South Korea’s support of sanctions will only escalate tensions
It may seem foolish to talk about negotiations at a time when everyone is infuriated over North Korea’s sixth nuclear test. But history has shown that as time passes and we regain our composure, we will be faced with the fact that our “no thought, just sanctions” approach only exacerbated the vicious cycle, and we will be left even more acutely aware that there is no alternative to negotiating.
Some people insist that we can sever the North’s lifeline by cutting off its crude oil supplies. As many North Korea experts have noted, however, that approach will only hurt the North Korean economy without bringing Pyongyang to submission. Instead, the greater suffering among the people only means a greater likelihood that tensions will rise in North Korea, fanning a “go for broke” mentality that could lead to military provocations at the armistice line or Northern Limit Line (NLL). That risk only grows when it’s Seoul spearheading the sanctions push. That’s why the South Korean government needs to face up to the fact that inter-Korean relations must be kept on a stable footing even amid sanctions, and why it needs a cautious, strategic response.
The next question is whether there is any way now of getting North Korea to give up its nukes. That would only be possible with a change in policy from Washington, but there is one last card to play: the US and North Korea forming a diplomatic relationship. It’s a matter of both sides making a tradeoff, each giving the other side what it wants under a principle of simultaneous action – of Washington telling Pyongyang that it’s prepared to establish diplomatic relations and sign a nonaggression agreement if the North gives up its nuclear weapon and ICBM program.
North Korea may proclaim that it has no intention of giving up its nuclear capabilities, but it has left a hint of a possibility. Leader Kim Jong-un has said he will not sit down at the table to negotiate denuclearization “until the US’s hostile policies and nuclear threat are fundamentally resolved.” This means that it could give up its nuclear weapons if its antagonistic relationship with the US improves and nonaggression is guaranteed. Coarsely worded though it may be, this condition from Pyongyang is something it has consistently stressed in the two decades or so since the nuclear issue first erupted.
A similar conclusion can be reached if we considered Kim’s practical aims in possessing nuclear weapons and ICBMs. In general, his reasons for focusing on nuclear development appear to be threefold: responding to the US’s hostile politics, strengthening his domestic power base, and heading off the possibility of outside forces physically interfering in Pyongyang’s political situation (i.e., ensuring an environment of nonaggression).
In short, Kim’s chief goal is to ensure his regime’s stability. The last of these aims in particular was only reinforced by the fate of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who abandoned his country’s nuclear and WMD development program in exchange for improved relations with the US, only to end up deposed and slain (in Oct. 2011) during the democratic revolution with an attack by US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces. The second aim – reinforcing Kim’s power base through nuclear development – appears to have been more or less achieved already.
In this sense, diplomatic relations between North Korea and the US and a pledge of nonaggression would likely bring about a major shift in terms of Pyongyang giving up its nuclear weapons. If the two sides were to reach such an agreement, the North would first freeze its nuclear program and halt its missile provocations, while the UN would move to lift its economic sanctions, creating an environment favorable to fleshing out and implementing the agreement’s terms. With the Six-Party Talks, we could see international guarantees on the agreement and an agreement text that includes North Korea’s permanent abandonment of nuclear weapons and the transition from an armistice system to a peace regime on the peninsula.
The US appears unlikely to even listen to this proposal – maintaining as it does that dialogue is out of the question unless the North stops its provocations and signals its intent to denuclearize. But if it truly does view the current North Korean nuclear situation as a serious threat, it has no reason not to listen. It doesn’t cost anything from the US’s standpoint. Although they were posited as a “final alternative” as the crisis was spiraling out of control, diplomatic relations between the North Korea and the US have always been the answer, given how the North Korean nuclear issue’s roots lie in the two sides’ mutual distrust.
With its emphasis on extreme pressure against the North, the Moon Jae-in administration might look askance at my suggestion. In truth, however, this idea was the core understanding of the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations, and a shared view among many of the experts who supported Moon as a presidential candidate. It may not be easy to win the US over, but the Moon administration needs to start now in coming to grips with the role demanded of Seoul in the severity of the North Korean nuclear situation, and to pursue the trickier route of leadership and creative diplomacy rather than hitching its wagon to sanctions. It doesn’t have to be this plan exactly, but the administration needs some kind of independent strategy and action to bring about a peaceful breakthrough with negotiations.
By Lee Jong-seok, Senior Fellow at the Sejong Institute and former Unification Minister in the Roh Moo-hyun administration
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