Amid escalating tension on the Korean Peninsula following North Korea’s consecutive missile launches, Beijing proposed a new approach to resolve the situation: temporarily halting U.S.-South Korea large-scale joint military exercises in exchange for North Korea freezing its nuclear activities. Since Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi first proposed this new strategy on March 8, Beijing has continued to put forward the idea. It reiterated this proposal even after Pyongyang’s reportedly successful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch on July 4.
For its part, North Korea seems willing to embrace the idea. “Under certain circumstances, we are willing to talk in terms of freezing nuclear testing or missile testing. For instance, if the American side completely stops big, large-scale military exercises temporarily or permanently, then we will also temporarily stop,” said Kye Chun-yong, the North Korean ambassador in India, during his interview with WION, an Indian TV network, on June 21.
What is Pyongyang’s rationale for welcoming China’s proposal? Will this new proposal be a viable solution to the Korean Peninsula stalemate?
In fact, Pyongyang has repeatedly put forward the same idea through several channels. On January 10, 2015, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), North Korea’s state news agency, announced that it had approached Washington with its own version of the proposal:
A message including the Republic’s [North Korea’s] proposal has been delivered to the U.S. via relevant channels on last January 9. The message requests that U.S. suspend joint military exercise temporarily in the areas adjacent to South Korea, and declares that, in that case, we are also willing to take a reciprocal measure by temporarily suspending nuclear tests that concerns the U.S. … Our willingness to sit face to face with the U.S. on this issue whenever necessary is also declared.
Washington, however, apparently ignored this proposal and continued the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience,” given that the North Korea minister of foreign affairs made a statement criticizing the United States’ non-reaction on March 2, 2015. “We already expressed our willingness to take a reciprocal measure in case that the U.S. halts joint military exercise in and around South Korea,” the statement said. “However, the U.S., from the very beginning of the New Year, outright rejected our sincere proposal and effort by announcing ‘additional sanction’ toward North Korea, by avowing to make our most valuable socialist system collapse, and by pressing on with exercise for a war of aggression.”
Notwithstanding the U.S. rejection, North Korea did not give up. KCNA stressed on January 15, 2016 that “Our proposal, including suspension of the joint military exercise of the U.S., halting our nuclear tests, and signing a peace treaty, is all still valid.” It appears clear that Pyongyang is willing to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for suspension of the U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises, as suggested by Beijing.
Nevertheless, Beijing and Pyongyang hope to achieve different things through with the same proposal. While China views the “dual freeze” as an interim step for denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, North Korea does not. Pyongyang asserts its nuclear weapons are only for deterrence purposes, as the country is confronted with imminent security threats posed by “imperialist America.”
Pyongyang’s interpretation of the international situation in general and the United States’ intentions in particular can be clearly read by a book published by KCNA, White House’s Black Arrowhead. Unlike most North Korean books glamorizing its divine leaders and their ideas and achievements, this book is one of the few rare sources which enable us to view the world through their eyes. Since it was published internally with limited circulation, the original version of this book is unavailable. Yet the Military Science Publishing House of China translated this book, albeit internally, and the Chinese translation is available at Stanford University Libraries.
Thoroughly analyzing the history between the United States and North Korea since the Korean War, the book stresses that Washington “is imminently making preparations for the second Korean War, not only through large-scale armed forces, but also through other various means including diplomacy, ideology, culture, and economy.” Therefore, to Pyongyang, freezing its nuclear program is a viable option should it help mitigate the threat allegedly posed by the U.S.-South Korea military drills. Dismantlement of its nuclear program, however, is another story; doing so would expose the North to “American imperialism” without any deterrence capability.
Pyongyang’s commentary justifying its fourth nuclear test in January 2017 made this point clear, by stating, “The Hussein regime in Iraq and the Gaddafi regime in Libya, after surrendering to the pressure from the U.S. and the West which were attempting to subvert their regime[s], could not avoid the fate of doom as a consequence of … giving up their nuclear program.” Depicting the international community as a jungle in which only the strongest can survive, the commentary added, “History demonstrates that powerful nuclear deterrence serves as the strongest treasured sword for frustrating outsiders’ aggression and for protecting national peace and security.”
This perception is what makes Pyongyang so obsessed with nuclear weapons. North Korea, based on its interpretation of its security environment, has long shown an almost visceral animosity toward the joint military exercises, which it says is “a dress rehearsal for an invasion.” Thus, when discussing the joint military exercise with U.S. congressman Gary Ackerman in 1993, “Great Leader’s [Kim Il-sung’s] voice quivered and his hands shook with anger.”
Due to this perception of imminent threat and a firm belief in indispensability of nuclear deterrence as a counter-balancing means, in North Korea’s view freezing its nuclear program is not a stepping stone for denuclearization, but a mere tool to mitigate security threats. The real stepping stone, from Pyongyang’s perspective, would be “halting America’s hostile policy,” which North Korea conceives of as a main reason for its nuclear armament. Unless this perception gap is narrowed down, Pyongyang is highly unlikely to forswear its nuclear program even if the United States and South Korea decide to suspend their joint military exercises.
Son Daekwon is a Ph.D. Candidate at Peking University and a KF Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS.