Recent tensions between North Korea and the United States have seen non-force options for resolving the Korean dilemma fall to a new low. However, the election of Moon Jae-in to the presidency in South Korea signals a rare opportunity for Pacific diplomacy to seize a bold chance to turn the North Korean problem on its head and shake out a solution.
With Moon’s election, “hawks” throughout Asia and North America who wish to take a hard line toward North Korea are no doubt disappointed at the rumors of a “softer” new tack rumored to be planned by the Moon administration, often referred to as the “Sunshine II” policy. However, if the United States and other nations (including South Korea) can capitalize on recent diplomatic momentum, they could potentially force Kim Jong-un and his police state into an untenable position, satisfying long-held foreign policy goals for no less than three rancor-prone East Asian states.
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There is an opportunity for a grand bargain by temporarily aligning the United States, South Korea, and China in a diplomatic front versus North Korea against the backdrop of recent tensions caused by Kim’s incessant stumbling toward nuclear armament. By offering the Kim regime international recognition via a real peace conference (Congress of Washington, anyone?), complete with dangling a Korean War peace treaty as a potential prize, all sides stand to gain from diplomatic normalization at high prices to be paid by the Kim regime: namely, abandonment of all nuclear weaponry and advances toward missile technology, the return of kidnapping and arrest victims, and several other claw-cutting concessions. Like a judo move, a sudden diplomatic offer of peaceful recognition and ending of the core conflict on the Korean peninsula in the midst of the current high-intensity military tension would jarringly shift Kim’s police state off balance, in the opposite direction for which it is currently prepared. This presents a tremendous opportunity to the one doing the throwing.
Though risky, it’s not as crazy — or naive — as it sounds. When it comes to North Korean provocations and tensions on the peninsula, there are essentially no peaceful options left to discuss, which is an exceptional motivator for all parties. Despite several pundits’ claims that more sanctions could be effectively levied onto North Korea, it is doubtful such an approach could be accomplished in a timely manner. Even if the Trump administration can secure full buy-in from China, strengthening sanctions would require elongated debate in the United Nations, all the while with Russian opposition looming. Let’s not forget what the Russians were doing as the United States was ratcheting up pressure on North Korea last month: Moscow was busily launching high-speed strategic bombers on missions which skirted U.S. territory near Alaska in a misguided attempt to distract Washington’s attention from Asia and to somehow remove American focus from the issues in North Korea. Those attempts were clear failures.
Furthermore, claiming the oft-cited success following the United States applying steep sanctions to a bank in Macau in the 1990s, which then-dictator Kim Jong-il used to provide kickbacks to his cronies, as a positive example for sanctions is to ignore reality. For one, the example is simply too old and irrelevant in a world where North Korea has expanded its illicit activities across its embassies on several continents, notably Europe and Africa. For another, if Moon’s expected “Sunshine II” policy is anything like Sunshine I, it may involve convincing the U.S. president to end North Korean sanctions on the strength of the U.S.-Korean alliance.
All parties — the United States, China, South Korea, and even North Korea — are uniquely positioned to profit from a diplomatic resolution to the Korean War, which is the clear and unequivocal source of disparate foreign policy disagreements between the two Koreas, China, and the United States. The immediate benefits are striking: at a minimum, South Korea would earn stability and a chance for peaceful peninsular unification; China would avoid the armed conflict from which it stands to lose a great deal, plus enjoy an increase in trade which would come with normalization. The United States, of course, would accomplish its goal of denuclearizing the peninsula and end the threat to the homeland, and the North (and the Kim regime), for its part, would be allowed to exist. A real, tangible objective would also give U.S. policy toward North Korea the signpost which it has so desperately been missing, and allow it to escape the “circling the drain” syndrome offered by the status quo.
The value of gaining diplomatic advantage by rapidly seizing and altering the tempo between nations, a seemingly long-lost diplomatic art, should also be considered. After years of organizing the North as a police state led by an autocrat decision-maker bent on war, the Kim regime is unprepared for the diplomatic rigors required for discussions focusing on its only chance at survival. In this sense, should a diplomatic option be pursued, everything would turn on the speed at which the United States, the presumable leader of such a multilateral congress, could marshal the U.S.-South Korea-China axis. Any effort made in such a plan should stick to the deliverables; prolonged discussion would give North Korea time to ease off the ropes. Rather, swift agreement framed as a way toward deescalating the tension on the peninsula, governed by a time limit, must be the order of the day. Examples of such an effort invoke images of a 19th century peace conference.
Whether or not the U.S. Department of State is ready for such aggressive and bold diplomatic discussions is unclear; however, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in remarks which described his North Korea policy as “a pressure campaign with a knob on it,” has indicated the Department of State may be ready for some bold risks. After all, the United States has much less to lose than North Korea in any diplomatic discussion.
The easy part would be the time limit: all discussions should expire once China’s National Party Congress convenes (presumably in October). Why? To ensure China remains a forthright and motivated partner in achieving a timely solution to the North Korean problem. China’s recent efforts to increase sanctions against North Korea should be cheered; but they are in no way dependable Chinese behavior. Chinese President Xi Jinping needs quiet and calm leading up to his Party Congress, not noise and failure. If this article’s theoretical Congress of Washington is unsuccessful going into the Party Congress, Xi would begin with a major foreign policy black eye, and what’s worse, would have to worry about renewed tensions on the peninsula in case talks break down, and at a very inopportune time. And there’s no way China could abstain from a congress deciding the fate of its southern neighbor; this makes current timing very propitious for a China-inclusive multilateral diplomatic engagement with North Korea.
The Rarest of Opportunities
Recognizing North Korean sovereignty is not defeatist, nor is it a bad idea. Kim Jong-un’s behavior, despite its explosiveness, could not in any fair-minded analysis be called irrational. His regime is grasping for any way to prove its domestic legitimacy; any diplomatic carrots aiding such a recognition will be disproportionately strong. What’s more, no diplomatic settlement under these conditions could likely affect the internal unrest Kim faces each day, because of the extraordinary lengths North Korea has gone to keep its people in the dark. There is always a chance North Korea will implode all on its own, and solving external problems could make such an eventuality more possible: in the event of a successful deal, any efforts by North Korea to bolster its regime through blaming its troubles on the very powers which granted its legitimacy would only cause it more trouble. And it goes without saying: all diplomatic and military options following any agreement would remain on the table in the face of future North Korean deceit.
The window for success is small. All participants of a Congress of Washington would grumble. But the potential rewards — and lack of a better alternative — might be too great to ignore.
Major John Wright is a U.S. Air Force officer, pilot, and a Mike and Maureen Mansfield Fellow. He is currently serving as Japan Country Director, International Affairs, Headquarters Pacific Air Forces, Honolulu, HI. The views expressed here are personal.