Within the past 72 hours, bilateral talks between North and South Korea have yielded significant progress. Perhaps most significant, North Korea has voiced a “will” to denuclearize if its security is guaranteed. In this piece, John Rugarber follows up his previous work on rapprochement strategies and examines Washington’s options surrounding this pivotal development.


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While these latest developments occurred during the ongoing bilateral talks between Seoul and Pyongyang, the North’s suggestion of a “will” to denuclearize was clearly directed towards the United States, whom the North views as its greatest threat. While President Trump’s response-by-tweet of “we shall see” is prudent (albeit not diplomatic), now is the time for the United States to reciprocate the North’s change in position with a swift goodwill gesture of its own to demonstrate that it too is serious about reaching a desirable outcome during negotiations.

The United States could accomplish this by taking North Korea off the List of State Sponsors of Terrorism. While being on the list implies severe punitive actions, its bark is way worse than its bite. Placing a nation on the list simply prevents that nation from purchasing arms from the United States—something that has not occurred since 1945. Thus, taking North Korea off of the list would not be a tangible concession of any kind as it would not change the military status quo on the ground. It also would not weaken the position of our Allies in the region. However, its symbolic effects could be hugely significant as it would signal a change in position that Washington no longer associates the North Korean government with elements of terrorism.

While there is some cost associated with this course, as President Trump’s opponents might claim that the state sponsored assassination of Kim Jong Un’s brother Kim Jong Nam constitutes terrorism and that the regime’s long list of ongoing human rights violations should prevent the DPRK’s removal from the list, sometimes its better to be flexible on a position if it serves the Nation’s long term interests. That is not a dismissal of the regime’s actions; however, given the North’s increasing ballistic and nuclear capabilities, plus research into other weapons of mass destruction the United States could swiftly place the DPRK back on the list if negotiations break down or do not occur due to obstinance from the North.

While entering into a non-aggression pact with North Korea means giving a free hand to a despotic regime to continue to oppress its population, the Kim regime is not showing any signs of declining and all real and potential competition or domestic threats to his rule have been eliminated.

If the North’s “will” to denuclearize transitions into confirmed actions, then the Untied States could follow this by beginning to formulate a non-aggression treaty with North Korea. However, since significant mistrust exists between the North and the U.S. based on past failed denuclearization programs, the United States should approach China to oversee and verify the tit-for- tat details of the treaty. China is the only nation that has the ability and influence over both parties to ensure the details of the treaty are adhered to: it has intervened militarily during the Korean War to aid North Korea but has also unilaterally passed (although enforcement is a separate issue) severe sanctions on the North for repeated ballistic missile tests. It is also in China’s strategic interests to have a denuclearized North Korea, as it would prevent Japan and South Korea from justifying the development of their own nuclear weapons in response to the threat from the North, which could also be used to constrain Chinese actions in the region. Furthermore, the denuclearization of the North could lead to the re-deployment of the US supplied THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Air Defence) anti-ballistic missile defense system, which provides significant radar penetration of Chinese airspace and Beijing fears is directed against their nuclear deterrent. Thus, given its interests, China could be an acceptable moderator for both parties and although their mediation will more-than-likely come with a price (so long as they do not exceed the parties’ compromise threshold) it should be trusted to oversee and verify the North’s denuclearization.

To the critics of such a course-of-action, consider the alternatives of doing nothing: a nuclear ICBM capable North Korea with the ability to strike the mainland United States: it is not a question of if, but when. Once they obtain that ability, denuclearization is all but impossible and as it would level the playing field between the North and the U.S.; future U.S. leaders will hesitate in coming to Seoul’s aid in the event of hostilities on the continent if it could come at the cost of Los Angeles. While entering into a non-aggression pact with North Korea means giving a free hand to a despotic regime to continue to oppress its population, the Kim regime is not showing any signs of declining and all real and potential competition or domestic threats to his rule have been eliminated. Thus, like it or not, this is who the international community has to do business with in Pyongyang for the foreseeable future.

The U.S. has little to lose and a lot to gain by removing North Korea from the List of State Sponsors of Terrorism, entering into a non-aggression treaty with the DPRK in exchange for denuclearization, and then allowing China serve as enforcer of the compromises. Washington, however, has much to lose by failing to act.

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John Rugarber is a former United States Army Captain and graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point with multiple tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. John is a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies with a concentration in Conflict Management, and focuses on Europe, Russia and the former Soviet Union states.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.


Photo credit:  U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin Sutton

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Written by John Rugarber

Former US Army Captain and graduate of the United States Military Academy with multiple tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. Recent graduate of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies with a concentration in Conflict Management.

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