Vice News, David Gilbert, 28 March, 2018
“The Chinese insist that they only want to bring the two states together diplomatically, but they don’t want to be cut out of the picture altogether,” John Hemmings, Asia Director at the British foreign policy think tank, the Henry Jackson Society, told VICE News. “China has major interests that must be considered by Pyongyang in any future settlement and they’ll want to remind Kim of those.”
With Pyongyang yet to formally confirm the meeting with Trump, Kim likely used the Beijing visit to improve his position before negotiations begin. “[Kim] does not want to look weak, so meeting with Xi and getting all the royal treatment will also give him a stronger position in the run-up to the meeting,” Hemmings said.
The Telegraph, 9 March, 2018
Happy day: the news that President Trump has agreed to a summit with North Korea’s Kim Jung-un sometime in May at last raises the possibility of de-escalating the long-simmering crisis. But before we start cracking out the bubbly and nominating for Nobel Peace Prizes, a cold assessment of the negotiations is necessary.
Even presuming that this isn’t simply another North Korean time-buying exercise, there are still big obstacles to a resolution. First, when both sides talk about “denuclearisation” they mean very different things.
As the Korea scholar Duyeon Kim has pointed out, Kim Jong Un’s regime says it wants arms control talks with Washington, and might be willing to denuclearise – but only if “both sides reciprocally reduced and eventually eliminated their nuclear weapons.” Well, North Korea is not the USSR, and Kim Jong-un is no Gorbachev, so that will be a problem.
Then there is North Korea’s demand for “security”: easy in principle, difficult in practice. While past US presidents such as George W Bush have written letters guaranteeing the regime’s security (an awful dilemma for Washington on the human rights front), it’s not clear what this time would actually entail.
If it involves the US being asked to reduce or eliminate its troop presence in South Korea, then we have another problem. Washington cannot forgo its defence of an ally that has been attacked repeatedly by the North merely for the possibility of an unknown “peace”. It’s like promising an arsonist that you’ll disband the local fire department.
So what can the two sides offer each other by way of realistic concessions? With all the obstacles to mutual understanding, should we even be having these meetings? The answer is that there is always a moral imperative to attempt negotiations if war is a real possibility. And by all accounts from Washington, war is a real possibility.
The most obvious move for both sides would be to attempt a return to the conclusion of the 2007 Six Party Talks. Despite criticism of the whole Six Party format, much was accomplished during these negotiations, including a DPRK commitment to disable all nuclear facilities and a commitment by Japan, South Korea and the US to normalise relations with Pyongyang and provide forms of energy and development aid. The primary problem would be – as it was at the time – that of verification. Who will verify that North Korea has carried out its commitments?
Less obvious moves include some sort of peace treaty being offered by the United States to the North. DPRK has long called for the US to normalise relations and end its threatening attitude. Again, for this to work, Pyongyang would have to be willing to include Seoul. If North Korea were to accept a peace deal with Seoul as well, it’s the type of symbolic move that could pave the way to further talks, and perhaps to a formal US treaty guaranteeing North Korea’s regime security. While morally distasteful, this would at least help avoid a horrific war.
As for sanctions, the best Washington and Seoul could do is offer a timeline for reducing them that parallels DPRK denuclearization, a sort of positive tit-for-tat. The danger with this, as with the entire idea of talks, is that American and Korean governments will rush into having talks for the sake of talks without any clear agenda.
Without a clear idea of what they want and what their red lines are, they could simply be outsmarted by the wily team of North Korean negotiators and bounced into giving away concessions which they or their allies cannot afford.
So yes, we have all been here before. The prognosis is not sunny. But what other choice do we have?
BBC World, 5 March, 2018, South Korea sends envoys to North Korea
CTV, 14 February, 2018 North Korea’s Olympic Charm Offensive
The Telegraph, 30 November, 2017
The story that came from a diplomatic backchannel between the US and North Korea during the early months of the Trump administration was telling. A group of American experts travelled to Stockholm to meet a group of North Korean officials in order to get a sense of what Pyongyang wanted, what its bottom line was.
Facing North Korean diplomats across the table, they asked, “what do you want?”, “What will persuade you to put down nuclear weapons?”. According to someone in the room, the North Korean diplomats were extremely self-composed, cocky even. Their position to the American team was stark:
“Accept us a nuclear state. Then we either talk about a peace treaty…or we’ll go to war.”
According to a former US official in the room, it was a breath-taking indication how far apart the two sides had drifted from their near agreement during the 2007 Six Party Talks.
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