The early months of 2018 have seen a flurry of diplomatic activity between the Koreas and the United States. In the aftermath of the apparent thaw in inter-Korean relations ushered in by Republic of Korea (ROK) President Moon Jae In’s ‘Olympic Diplomacy’, North Korea, also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has apparently made concessions to U.S. and ROK interests. These include Pyongyang’s apparent willingness to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, an end to further missile and nuclear testing, acceptance of the continued U.S. military presence in South Korea, and talks with Seoul in signing a treaty to formally end the Korean War. This same period stands in marked contrast to the escalating ‘War of Words’ between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un in late 2017, with Kim issuing an invitation for a face-to-face summit with Trump. This apparent diplomatic gambit has already seen a preliminary visit to Pyongyang by newly confirmed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for talks with his North Korean counterparts. What are we to make of these developments? Is peace on the horizon with North Korea? Is a denuclearized Korean Peninsula within reach?
Not so fast. Whilst the diplomatic de-escalation of tensions in early 2018 is a welcome affirmation of Churchill’s observation that ‘jaw jaw is better than war war,’ the apparent concessions that North Korea has offered are not particularly damaging to Pyongyang’s interests. In his work on ‘costly signaling’ theory, Andrew Kydd argued that states wanting to build trust and an improved relationship with their rivals and adversaries can do so by taking verifiable actions that involve risks to their own security. Kydd thus cites Gorbachev’s signing of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which involved the deactivation of the USSR’s intermediate range nuclear missiles, as such a costly signal that promoted U.S.-Soviet rapprochement.
North Korea has, on multiple occasions, offered concessions to U.S. and South Korean interests, only to renege on them with embarrassing haste.
The array of concessions that Kim Jong Un has offered do not meet the standard of such costly signals. North Korea has, on multiple occasions, offered concessions to U.S. and South Korean interests, only to renege on them with embarrassing haste. Following talks with U.S. Special Envoy Glyn Davies in February 2012, North Korea committed itself to the ‘Leap Year Agreement,’ under which Pyongyang agreed to suspend missile and nuclear tests as a quid pro quo for U.S. humanitarian aid. Yet, the ink was barely dry on the ‘Leap Year Agreement’ when North Korea went ahead with yet another test of the long-range Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 rocket. Likewise, the past decades are replete with instances of apparent North Korean outreach that have floundered amidst resumptions of missile and nuclear testing.
It is thus necessary to go beyond a superficial reading of DPRK’s apparent concessions. Chinese scientists have reported that North Korea’s previous nuclear tests have caused Mount Mantap to collapse, thus making the Punggye-Ri nuclear test site unusable. Pyongyang’s suspension of nuclear testing is thus a publicity stunt that allows it to make virtue out of necessity without having to make real concessions on its nuclear program. Even if it turns out that Pyongyang’s suspension of nuclear testing goes beyond a short-term tactical maneuver, significant challenges remain. Establishing an extensive network international observers and inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to ensure the verified dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs is a process that will take many months, and within such a time frame, it is not inconceivable that the DPRK will seize on some minor issue to accuse the U.S. and/or ROK of failing to honour their obligations in de-escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Such a development could be invoked by Pyongyang to justify its resumption of nuclear testing. Moreover, even if North Korea well and truly suspends further missile and nuclear testing, it is because Pyongyang has achieved sufficient progress in these areas that further tests are no longer necessary to highlight the DPRK’s possession of an operationally ready nuclear arsenal.
Pyongyang, too, is a frequent practitioner of the ‘Madman’ approach to diplomacy.
Apparent diplomatic concessions from Pyongyang should be read similarly. The DPRK is aware that the current strength of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) is not strong enough to launch an invasion of North Korea unless it were to receive significant reinforcements. Pyongyang knows that the U.S. is simply unable to initiate a war of regime change at such short notice. Under such circumstances, North Korea can signal its acceptance of the continued U.S. military presence in South Korea as a high-profile symbolic concession, even as such concessions do not entail any serious cost to the DPRK. Pyongyang’s apparent interest in a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War may be seen in a similar light. North Korea initiated the conflict in the first place, an action that Pyongyang has historically justified as self-defence against alleged ROK incursions north of the 38th Parallel. In the present day, it is possible to imagine Pyongyang inventing a similar pretext as a casus belli for a return to hostility. With the continued disputes over their maritime border in the Yellow Sea (referred to by both Koreas as the West Sea), Pyongyang would have little difficulty in portraying the ROK’s naval forces in the vicinity of the Yeonpyeong Islands as an ‘aggressive force’ undertaking ‘armed incursions’ against the sovereignty of North Korea to justify reverting to a more confrontational military posture.
