North Korean affairs have reached a fever pitch in the past several months. After several tests of medium range and intercontinental missile technology as well what appears to be a hydrogen bomb test, North Korea seems closer than ever to developing a missile system that can put major US cities within range of a nuclear strike, thus creating a reliable nuclear deterrent. The developments are such that, while wishing for a peaceful resolution to the nuclear issue, US officials have also cautioned that military options are also on the table. During these developments, North Korea watchers on both sides, too, have debated whether or not to continue the policy of sanctions and isolation, to move toward a more hardline approach (to include military options), or to renew attempts to engage and negotiate with the North Koreans. This article aims to explore the hidden dangers of “engaging” or irresponsibly entering “negotiations” with North Korea.
Past experiences define many of the potential dangers of negotiations with North Korea. In the past, North Korea has entered “negotiations” with two key aims: first, to extract as many concessions as possible from other parties in the negotiations and, second, to draw out negotiations for as long as possible so to maintain the security guarantee that active negotiations entail. The second point plays on the historical fact that the US has never attacked a country with whom it had active, ongoing negotiations. Therefore, so long as negotiations were still active, North Korea had a type of security guarantee.
Of course, on paper, North Korea always entered negotiations with the optimistic goal of obtaining a Peace Treaty with the United States as well as securing the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea. The North probably never truly expected to actually secure these items – and, if that is the case, it begs the question of why North Korea bothered to enter negotiations in the first place. The answer is that, regardless of whether negotiations resulted in a peace treaty or not, North Korea generally emerged as a large benefactor. Even without a peace treaty or the withdrawal of troops, North Korea could expect to not only receive concessions, but, at the very minimum, receive the security guarantee of negotiations – which then grants the regime its most precious commodity: time. Any agreements made by the North could – and have often been – simply ignored or broken in the past. This is what characterizes “negotiations” with North Korea over the past 25 years – long negotiations, concessions to and agreements made by the North, said agreements then largely ignored or broken by the North, followed by calls for further negotiations. Rinse and repeat.
In the past, given this dynamic, we could always at least take solace in the fact that North Korea was (first) far away from a weaponized nuclear device or (later) far away from marrying such a device to a reliable ICBM. Today, in 2017, the dynamic is far different. Not only does North Korea probably have weaponized, albeit crude, nuclear devices, it now has at least two successful ICBM launches under its belt. Given another 18-24 months, North Korea could very well develop a reliable nuclear ICBM capable of striking the US, not to mention every other major city within its window. In the wake of this reality, however, there are yet even further dangers. The success or failure of North Korea’s nuclear blackmail experiment may also come to define the international community’s ability (or lack thereof) to respond to clear threats to peace and humanity.
If North Korea’s nuclear blackmail experiment is allowed to succeed – that is, if it is ultimately able to secure a viable ICBM nuclear deterrent and/or able to secure a peace treaty and the withdrawal of the US troops from Korea – it will send a disturbing message to the rest of the world. North Korea’s success in this regard would inform every strongman and hardline regime on the planet – such as Iran – that it is possible to engage some of the most egregious human rights violations, oppress, abuse, and exploit a population for generations, violate any of a number of international laws and agreements, and threaten nuclear attacks on population centers if demands are not met and, essentially, get away with it. Three generations of the Kim regime will have proven that it is possible to become a scourge of humanity and a threat to the international order and security, and yet still render the international community incapable of responding. Simply feign interest in negotiations for decades while holding vast population centers hostage – buying enough time to develop a credible nuclear deterrent so that the regime can continue business as usual, despite international condemnation and criticism. North Korea will have essentially written the book on this and proven that the international community will be unwilling or unable to stop it… IF it is allowed to succeed.
The major issue with calls for returning to negotiations with North Korea is that, given the history, more negotiations are quite liable to lead to North Korea achieving just such a success. Where is the proof that negotiations with North Korea this time around will not lead to the same result as negotiations past? This time around, North Korea has far greater incentive to engage in long, drawn out negotiations during which it will obtain both a security guarantee and, perhaps more importantly, time.
