When President Donald Trump hosts Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago estate on April 6-7, he will have the opportunity to set the direction and tenor of not only the bilateral relationship but also the Asia-Pacific region for the next several years. Among the tough security and economic issues on the agenda, the one that may require the most immediate “meeting of the minds” is North Korea, which former President Barack Obama warned would be the “most urgent problem” that Trump would face.
Divergent regional views on North Korea policy portend a turbulent scenario in the months ahead. Recent reports indicate that the Trump administration will likely rely on the previous administration’s policy of isolating and pressuring North Korea and pressing China to do more to curb the regime’s behavior. This path will likely conflict – if polling stays consistent – with a new South Korean president who wants to pursue greater engagement with Pyongyang and defuse tensions with China, particularly with regard to the scheduled deployment of a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in Seongju. For its part, Beijing has repeatedly implored Washington to talk to Pyongyang, casting itself as a signalman focused on preventing a head-on collision between two “accelerating trains” – but has also taken retaliatory actions against Seoul due to THAAD and only half-hearted measures to undermine North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
To avoid the impending calamity, the Trump administration should consider endorsing an idea that Beijing has offered in the past and that new leadership in Seoul can get behind: a parallel track dialogue on denuclearization and a peace treaty to replace the Armistice Agreement. This move could potentially kill multiple birds with one stone.
First, it unequivocally reaffirms the longstanding U.S. commitment to the goal of North Korean denuclearization as well as the goal of a permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula, as intended under Article IV of the Armistice Agreement. In addition, by putting the peace treaty on a parallel track with denuclearization instead of deferring it to the tail end of negotiations, which was the case during the Six Party Talks, the United States would be offering what North Korea purportedly wants most – and quicker and more tangibly than we ever have in the past.
Another benefit of going on the record in support of parallel talks would be to avert the consistent — but inaccurate, as some have noted — criticism that plagued the previous administration about Washington being a negligent or persnickety interlocutor. Trump would likely garner some blowback from the Republican and hardline side, but no one in recent years is better positioned to succeed in the peninsular version of “Nixon goes to China.” The public signal could even come in the form of a tweet (“Willing to talk denuclearization and peace treaty at the same time with North Korea. Not a bad deal! #artofthedeal”).
Endorsing parallel talks also doesn’t require the international community to provide any immediate, large-scale relief of sanctions on North Korea. In fact, the United States could continue to enforce existing measures on the books as well as implement additional measures and designations against North Korean actors as necessary. As others have noted, sanctions and engagement do not have to be mutually exclusive, at least not initially.
In the context of U.S.-ROK alliance relations, this diplomatic gambit could help defuse the looming landmine of conflicting policies. The leading candidate for the May presidential election, Moon Jae-in, has expressed strong interest in reaching out to Pyongyang, perhaps even restarting the Kaesong Industrial Complex that was shuttered in February 2016, to improve the strained inter-Korean environment that marked his two predecessors’ tenures. Signaling U.S. interest in engaging with Pyongyang, with far greater incentives than it has offered in the past, would supply the ROK administration with political cover and flexibility to pursue better relations with its northern neighbor, which could put the alliance in better shape to address other thorny issues, such as THAAD.
Perhaps the most important rationale for signing on to China’s proposal would be to demonstrate U.S. willingness to adopt Beijing’s perennial recommendation to deal directly with North Korea to reduce tensions on the peninsula. This gesture would not only encourage goodwill in the present, which this region sorely needs, but also may allow Trump to ask President Xi Jinping to take reciprocal steps to ratchet down regional tensions, such as letting up on THAAD-related retaliatory measures against South Korea. Furthermore, if North Korea rejects the offer or negotiations fail, the United States will gain greater leverage in the future – having already offered peace talks – to press China to take stronger actions against the Kim Jong-un regime.
Supporting parallel track negotiations is admittedly a fourth quarter “Hail Mary” pass, but this is the situation we find ourselves in. We have learned over the last 25 years in dealing with North Korea that incrementalism – whether in diplomacy or pressure, or caused by the schizophrenic alternation of policies across administrations – has only succeeded in providing the North Korean side the time to renege on deals and advance steadily toward a viable nuclear capability. North Korea is such a “land of lousy options,” as Asia expert Victor Cha stated, that late last year, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage declared publicly what many in the Korea expert community have been realizing and whispering privately over the last several years – that “the only way . . . that North Korea can be dissuaded from their present path is by a regime change.”
Of course, most experts believe that North Korea would not agree to any talks that seek its denuclearization, regardless of whether a peace treaty is discussed in parallel. But again, the point is to establish in the court of public opinion that it is the United States, and not North Korea, that has been seeking peace in good faith. By demonstrating attempts to exhaust all diplomatic options, including Beijing’s preferred path, Washington will then have greater space and legitimacy to take potentially more drastic measures in the future, including unilateral financial actions or even military measures if necessary.
On the chance that Pyongyang accepts the offer but attaches difficult conditions, such as suspending U.S.-ROK military exercises, the United States must be prepared to go down this path, treading carefully but earnestly. Washington should insist that Pyongyang freeze all nuclear and missile-related tests and activities, and if halting routine, defensive military exercises seems like an unfair exchange, we could demand that North Korea stops its own military exercises.
Also, instead of focusing just on potential downsides – such as the negative impact of suspending exercises on training and readiness – Washington should also envision what this concession could incentivize. In January 1992, during the first North Korean nuclear crisis, the U.S.-ROK Alliance agreed to cancel the massive TEAM SPIRIT field training exercises, which directly motivated North Korea to sign the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards agreement in April. Additional cancellations of this annual exercise helped create the conditions that led to the signing of the 1994 Agreed Framework and the continuation of this deal throughout the decade.
Some experts have argued that a negotiated freeze on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs is disingenuous because no one believes the regime will implement the freeze, allow for necessary monitoring and verification, or include hidden facilities in the freeze. These are eminently valid points. But also disingenuous is the notion that the United States and its allies can apply sufficient pressure on North Korea to coerce it to negotiate sincerely (read as: denuclearize unconditionally) or on China so that it clamps down on North Korea’s income-generating activities and risks instability at the border.
If the United States and its allies are forced to take extreme measures in the future, they must build a compelling argument for the necessity and legitimacy of these measures by exhausting all diplomatic and financial options today. These options include stronger financial pressure, enhanced military deterrence, heightened maritime and border surveillance, deeper information penetration, and yes – accelerated diplomatic engagement.
In the film The Godfather, Tom Hagen tries multiple times to negotiate reasonably with studio executive Jack Woltz before Don Corleone decides to make Woltz “an offer he can’t refuse.” Likewise, in the case of North Korea, we should make every attempt to seek peaceful recourse before we lay a horse’s head in Kim Jong-un’s bed.
Frank Aum is a Visiting Scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS and former Senior Advisor for North Korea at the Department of Defense.