By Gregory Elich
The soaring hopes generated by the recent Inter-Korean Summit are now supplanted by uncertainty, due to North Korea’s suspension of a planned meeting with the South.
In the weeks following the summit’s Panmunjom Declaration, North Korea took actions to demonstrate its goodwill and desire for peaceful resolution of differences.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK – the formal name for North Korea) announced that it would dismantle its underground nuclear test site, culminating in explosions to collapse tunnels, the blocking of entries, and removal of above-ground facilities.
Substantial progress has already been made on disabling the site. The DPRK could have waited and made this a negotiable issue in talks with the United States. Instead, it offered the step to the United States ahead of the summit as a confidence-building measure. Before that, North Korea also committed to a suspension of nuclear and missile testing. As an additional gesture of good intentions, North Korea released all three American prisoners.
Initial signs from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s meetings with Chairman Kim Jong Un were quite encouraging, hinting at an uncharacteristic degree of flexibility on the part of the Trump administration. North Korean media reported that the talks indicated that Trump “has a new alternative” and a “proactive attitude,” and that Kim and Pompeo had reached a “satisfactory agreement on the issues.”
Meanwhile, as Pompeo and Kim were making apparent headway, the process began to unravel from a different direction. There were many in the Trump administration who were not keen on the idea of reciprocity. The dominant view was that rewards, such as they were, could only come after denuclearization.
National Security Advisor John Bolton was trotted out for a series of interviews to elucidate the U.S. position. Permanent, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization would have to take place before “the benefits start to flow.” The expectation is that the DPRK should abandon its nuclear deterrent without receiving anything more in return than the promise of future rewards. Nor does Bolton consider nuclear disarmament to be sufficient. Negotiations have not begun, and already the U.S. is piling on more demands. Talks, Bolton insisted, would also need to tackle the DPRK’s ballistic missile program and human rights concerns. Chemical and biological weapons will also be on the agenda, he said, despite the fact that their existence is purely speculative. Negotiations on denuclearization will be challenging enough. Overloading the talks with additional issues is likely to be a recipe for failure.
Even as North Korea strives to meet American demands, it can expect no relief from sanctions and threats. Bolton asserts that the U.S. needs to see North Korea implementing denuclearization, and the policy of maximum pressure will not relent until that happens.
What kind of benefits can North Korea expect in return for compliance with U.S. demands? “I wouldn’t look for economic aid from us,” Bolton bluntly stated. Presumably, once North Korea has satisfied all of the Trump administration’s demands, sanctions will start to be reduced or eliminated. That is not a reward. If someone is punishing another, and then promises to reduce the amount of punishment, it is safe to say that the victim will not regard that as a “reward.”
On the economic front, Mike Pompeo agrees with Bolton. No taxpayer funds will go towards assisting North Korea, he said. What the United States is willing to do is send rapacious corporate investors to North Korea to seek profit-making opportunities. Once denuclearization has been completed and sanctions lifted, Pompeo says that what Chairman Kim “will get from America is our finest – our entrepreneurs, our risk takers, our capital providers…They will get private capital that comes in.” A strong argument could be made that those are actually among America’s worst people, and not to be wished upon North Korea or any other nation.
Pompeo went on to talk about North Korea’s need for energy, agricultural equipment, and technology. The need is there. But why is that? For decades, the United States has subjected the DPRK to enormous economic damage through sanctions. The North Korean people are not incapable of improving their lot. They only need to be allowed to do so, unhindered and unpunished. What the DPRK needs and what it consistently calls for is normalization of relations.
Certainly, North Korea is not looking to privatize state-owned firms or to contract out work to U.S. firms that it is capable of doing itself, once it is released from the burden of sanctions.
It is clear that the Trump administration is not willing to give anything to North Korea. It costs nothing to lift sanctions or to cherish the hope that lucrative opportunities will blossom in North Korea for U.S. investors. Signing a piece of paper promising a security guarantee imposes no burden on the United States. The Trump administration, or any future administration for that matter, is free to ignore that guarantee and send the cruise missiles flying whenever it sees fit.
Nor does the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran inspire confidence in the reliability of the United States as a negotiating partner.
Bolton’s pronouncements, perhaps aided by behind-the-scenes maneuvering, appear to have led Pompeo to walk back on his earlier statements about progress being made and having reached a mutual understanding with Chairman Kim. He is now reporting that a great deal of work remains and the U.S. and North Korea are not “remotely close.”
“We have very much in mind the Libya model from 2003, 2004,” Bolton recently told Fox News. That model would have North Korea ship its nuclear weapons to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for destruction. The DPRK would be required to complete disarmament before receiving relief from sanctions.
