6 March 2018   1 comment

South Korean envoys are reporting that North Korea has expressed its willingness to hold negotiations on the possible denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.   South and North Korea have held face-to-face negotiations in 2000 and 2007, but this is the first time that the current North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, has met with South Korean officials (that we know of).  This news has been received by the US media as a significant move to reduce the tensions on the peninsula.  There may be reasons to be optimistic, but I would urge caution.  Such negotiations have been held in the past and the Congressional Research Service has a well-documented survey of the history of those negotiations.  But the history is not encouraging:

“The United States has engaged in four major sets of formal nuclear and missile negotiations with North Korea: the bilateral Agreed Framework (1994-2002), the bilateral missile negotiations (1996-2000), the multilateral Six-Party Talks (2003-2009), and the bilateral Leap Day Deal (2012). In general, the formula for these negotiations has been for North Korea to halt, and in some cases disable, its nuclear or missile programs in return for economic and diplomatic incentives. While some of the negotiations have shown progress, North Korea has continued to advance its nuclear and missile programs.”

First, we only have the report of the South Koreans.  I am sure those envoys are honest and sincere, but they are representing the current President, Moon Jae-in, who ran for office supporting a policy of engagement, not hostility toward North Korea.  President Moon has a clear stake in making progress.  We should wait to see what the North Korean report on the meetings say.

Second, North Korea is still working on its nuclear facilities.  38 North, a website maintained by the US-Korea Institute of Johns Hopkins University, is reporting that

“Commercial satellite imagery of North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center from February 25 indicates that the 5 MWe reactor continue to show signs of operation as indicated by steam vapor plumes emanating from the generator hall and river ice melt near the reactor. Under normal operations, we would also expect to see a cooling water discharge near the river outfall. And while vapor plumes have been noted a few times over the past year, no cooling water discharges have been observed to support this conclusion. However, we cannot rule out that the North Koreans may have suppressed this signature by extending the discharge pipe into the river. If the reactor is operating again, as the evidence suggests, it means North Korea has resumed production of plutonium presumably for its nuclear weapons program. It also means that the North has likely extended its cooling water pipeline into the river (rather than near the river) to better conceal the reactor’s operational status, making monitoring efforts more difficult going forward.”

Third, we do not have a clear idea of how North Korea defines “denuclearization”.  In the past, North Korea has insisted that the US and South Korea cease its joint military exercises.  The North Korean press, which is state-controlled, quotes the South Korean negotiator on how North Korea defines its interests:

“’The North clarified its will to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, and made it clear that there is no reason to possess nuclear weapons if the security of the North Korean regime is guaranteed,’ South Korea’s chief envoy to the talks Chung Eui-yong said.”

If the North Koreans define “denuclearization” in terms of the guarantee that the North Korean government will not be threatened, then the entire US-South Korean defense alliance comes into question.  it may ultimately involve the removal of the 30,000 US troops in South Korea.   It may be that his outcome is precisely what US President Trump wants.  Many years ago he was quoted as saying:

“‘I keep asking, how long will we go on defending South Korea from North Korea without payment?’ More recently he noted that when ‘the young man from North Korea starts acting up and having one of his fits, we immediately get our ships going. We get our aircraft. We get nothing for this.’”

I am certain, however, that such an action would be viewed with alarm by many analysts, particularly if there was no way to verify totally the North Korean commitment to destroy its nuclear arsenal and its knowledge base that fosters that nuclear program.  The Chinese and the Russians would be delighted; the Japanese would be alarmed. The North’s nuclear program has always been characterized by fits and starts.

Fourth, one can easily interpret North Korean behavior in recent months as simply one designed to buy time.  We know that North Korea has exploded six nuclear bombs and has tested a missile that puts its missile program at the outer reaches of US territory.  There really is no urgency to continued testing at this time and a great risk to continue testing.  The North Koreans have agreed not to test while plans are being put into operation for another South-North summit in April.  Time is really on the side of the North and not on the side of the US.

Having expressed these doubts,  the possibility that there may be an easing of tensions should be pursued vigorously. Buying time instead of waging war (which seems to be the only two possibilities for President Trump:  “the U.S. is ready to go hard in either direction!”) is the far better choice.

Kim Jong Un, right, greets Chung Eui-yong in North Korea

Posted March 6, 2018 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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