts. The approach adopted by the US and North Korean leaders, by inverting the order of things, meant that they tried to bargain over the complexity of the matter, without any strategy other than their supposed genuine art of convincing. The result was an abrupt end of the second Summit, with no progress in the substance of negotiations and no certainty on the way forward, even though the two prudently avoided direct criticisms, thereby keeping the door open to further negotiations.

 

What were the responses?

Mr Trump's dream of a "grand bargain", where a maximalist approach of complete denuclearisation and subsequent sanctions relief would provide North Korea with the prospect of a “fantastic” US-aided development process, was flatly ignored. Furthermore, very few believed that a maximalist approach of denuclearisation first, as sponsored by hawks like the National Security Advisor J. Bolton, would bear fruit (even among experts in the US), in particular if “maximum pressure (sanctions)” would be maintained until complete dismantlement. Indeed, what was possible years ago with Libya, a country with an emerging nuclear program, would hardly be a realistic approach with a nation that has tangibly demonstrated its nuclear reach. As one diplomat observed, Kim Jong Un was not going to give the key to his arsenal to his enemy, which he believes to be the core of his deterrent capability, for a promise of undetermined sanctions relief and uncertain development. 

The DPRK strategy also appeared unrealistic. The demand to lift the US’s core sanctions in return for the dismantlement of Yongbyon, the main nuclear production facility of the country, subjected to a previous attempt at dismantlement in the 1990s, and a formal halt on nuclear and missile tests, was far-fetched. While such a move, already promised during the North-South Summit in Pyongyang last September, would indeed represent a substantial step forward, Mr Trump claimed it was not worth the price. In his words, he "couldn't do that," since he would be deprived from what he considers his strongest means of pressure, precisely the one he thinks forced Pyongyang to the negotiation table. Furthermore, the move would not relieve the US of the concern that it would have left intact the entire North Korean nuclear arsenal, estimated at thirty to sixty nuclear devises and numerous intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

Both leaders obviously proved to be unrealistic in their negotiation positions, thereby exemplifying the limits of the Summit as a means to resolve most complex issues. This was in the absence of a necessary preparatory process that would have clarified the respective expectations and helped narrow the gap.

The Americans claim their efforts at launching diplomatic negotiations after the first Singapore Summit were at first snubbed by the North. Confusion constantly prevailed on the respective negotiation positions since the first Summit. Rumours hinted at a possible deal involving security assurances, steps towards normalisation and suspension of some sanctions, in line with the commitments made at the North-South Panmunjom Summit, against tangible progress in denuclearisation. The US Chief negotiator Steven Begun hinted at a public conference in early 2019 that an incremental approach was to be pursued in order to make progress in the negotiations. But in Hanoi, Mr Trump decided to stick to the maximalist script suggested by Mr J. Bolton, while Kim Jong Un presented uncompromising demands to relinquish the bulk of the sanctions for the dismantlement of Yongbyon.  

North Korea would hardly give in to US pressure. Its harsh response to the US, uttered by the North Korean vice-Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, provides a clear signal that Pyongyang is ready to raise the stakes if the US does not show flexibility on what seems to be Pyongyang’s first priority: sanctions relief. The warning was especially aimed at Mr Bolton who seemed to have played a prominent role in shaping the US position since the Hanoi Summit. He is known for his past advocacy of regime change and use of force (pre-emptive strikes) to disarm North Korea. Satellite observations indicated that Pyongyang had already restored a rocket launch facility that had been disabled last year, which might serve for the launch of a satellite. It might quickly set back the bilateral relationships toward a confrontational mood.

 

What does this mean for the future?

Such developments may fulfil the wish of hawks on both sides: those in Washington who do not believe in the merits of negotiation and are comfortable with a return to confrontation, and those in Pyongyang who simply do not want to relinquish nuclear weapons and the benefits of a military first policy. This is an option that would lead to the status quo ante of 2017, when the US and the DPRK were on the brink of war, a new Korean War but with nuclear weapons.

A more hopeful scenario might follow elements along the following line. A prudent strategy might focus on the short-term. The US and DPRK could maintain deterrence while pursuing efforts at limiting the development of nuclear programs by keeping alive the de facto freeze on nuclear and missile tests and implementing measures already suggested: dismantlement of Yongbyon and other sites, verifications, etc. This would imply further US engagement with the North in an incremental process, the provision of security guarantees (end of war declaration, suspension of major military drills), and a move towards normalisation. This would also involve an easing of the sanctions regime. These would, in particular, help the leaders of both DPRK and the RoK to pursue efforts towards cooperation and normalisation of their relationship by developing bilateral confidence building measures. The question of complete denuclearisation would arise in the long run, perhaps in about ten to fifteen years, according to the most seasoned experts. 

The conditions for an uncertain but hopeful scenario to materialise are countless. But primarily, both sides need the capacity to exercise patience and flexibility- along with good faith. These are the most unlikely ingredients in the current state of affairs. But the absence of these virtues could surely pave the way for the most sombre prospects over the Korean Peninsula.

Alain Guidetti, a former Ambassador and Swiss career diplomat for more than twenty years, is currently Senior Diplomatic Advisor at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP).

Before starting at the GCSP in May 2011, Alain Guidetti had been working for the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) since 1989. His first assignments were in South Africa and then, in 1991, to the Swiss Mission to the International Organizations in Geneva, in charge of political, human rights and humanitarian affairs. In 1996, he was appointed as Deputy Head of Mission to the Swiss Representation to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.

In 2000, he received an assignment in Bern at the Political Directorate, Division for Human Security, in charge of humanitarian and migration affairs. Then, in 2002, he was appointed as Minister and Deputy Head of Mission to the Swiss Embassy in Beijing, in charge of political affairs for China, North Korea and Mongolia.

In 2006, he was tasked to open the Swiss Embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan, and became in 2007 the first Swiss Ambassador in situ to Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, with a particular focus on regional security, energy and development.

Alain Guidetti was born in Geneva, where he completed his studies at the University of Geneva (Diploma in History). After his studies, he became a journalist and editor at the then Journal de Genève, before joining the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.