The Essence of the North Korea Nuclear Issue (3)
US Helpless in the Face of North Korea’s Wily Negotiating Tactics
(As at 18 July 2018)
US Helpless in the Face of North Korea’s Wily Negotiating Tactics
(As at 18 July 2018)
Former Commander in Chief, JMSDF Fleet
In this final article of his three-part series on the North Korean nuclear issue, former Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Commander in Chief Yoji Koda examines the differences that have been emerging post-summit in the respective positions of the United States and North Korea and draws on an objective analysis of the current situation to suggest how the North Korea situation might unfold and how Japan should respond.
Prospects for the future
In my previous two articles, I examined the North Korean nuclear issue through the lens of the US-North Korea summit. I began by identifying North Korea’s stance and the essence of the issue as revealed through the gambits pursued by both countries in bringing about the summit. In the wake of the summit, I evaluated the content of the talks and looked at what might happen next, as well as proposing a strategy for Japan in that regard. In this final article, I offer an objective forecast of the likely post-summit trajectory and suggest what North Korea, Japan and the other parties involved should do going forward.
1. America moves the goalposts
Prior to the summit talks, the US government was insisting on “Complete, Verifiable and Irreversible Denuclearization” (CVID), learning from the bitter and repeated experience from 1992 onward of North Korea accepting aid in return for its agreement to denuclearize and close down its development program, then unilaterally breaking that agreement and resuming and advancing its nuclear plans. The US also indicated that the issue of US forces stationed in South Korea would not be included in the summit agenda.
However, the major feature of the negotiations between the two countries following a summit that was expected to lock in denuclearization and keep US troops in South Korea has been the US backpedaling significantly from CVID to FFVD—“Final, Fully Verified Denuclearization.”
A major US retreat was also in evidence in President Trump making casual reference to halting the US-South Korea joint military exercises (regarded by North Korea as epitomizing hostility toward it) prior to any confirmation at all of North Korea taking concrete steps toward denuclearization.
Further, Trump’s boast in reference to the key issue of the return of the remains of US troops killed during the Korean War that “We got back our great fallen heroes, the remains, in fact today already 200 have been sent back” turns out to be a complete dodge. North Korea did not even turn up to the bilateral working-level talks on the issue scheduled for July 12, with negotiations between military officials eventually taking place on the 15th. In other words, North Korea turned even the repatriation of remains—the easiest step it could have taken—into a trump card in bilateral negotiations.
In the negotiations to date, therefore, the US has clearly failed dismally to stick to its guns and has instead been forced to backtrack, where North Korea has in fact made great progress towards its goals. In other words, rather than steadfastly maintaining its position, the US appears to have been forced to move the goalposts gradually in the direction of North Korea.
Finally, I must note that the real problem here lies in the way that Trump and his administration have continued to insist ever since the North-South summit talks that the US-North Korea consultations are a success with blithe disregard for the actual situation. Examined objectively, the administration is clearly failing to maintain its goals and is instead being hustled around, and yet Trump continues to claim “huge success” and insist that US goals can be met on multiple issues. This stance is the root cause of the current rather appalling situation whereby the administration dithers over the adoption of any effective measures for taking back the lost ground and instead engages in weak goalpost-shifting.
2. Who will guarantee North Korea’s security?
North Korea apparently wants nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) as means of ensuring the survival of the country and the regime. The joint statement signed after the Singapore summit talks notes that “President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK,” a promise which clearly has great meaning. But it also raises a critical question in terms of progressing North Korean denuclearization—does Trump’s promise mean that America is now the guarantor for the North Korean regime?
Ideally, a country takes care of its own safety and security, but from WWII through to the present, the only countries capable of guaranteeing their own safety singlehandedly have been the US and Russia (the former Soviet Union), with other countries adopting various types of alliances according to their particular situation.
North Korea’s only military alliance is the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty, which entered into force in 1961. It also has the Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighborly Relations and Cooperation between the Russian Federation and the DPRK, signed in 2000, but because this is not a military treaty, North Korea is regarded as looking to China to guarantee its security. At the same time, there has always been some doubt as to whether, in the event of a US military attack on North Korea, China as the world’s second largest economic superpower would really take the major risk of sacrificing all its national interest by engaging in a head-on clash with the United States.
North Korea’s response to that doubt has been to seize the initiative and develop a strategic nuclear deterrent to an American attack. During the Cold War, North Korea was not allowed to pursue nuclearization, but when the end of the Cold War led Soviet technology and Soviet engineers to flood offshore, it provided a golden opportunity for North Korea to launch a secret nuclear development program.
