DMZ - Demilitarized Zone between the Koreas

U.S. Trust Building with North Korea

In recent weeks, North Korea’s aggressive posture has apparently relaxed considerably and what was one of the world’s most dangerous points of geopolitical risk has retracted. The U.S. now faces negotiations with the Pyongyang regime, and both parties have ample reason to be mistrustful. In this piece, John Rugarber examines a potential strategy for the U.S. administration in dealing with Chairman Kim.

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The conflict between North and South Korea has undergone a dramatic transformation in just a few short months. The world has gone from brinksmanship with promises of “fire and fury” should North Korea continue to threaten the United States, to the stunning Inter-Korean Summit that saw President Moon and Chairman Kim Jung-Un shake hands and even cross over into each other’s territory last week. North Korea has also unilaterally suspended all missile and nuclear tests, freed American prisoners, and has openly stated a willingness to denuclearize in exchange for a nonaggression pact from the United States. The United States has in turn has given its blessing to South Korea to officially end the Korean War and has changed its position from “no talks without denuclearization”, to planning direct talks between Chairman Un and President Trump at the DMZ at the end of May. Despite all this progress though, mistrust on both sides remain. Thus, this piece will outline three relatively low-cost actions the United States can do to build trust with Pyongyang and demonstrate its willingness to abide by the terms of any future agreement on denuclearization.

Option 1: Ease Pyongyang’s fears on Libya, Iraq, and Ukraine

Time and again it has been reported in the media that North Korea will not give up its nuclear arsenal because Pyongyang had witnessed the fate that befell Libya, Iraq, and Ukraine; all of whom gave up their nuclear weapons programs and subsequently underwent turbulent regime change. Yet, when one looks at the history of the Korean conflict as well as the demographics of North Korea, one can easily see that those comparisons hold very little water.

First, the internal political situations in both Ukraine and Libya were dramatically different than those currently in North Korea. Prior to the Maidan Revolution, Ukraine was a fledgling democracy with a large Russian minority population in the East and the South. Differences in opinion on the political future of the country were tolerated; Ukraine also held elections that led to radical political paradigm shifts. An exploitable minority population does not exist in North Korea, since the DPRK is homogenous with only a tiny Chinese community, a few Japanese, and almost no Americans. Thus, the likelihood that the U.S. would military intervene a la Russia in Ukraine to prevent discrimination against a minority is a thin prospect.

Libya too is not a homogeneous society. It is a country made up of 140 tribes; some of whom have been in conflict with one another or the Qaddafi government since the 1990s, with Qaddafi having lost control of much of the western part of his country after the Abu Salim prison massacre. These rebel tribes provided the conduit needed in order to conduct an internal regime change with external support from the Western powers. Again, the DPRK’s society is not factional: therefore, the United States cannot appeal to an opposition group within North Korea to conduct a similarly-styled regime change simply because any visible opposition to the regime has been eliminated.

Most critically, instability caused by a regime change or an offensive military operation against North Korea is not in China’s interests. As a senior Chinese diplomat has observed, ‘our mindset [towards North Korea] has changed, but the length of our border has not.’ Given this shared geography, China would undoubtedly take a far stronger and more aggressive approach to block any U.S.-proposed armed intervention through the UN than it did in the case of Libya or Iraq. Thus, China’s shared interest in maintaining a stable North Korea directly guarantees the survival of the Kim regime and therefore serves as a deterrent to any aggressive offensive action by the United States, just as it has historically done since 1953, long before DPRK became a nuclear power. Thus, it would behoove the United States to use these differences as talking points with North Korea should references to these conflicts arise during negotiations.

Option 2: Shelve Plans to Withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran

Although it is on the other side of Asia, the North Koreans are undoubtedly paying close attention to whether or not the United States will pull out of the JCPOA. Pulling out ahead of the denuclearization talks with North Korea will give the latter pause at the negotiating table about Washington’s commitment to abide by the terms of any future treaty. Evidence of Iran’s violations of the terms of the JCPOA remains thin and such a move flows contrary to the advice of the other P5 members like France and Germany.

Hence, the U.S. should shelve the idea of pulling out for now with the option to entertain joint renegotiations with all P5+1 parties at a later date. This action will have far reaching implications on the future U.S.-North Korea Summit as it shows that the U.S. stands by the treaties it enters into, but will not tolerate any perceived undermining or a deal it feels falls short of its interests; thus, allowing the U.S. to negotiate with North Korea from a position of strength. Lastly, by not dismissing a full withdrawal at a later date, President Trump will not run too afoul of his domestic base, as seeking renegotiations is admitting that the current deal is unacceptable, which is what his support base believes, keeping the political costs of shelving the JCPOA withdrawal low.

Option 3: Establish a Permanent Oversight Committee to Ensure U.S. Fulfillment of any Commitments to the Future NK Agreement

The Six Party Talks failed because neither side kept their end of the bargain. Some of the most notable reasons include North Korea’s failure to provide sufficient proof (and confirmational access to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and U.S. weapon inspectors) that the DPRK was committed to “complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement” of its nuclear program. The U.S. was also too slow in providing its promised light-water reactors and heavy oil as part of the deal. Failure to ensure the tenets of the deal are rigorously adhered to will undoubtedly doom any future agreement and while there is always a great amount of emphasis placed on obtaining the deal, the United States has struggled when it has come to oversight and permanence.

While a peace/non-aggression treaty with North Korea will require Congressional approval and will make it harder to undo by future administrations, it may not be enough of an enticement to North Korea to trust the United States. Therefore, the United States should discuss the formation of a permanent committee made up of the nation’s best diplomats to oversee the implementation and execution of any commitments the U.S. signs onto with North Korea, whose lifespan will last as long as the Pact remains in place: thus, allowing the committee to survive the regular regime changes in Washington. Part of that committee’s responsibilities will be to provide regular briefings to the President on the status of the Pact as well as the statuses on any commitments the U.S. has made. Elevating the position of the committee to the Cabinet would demonstrate to the North Koreans the seriousness the United States places on the implementation of the future agreement and could alleviate longevity fears without costing the United States anything at the negotiating table.

Pyongyang has as many reasons to distrust Washington, and likewise, Washington regards the Kim regime’s latest moves with heavy suspicion. By establishing these concrete steps to differentiate these negotiations with former engagements, Washington will be able to generate trust and goodwill while simultaneously building its own position.

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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: Buiobuione


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