Furthermore, North Korea is on the record as clearly stating that its nuclear program and weapons are off the table for any negotiations unless the US stopped its hostile policy. While this statement may seem to suggest that there is still an avenue for negotiations, this possibility becomes rather remote once we consider what “hostile policy” actually means. Hostile policy probably refers to yearly exercises, the stationing of US troops in Korea, and the lack of a peace treaty to end the Korean War. By “hostile policy,” North Korea means to suggest that nuclear negotiations will only occur if exercises are stopped, US troops are removed, and a Peace Treaty between the US and DPRK (but not South Korea) is signed. Besides stopping the yearly exercises, none of these items have any chance of occurring right now – and the North Knows this. This being the case, nuclear negotiations are effectively off the able entirely, despite the mention of “US hostile policy.”
Given that North Korea’s nuclear deterrent has been the central topic of negotiations for the past 25 years, what is the point of continuing such negotiations if the North Koreans are effectively unwilling to discuss them? From the North Korean perspective, the game is the same now as it has been since the beginning: a peace treaty and withdrawal of US troops is an ideal outcome but, as always, the North can still count on, at the very least, getting a security guarantee and more time. The difference now is that giving the Kim regime this time can very well result in a North Korea that is, truly, a nuclear power and a living manual of how threats to humanity can survive in the contemporary world. As a friend of mine so accurately puts it: North Korea does not necessarily want a peace treaty, but it does want a peace treaty negotiation.
Peace Treaty negotiations carry even greater dangers. In addition to carrying all of the issues associated with negotiations in general, a “successful” negotiation that does not result in denuclearization and cessation of human rights violations would, again, send the wrong message to the rest of the world: in this case, that it is possible to be as reprehensible a regime as that in North Korea, and the international community may ultimately respond with a peace treaty and de-facto legitimization of the nuclear blackmail, human rights violations, breaking of international agreements (of which the “peace treaty” could be a possible future candidate), and so forth. Again, I encouragers readers to consider what sort of message this would send to countries such as Iran.
Despite a popular talking point, negotiations and engagement with North Korea are not, in any way shape or form, a new approach to North Korea. On the contrary, it is the form of interaction that best characterizes the majority of the last 25 years of interaction with North Korea. Furthermore, it is the form of interaction that North Korea does and has always most benefitted from. Engaging in negotiations now plays right into the Kim regime’s strategy and, if history and the regime’s statement on never giving up nuclear weapons are any indicator, those negotiations are as – or perhaps even more – futile now as they have been in the past.
A peace treaty is not how the international community should respond to the North Korean menace. South Korea, the US, and its allies should not respond the North Korea’s nuclear blackmail experiment by allowing it to succeed or legitimizing it – both of which are the likely outcomes that could arise from negotiations. Some may hope that negotiations may ultimately lead to a peaceful resolution beneficial to all sides – but past experience and the regime’s own statements suggest that there is very little, if any, middle ground on which to begin rational negotiations. This is not to say that negotiations should not be pursued under any circumstances; on the contrary, a peaceful solution that results in denuclearization, the cessation of human rights violations, and true peace should by all means be negotiated IF it is a feasible goal and the North expresses interest in such an outcome. The reality, however, is that the North has never shown proof of its intentions to actually negotiate and has even explicitly stated that it is not interested in denuclearizing or even negotiating with South Korea – it has responded to open South Korean calls for negotiations, quite literally, with missile tests.
And so we stand at a crossroad with North Korea. With the regime closer than ever to procuring a nuclear-capable ICBM, we must decide whether to once again proceed optimistically down the diplomatic route, or to begin seriously discussing more kinetic options, so to speak. Whatever the means, we must not allow North Korea’s experiment to succeed as it will not only result in a security nightmare for Northeast Asia, but it will literally write the handbook for successful nuclear and diplomatic blackmail for hardline regimes around the world. Given the prospect of success for further negotiations, it is clear that the time for talking is, indeed, all but over. Wishful thinking aside, it is time to seriously discuss more hardline measures – military options included – to bring an end to North Korea’s nuclear blackmail experiment.