So how did that model work for Libya? That nation began to denuclearize at the beginning of 2004, and throughout the process, it fully complied with U.S. demands for unilateral denuclearization. But the United States was slow when it came to compensation, and the Libyans often complained to American diplomats that they had not been rewarded for their compliance. It was not until 2006 that the U.S. restored diplomatic relations and removed Libya from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Although the U.S. was sluggish in providing relief to Libya, it was eager to issue more demands. John Bolton, who was Under-secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration at the time, told Libyan officials that they had to sever military cooperation with Iran in order to complete the denuclearization agreement. On at least one occasion, a U.S. official pressured Libya to cut off military trade with North Korea, Iran, and Syria.
American officials also demanded that Libya recognize the independence of Kosovo, a position that Libya had consistently opposed. That was followed by a U.S. diplomatic note to Libya, ordering it to vote against the Serbian government’s resolution at the United Nations, which requested a ruling by the International Court of Justice on the legality of Kosovo independence. Under the circumstances, Libya preferred to absent itself from the vote rather than join the United States and three other nations in opposing the measure.
The U.S. was more successful in winning Libya’s vote in favor of UN sanctions against Iran. Under U.S. pressure, Libya also launched a privatization program and opened opportunities for U.S. businesses.
North Korea can expect the same treatment if it follows this model. The United States will start to treat it as a vassal state, expecting it to take orders on myriad issues having nothing to do with denuclearization.
We know how the model ended, with the United States and its NATO partners bombing Libya, and the brutal murder of Muammar al-Qaddafi. The North Koreans know it, too.
In 2006, Great Britain and Libya signed a Joint Letter on Peace and Security. The document stated that the two nations “pledge in their international relations to refrain from the threat or the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of one another.” It further obligated the parties to refrain from intervening in the internal affairs of one another. Five years later, Great Britain was aiding jihadists fighting to overthrow the government, and joining NATO in bombing Libya. That is the Libya model, too, in which a Western security “guarantee” is proven worthless.
The DPRK has a more credible action-for-action approach in mind for negotiations, in which there is a phased approach, and each side gains something as progress continues towards the final goal of denuclearization and normalization of relations.
In continuing to set a framework of mutual respect for talks, North Korea sharply reduced the scale of its annual armored vehicle exercises this month.
Washington is sending signals of a different nature, however. On May 11, the joint U.S.-South Korea Max Thunder air drills kicked off, deploying over 100 aircraft, including advanced Stealth F-22 Raptor fighter planes. This year’s exercise is the largest ever held, in an apparent bid to apply additional pressure on North Korea.
In response, North Korea announced that it was suspending its May 16 meeting with South Korean officials. KCNA, North Korea’s news agency, pointed out that the expanded drills constituted “an undisguised challenge to the Panmunjom Declaration,” in which both Koreas had pledged to cease all hostile acts. It added that the Panmunjom Declaration cannot be implemented by one party alone.
DPRK’s First Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Kim Kye Gwan followed that up by announcing that the improvement in relations with the United States risks being undone by American officials calling for unilateral disarmament and adherence to the Libya model. North Korea has already stated its intention to denuclearize in exchange for an end to the U.S. hostile policy, he continued. “But now, the U.S. is miscalculating the magnanimity and broad-minded initiatives of the DPRK as signs of weakness.”
North Korea has left the door open to the U.S. and South Korea. The May 16 meeting with South Korean officials was suspended, not cancelled. And the North Koreans are saying that they will closely watch the behavior of U.S. and South Korean officials. Portrayed in Western media as an act of inexplicable petulance, the suspension of the inter-Korean meeting is a wake-up call to the United States and South Korea. The capitulation model is not a viable approach. Reciprocity is essential.
The North Koreans are not going to relinquish their nuclear deterrent for nothing more than an empty security promise and the suggestion that sanctions may be lifted if they meet a host of additional demands.
During the Obama administration, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program was at a sufficiently immature stage of development that the United States felt it could demand that North Korea fully denuclearize as a precondition for talks.
After the DPRK completed its fast-track nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs, it now has something substantial to trade. It expects the United States to engage in the normal give-and-take of diplomatic negotiations. Former U.S. Department of State Special Representative for North Korea Joseph Yun notes, “The price has gone up. You have to address what they want. If you believe they should only address what we want I think that’s a very, very mistaken path.”
The conviction that the United States can force the DPRK to capitulate is delusional. If the Trump administration wants denuclearization, it can only obtain that by negotiating with North Korea on the basis of equality and respect. Whether the Trump administration is capable of adjusting to that reality remains to be seen.
Gregory Elich is on the Board of Directors of the Jasenovac Research Institute and a Korea Policy Institute associate. He is a member of the Solidarity Committee for Democracy and Peace in Korea, a columnist for Voice of the People, and one of the co-authors of Killing Democracy: CIA and Pentagon Operations in the Post-Soviet Period, published in the Russian language. He is also a member of the Task Force to Stop THAAD in Korea and Militarism in Asia and the Pacific.
His website is https://gregoryelich.org
Follow him on Twitter at @GregoryElich
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