Subsequently, when North Korea issued the 1992 Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula with South Korea, then announced the very next year that it was withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the international community began to doubt North Korea’s intentions.
At the 1994 US-North Korea consultations, the Six-Party Talks in 2005 and 2007, and its 2012 consultations with the US, North Korea promised the countries involved that it would freeze its nuclear development program, etc. However, each time agreement has been reached, North Korea has subsequently gone ahead and engaged in nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches regardless, with the result that all its agreements to date have either stalled or come to nothing. Over that time, North Korea has continued to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles as the most cost-effective tactic for constraining the US or, if this fails, making it impossible for the US to launch an armed attack.
From that perspective, using improved relations with the US and the denuclearization negotiations to have the US guarantee North Korea’s security may be regarded by North Korea as an interim goal on the road to the US accepting North Korean nuclearization. It is easy to imagine that North Korea’s ultimate goals are to have the US recognize North Korea as a country with the nuclear capability to deter a US attack and to be able to guarantee its own security through that capability. The fact that there have been a number of North Korean media reports even quite recently on the operation of nuclear-related facilities, for example, could be regarded as proof that the country is far from resigned to giving up its nuclear program.
North Korea’s ultimate goals, premised as they are on having its own nuclear capacity, run completely counter to the desire of the United States, Japan, and many other members of the international community that North Korea eliminate its nuclear weapons and denuclearize. What we have, then, is an essential conflict in what the two sides hope to achieve in the nuclear disarmament negotiations ahead—North Korea aiming to ensure its security through its own nuclear capability, and the international community aiming to ensure stability in the region, North Korea included, through nuclear disarmament.
We need to be powerfully aware that in our negotiations with North Korea, we face a major challenge unprecedented in human history—namely, to overcome a theoretically irresolvable contradiction to bring about nuclear disarmament.
3. The transition from armistice to ending the Korean War
At the recent US-North Korea summit talks, attention was on suspension of the US-South Korea joint exercises and the future withdrawal of US troops from the Peninsula, both steps aimed at bringing a complete end to the nominally ongoing Korean War as proof of peace on the Korean Peninsula. In terms of procedures, the plan is to change the current armistice agreement to a peace treaty or peace agreement so as to bring about a formal end to the war.
While this intent is highly laudable, the Korean War began with a surprise attack by North Korea and continued for three years and one month, resulting in the deaths of around four million North and South civilian and military casualties (according to Western estimates) and wreaking destruction right across the Peninsula. Any plans to end the Korean War that simply ride the current mood without recapitulating on this history—like the US-North Korea summit talks—should be strictly shunned.
Even given the current conciliatory mood, North Korea’s responsibility as the party that launched the Korean War needs to be clarified coldly and objectively as the only way of clearing the path for conclusion of the peace treaty or agreement that will bring an end to the war.
A superficial transition from armistice to conclusion of the war without recapitulation will only create a breeding ground for future problems in terms of regional security. If, hypothetically, North Korea is permitted to become a nuclear power, it could even use that nuclear capability to transfer its responsibility for starting the Korean War to another country or simply resort to vague prevarication.
Further, if the war were to be concluded without recapitulation, the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea—a key concern for Japan—could end up being pushed under the carpet without clarification of North Korea’s criminal responsibility.
In any case, responsibility for launching the Korean War absolutely must be clarified as a precondition for reaching a peace agreement or treaty. We must avoid getting carried away by the mood of the moment and producing something which is really no more than a modern rewrite of the armistice agreement.
About the Author
Advisor, Japan Marine United Corporation
Former Commander in Chief, JMSDF Fleet (Vice Admiral)
Born in Tokushima Prefecture in 1949. After graduating from the Japan Defense Academy in 1972, he entered the Japan Marine Self-Defense Forces. In 1992, he completed Naval Command College at the US Naval War College. After serving in posts such as DG Joint Staff, Commandant JMSDF Sasebo District, and Commander in Chief, JMSDF Fleet, he retired from JMSDF in 2008. From 2009 to 2011, he was a research fellow at Harvard University's Asia Center, and also served as an advisor to Japan's National Security Secretariat. His works include The Day that North Korea Goes to War with America (Gentosha Inc). Koda is known for his cool and objective perspective on the international situation and his ability to present a clear analysis grounded in the big picture.