The North Korean Nuclear Crisis

The North Korean Nuclear Crisis
Remarks to a panel led by Lyle Goldstein at the Harvard Club of Rhode Island

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Senior Fellow, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University
Providence, Rhode Island, 8 November 2018

A couple of days ago, I read an article on economic statecraft in Foreign Affairs.  It asserted that sanctions had “helped drive North Korea to the negotiating table.”  That’s the accepted narrative.  But the north Koreans were never unwilling to negotiate.  The issue has always been what was to be negotiated.  The United States insisted that we would not waste our time talking to Pyongyang unless it agreed in advance to denuclearize.  And we sought to limit any talks with Pyongyang to how it planned to do this.  For its part, Pyongyang sought to discuss a much broader agenda.

By the summer of 2017, north Korea seemed to have acquired or to be about to acquire a capability to strike the U.S. homeland rather than just south Korea and Japan.  This set off a round of hysteria in the United States.  After belittling Kim Jong-un and showering him with threats, President Trump suddenly offered him a summit meeting and accepted a vague statement of intent to denuclearize in place of a concrete undertaking from Pyongyang.  He gave Mr. Kim symbolic recognition as a statesman with credentials equal to his own.  That, plus a Chinese aircraft, not sanctions, is what took Mr. Kim to Singapore.

Mr. Kim previously insisted on “byungjin” – parallel efforts at developing nuclear weapons and the economy.  With a rudimentary nuclear deterrent at work against a panicky United States, he turned his attention to the non-military threat to his regime’s survival – its wretched economic performance.  He sees interaction with the Koreans to his south as the key to curing this.  The run-up to Singapore involved the emergence of a process by which to develop intra-Korean cooperation.  But the Singapore summit did not put in place any coherent negotiating process between Washington and Pyongyang.

Washington tends to see north Korea almost entirely as a nuclear problem rather than as a country with legitimate security concerns.  The U.S. is talking about denuclearization as the prerequisite for its normalization of relations with Pyongyang.  South Korea, like China, sees peace as the prerequisite for denuclearization, not denuclearization as the prerequisite for peace.

Seoul and Pyongyang are crafting a peace in the Korean Peninsula both as an inherently desirable development and as a means of appeasing the American obsession with denuclearization.  Peace would reduce and possibly eliminate North Korea’s need for a nuclear deterrent.  North Korean nukes threaten the United States and U.S. forces relevant to south Korea, not south Korea per se.   South Korea has lived with the north’s nuclear capabilities for some time.  It could continue to do so while efforts to persuade the north to mothball its deterrent proceed

The parties in Korea are on the same field but playing different games.  This is obscured because Seoul doesn’t want obvious daylight between it and Washington and Pyongyang would prefer to have Beijing’s backing, if the price is not too high.  But neither south nor north Korean strategy can work unless sanctions on north Korea are lifted, allowing the two to use economic statecraft to craft a peace.  In practice, the question of whether sanctions relief should facilitate peace in Korea or be held back to reward north Korean steps toward denuclearization now divides Washington not just from Pyongyang, but also from Seoul and Beijing.

Hats off to Mr. Kim, who is displaying a level of competence at geopolitical manipulation that verges on the Bismarckian.  In the interest of regime survival – his primary concern – he has hung onto his nukes while contriving a fundamental – if still mostly hidden – split in the US-ROK alliance.  Intra-Korean interactions, rather than U.S. negotiators, are what’s driving events.   The United States is now negotiating with the south Koreans more than with the north Koreans. And Mr. Kim has offered China a path to the possible removal of U.S. forces from south Korea.

What has happened is consistent with Mr. Kim judging that the best way to secure his regime now is to:

(1) offer peace to south Korea and establish a process to achieve peaceful coexistence and economic cooperation with it;

(2) create a relaxation of tensions that enables south Korean nationalists to demand the progressive removal of U.S. forces from their territory. simultaneously gratifying China and reducing the U.S. threat to it as well as to north Korea;

(3) ensure regime survival through a pan-Korean arrangement that enlists south Korea in support of the continued existence of a separate order in the north;

(4) retain a nuclear deterrent against U.S. forces at least until they leave the Peninsula and perhaps beyond that, ultimately managing the deterrent cooperatively with south Korea to buttress overall Korean independence from China and Japan; and

(5) further please China by undercutting the rationale for the unpopular U.S. Marine presence in Okinawa by eliminating the prospect of renewed conflict in Korea.

The various parties to the Korean imbroglio have markedly different priorities.  This guarantees diplomatic incoherence.

North Korea wants guarantees of regime survival through south Korean acceptance, an end to U.S. support for regime change in Pyongyang, the removal of hostile U.S. forces from south Korea, and renewed acceptance by China.  To achieve these ends, it is prepared to bargain with both Seoul and Washington.  Until its security is assured, and perhaps even then, it will want to hold onto its nuclear deterrent.

South Korea wants an end to the military threat from north Korea and some sort of Korean reunification.  Peace with the north would end its subordination to the United States and refocus any American troop presence toward bolstering the independence of both Koreas from China and Japan.  Seoul supports the denuclearization of north Korea as a secondary, less urgent task, in part because it recognizes the priority Washington assigns to it.

China prioritizes stability in Korea through either peaceful coexistence or reunification between north and south Korea, seeks a cooperative relationship with Koreans south and north, wants the end of the now-hostile U.S. military presence on the Peninsula, and desires the removal of indigenous as well as foreign nuclear threats to it from its neighbor.  It sees Pyongyang’s nuclear program as a response to American threats, aimed much more at the U.S. and Japan than at China, and thus basically Washington’s problem, not its own.

The United States wants to eliminate the apparent threat from north Korean nuclear ICBMs, while continuing to honor its undertakings to protect south Korea and Japan.  To achieve these ends, Washington is prepared to concede the sovereignty of north Korea.

Japan and Russia are sidelined.  US-China relations are now openly adversarial, leaving China with little reason to take U.S. interests into account.  The other parties to this mess are all talking past the United States.  The Trump administration is internally divided between advocates of different levels of coercion.  The Moon administration strongly prefers a non-coercive approach, as does China.  And Kim Jong-un is in the driver’s seat.  What could possibly go wrong?