A New Start on North Korea

By David L. Phillips and Tsuneo Nishida

HIROSHIMA - President-elect Donald J. Trump tweeted, "The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability" in response to unstable rogue regimes. North Korea's nuclear proliferation will be one of Trump's first and most vexing challenges. Japan, as the only country to ever suffer a nuclear attack, knows the urgent need to eliminate North Korea's arsenal and normalize relations with Pyongyang. Successful negotiations will require robust engagement by the United States and a more pro-active role by Japan.

Strategic clarity is critical. Countries comprising the Six Party Talks - the United States, Japan, China, Russia, South Korea (and North Korea) - must assess current conditions. They should have consensus about their goals, and develop a plan with carrots and sticks.

The situation has grown increasingly dire since North Korea's Kim Jong-un came to power after his father's death in 2011. During his father's rule, the West tolerated steps by India and Pakistan to weaponize their nuclear programs. Kim believed that if he developed a nuclear arsenal, the US would accept it. Nuclear weapons would give him more legitimacy and leverage to normalize state-to-state relations.

The international community wrongly thought it could coerce Kim. However, he proved combative and unpredictable. Kim was impervious to sanctions, steadily increasing North Korea's nuclear and missile capabilities. He conducted at least two nuclear tests in 2016. By 2020, North Korea may be able to launch a miniaturized nuclear warhead capable of reaching the west coast of the United States.

Diplomacy languished during the Obama administration. Obama's knowledge about the Korean peninsula and Asia was limited. Washington's efforts were guided by the doctrine of "strategic patience." The US pointed to China, heralding its critical role and cooperation at the UN Security Council. However, patience meant inaction. While mediators dithered, Kim was intensifying his nuclear and missile programs, making big strides.

The Six Party Talks relied too much on China, which acted as the chair and was nominally responsible for setting an agenda and roadmap for the talks. But China was more interested in preventing massive refugee flows across its border than preventing North Korea's nuclear weapons program. When pressed to deliver, Beijing pleaded weakness. Despite its proximity and economic ties with North Korea, Beijing claimed it could not control events.

China voted in the UN Security Council to authorize sanctions However, China's cooperation was short and shallow. Sanctions created the appearance of determination and pressure. But sanctions only existed on paper. China enforced sanctions intermittently and half-heartedly. Beijing benefitted from a two-faced approach. Friendly to all; sincere to none.

Japan was a deeply concerned participant in the Six Party Talks. However, there was poor coordination between Japan and the United States. Japan wanted negotiations to abolish North Korea's nuclear program and eliminate its missiles. It thought Washington wanted the same, but the US sought containment and offered material incentives towards a deal. Washington never understood Kim's craving for legitimacy.

As an Asian country, Japan understands Kim's motivation. But Japanese politicians his behind the curtain, hoping that the nuclear issue would be resolved by other countries in the lead. Moreover, Japan's response was muddled by domestic politics. There is a strong constituency of North Koreans living in Japan. They are not very visible in society, but have grown wealthy controlling the "Pachinko" gambling industry. They gained clout through their donations to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Some LDP politicians thought they could influence Kim using North Koreans living and working in Japan. Professional diplomats at Japan's Foreign Ministry quietly disagreed with this strategy.

The abduction of Japanese citizens in North Korea remains a very emotional issue. Japanese ministers and politicians took to wearing a blue pin in their lapel. The pin was a way to express solidarity with Japanese who had disappeared. It expresses resolve for realizing their return. Focusing on abductees temporarily allowed the political class to defer action on North Korea's nuclear program. When North Korea fired a missile on Taepodong ballistic that flew over Japan and landed off the east coast of Japan on August 31, 1998, it was a wake-up call.

The Obama administration never grasped Kim's motivation. The nuclear arsenal was a signal to domestic challengers. Kim also wanted the prestige of engaging in direct negotiations with the United States. The Korean War ended with a cease-fire, but no permanent peace agreement. By directly engaging US officials, Kim would gain stature and validation.

Washington's refusal to engage in direct negotiations was the right decision. Agreeing would have been a major victory for Kim, bolstering his status at home and internationally. Washington communicated through a variety of back-channels, which confused North Korean officials who were unfamiliar with track two diplomacy. While back channels were better than no channels, Washington could have managed them better.

Under President-elect Trump, US mediation must be more reality-based. The stakes are too high for delay or delusion.

The US should take initiative to gather participants in the Six Party Talks. Their meeting would assess the situation, consider past mistakes, and seek consensus on a strategy going forward. The parties should issue a strong joint statement about peace and security in the region, and the importance of bringing North Korea in from the cold. The statement would make clear that sanctions will be maintained until there is a deal.

Russia has been a passive participant. Mr. Trump can use his good relations with President Vladimir Putin to revitalize Russia's participation. He should also put more pressure on China to deliver.

Mr. Trump's inaugural address is an opportunity to publicly reaffirm America's commitment to negotiations with North Korea. At the same time, he should reaffirm US security commitments to South Korea and Japan.

Japan should also adopt a pro-active demeanor, working more closely with the US within the multilateral framework. Japan cannot abandon the abductees, but tempering jingoistic rhetoric would be more effective at bringing the abductees home.

The end-game will drive negotiations. Mr. Trump can talk about abolishing North Korea's nuclear program as a negotiating tactic. However, a freeze is more realistic. Deal terms would include a:

  • Comprehensive freeze on the development of new nuclear weapons.
  • Moratorium on missile tests.
  • Storage of weapons grade material in a third country.
  • Cessation of enrichment for a specific period of time.
  • Transparency assured by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
  • Snap-back sanctions if North Korea fails to fulfill its commitments.

To North Korea's benefit, deal terms would provide symbolic, partial and phased lifting of sanctions. Food aid, financial assistance, and energy supplies would be calibrated to performance.

Of countries in the Six Party Talks, North Korea only has diplomatic relations with China and Russia. The deal should include normalization of state-to-state relations. Japan can be in the forefront of future normalization.

The United States is critical when it comes to normalization. This what Kim really wants. After a specific period, say three years, US and North Korean officials would convene under UN auspices to discuss the transition from a cease-fire to a peace agreement. After five years, the US and North Korea could normalize relations if specific criteria were met.

Asians appreciate the importance of confidence building measures. Asians also value a step by step approach. Consensus is critical. There can be no deal with North Korea unless the US is involved. Japan, as a friend and ally, can play a critical role guiding US involvement.

Tsuneo Nishida is Director of the Peace Science Center at Hiroshima University. He served Japan's Foreign Ministry for 40 years, most recently as Japan's Permanent Representative to the United Nations. David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a Senior Adviser to the US Department of State under Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama.