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Korea Options - Bad, Worse and Unthinkable

from American Ambassadors Live

When given a choice among bad options, you would normally look for the least worst. In the case of North Korea — formally the Democratic Republic of Korea or DPRK — the least worst would appear to be negotiations but, even then, the option must be approached with great care.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had said “We are ready to negotiate with the DPRK without preconditions.” Then, President Donald Trump pulled the Secretary back into the fantasy world of this White House saying the DPRK “must earn” the right to negotiate. What the President did not consider was the precondition that DPRK leader Kim Jong-un has imposed on negotiations. Kim wants the United States to acknowledge and accept his Country as a nuclear power before agreeing to talk, something we cannot do.

It would seem logical that China would help calm tensions on the Peninsula, but we cannot expect China to take any steps that are inconsistent with its long-term goal of maximizing its position in East Asia. That goal includes limiting U.S. access to the South and East China Seas.

China also fears having a U.S. ally such as the Republic of Korea (The ROK, also known as South Korea) on its border. For that reason, China will actively oppose any effort to destabilize the DPRK. Human rights reform, a priority for the West, is lower on Beijing’s agenda than keeping a stable client state on its border.

Just as China wants to push the United States out of East Asia, the DPRK hopes to push U.S. forces off the Korean Peninsula. In that their goals are aligned, we should not expect China to take steps contrary to its fundamental interests.

China certainly wants to ensure that the DPRK does not actually start a war and has proposed a “freeze for a freeze,” which is to say that the U.S. and South Korean governments would not conduct military training exercises in exchange for a “freeze” in the development of nuclear arms and missile delivery systems. The Trump Administration dismissed the offer. To most analysts, simply freezing the DPRK’s nuclear program is too modest a goal, particularly if any such agreement does not include a robust verification regime.

This begs the question: What then do we want? Is it possible to seek a denuclearization agreement? And, if so, what must the United States concede to achieve that goal? Let’s assume that a denuclearization agreement is theoretically possible. To be meaningful, it must include a robust verification program backed by United Nations guarantees. More critically, we should expect China to endorse and even guarantee DPRK compliance. Such an agreement must also provide a measure of security to the ROK, which would hinge other guarantees from China.

In an agreement of this type, Kim would very likely demand concessions from the United States that go well beyond a freeze on major training exercises. He would very likely demand the removal of U.S. troops from the ROK to be staged to match the staged dismantling of the DPRK nuclear and missile programs.

Even with these potential concessions, Kim Jong-un may well refuse to give up his nuclear toys. He knows that using the weapons would be suicide, but they do give him and his country a degree of standing that would otherwise be impossible to command. Abandoning the nuclear program would be such a loss of face that Kim probably cannot accept it unless he gains face some other way.

He might insist on diplomatic recognition of the DPRK and an agreement to respect its sovereignty combined with a termination of economic sanctions. This could come through a treaty resolving the 75-year-old armistice that brought the Korean War as far as a cease fire. Kim would call that a victory but would President Trump, who seems preoccupied with his own “face,” be willing to let Kim claim victory?

This scenario, admittedly a utopian fantasy, effectively guarantees a continuation of the Kim Dynasty in the DPRK. That implies that Kim can continue to impose a system of human rights abuses that can best be described as crimes against humanity. It means that nuclear blackmail will have trumped humanitarian concerns. At the end of the day, we must ask ourselves if we are willing to pay that price. We might even ask ourselves if the status quo is perhaps acceptable.

We must remember, however, that the status quo is not static. Kim’s next move could be to demonstrate the ability to launch a missile with a warhead capable of reentry carrying a nuclear weapon to be tested not in a tunnel but over open waters. Were that to happen, our options would go from bad to exponentially worse.


Ambassador Holwill served as U.S Ambassador to Ecuador from 1988 to 1989. Following his ambassadorship, he served as Counselor to the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. His areas of expertise include international trade, international investment disputes, and the resolution of business problems in foreign markets.

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