Is Trump truly reaching out to Pyongyang?
Likewise, Pompeo’s Easter weekend visit to Pyongyang should not be taken at face value. If anything, a biographical note about the Trump Administration’s cabinet shakeup in April 2018 is in order. In preceding months, Trump’s North Korea strategy was directed by Pompeo’s predecessor as Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. The latter had sought to avoid direct confrontation against Pyongyang in favour of quiet diplomacy. In contrast, Pompeo has a longstanding reputation as a policy hawk, with particularly outspoken hostility towards North Korea. How then can we explain Trump’s appointment of Pompeo as the USA’s top diplomat? Trump’s near-concurrent appointment of John Bolton as National Security Advisor to succeed Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster is particularly illuminating. Bolton is frequently referred to as a ‘hawk among hawks,’ known for repeatedly advocating the use of armed force and pre-emptive airstrikes to bring about the denuclearization of U.S. adversaries such as North Korea, with the latest iteration of such views appearing in a February 2018 op-ed.
It is apparent that Trump’s strategy in dealing with North Korea is based heavily on the projection of an image of his administration as being aggressive enough to bring about the denuclearization of North Korea through the use of armed force, hence enabling him to intimidate Pyongyang into submitting to U.S. demands. Such an approach has similarities to Nixon’s ‘Madman’ approach during the Vietnam War that, by casting the U.S. President as being ‘mad’ enough to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam, increased U.S. negotiating leverage against Hanoi.
What is North Korea really up to?
There is, however, a problem with such an approach to undertaking nuclear diplomacy against North Korea. Pyongyang, too, is a frequent practitioner of the ‘Madman’ approach to diplomacy. On numerous instances in the past, North Korea has turned to threats and deliberate brinkmanship in the form of repeated missile and nuclear tests to highlight the prospective cost of a second Korean War, and thus increase Pyongyang’s own negotiating leverage over Washington and Seoul. Having had the past several months to analyze the patterns of Trump’s foreign policy, the North Korean leadership has doubtless identified Trump’s game of intimidation and over-inflated threats. At the same time, the multiple high profile instances that have demonstrated Trump’s impetuousness and lack of long-term strategic planning have presented North Korea with an opportunity to develop an effective counter-strategy. Aware of Trump’s consistently low approval rating and the forthcoming 2020 U.S. Presidential elections, perhaps Pyongyang has calculated that it only needs to stall for time until Trump leaves office, thereby obviating any DPRK obligation to dismantle its missile and nuclear programs.
The presence of ardent policy hawks in the Trump Administration means that Pyongyang is aware that an outright rejection of diplomacy will be seized on as a pretext to launch airstrikes on North Korea. Kim Jong Un is thus aware that provoking the U.S. into a war is an imprudent policy option. The North Korean leadership is instead making a number of concessions that, although appearing to be significant (especially in the eyes of a foreign policy tyro like Trump) actually involve minor concessions from Pyongyang. Put simply, Kim Jong Un is giving away just enough minor concessions to deny U.S. hawks a plausible pretext to initiate airstrikes on North Korea, thereby enabling Pyongyang to buy time and thus see out what is left of the Trump Administration’s term in office. In addition, given the proclivity of men like Bolton to declare their willingness for military action against North Korea, Pyongyang has no shortage of opportunities to cite U.S. hostility as justification for resuming missile and nuclear tests should it suit the DPRK’s needs.
What can the U.S. and its allies do in the face of North Korea’s strategy of making minimal concessions whilst stalling for time? Returning to coercive threats of force would be counter-productive, to say nothing of straining Washington’s relations with Seoul and Tokyo. Yet, taking North Korea’s apparently reconciliatory position at face value also carries risks. The high likelihood of North Korean reneging on its apparent pledge to dismantle its nuclear programs would create a new opening for Washington hawks who have long advocated the forced denuclearization of the DPRK over the objections of cooler heads.
A middle path is needed in formulating policy towards North Korea in these uncertain times. Such an approach would ideally incorporate the following four components:
1) ‘Mistrust and Verify’: a key factor behind the easing of Cold War tensions during the 1980s arose from Reagan’s principle of ‘Trust but Verify’ in ensuring reductions in their respective nuclear arsenals. A similar approach, but one that acknowledges North Korea’s proclivity for duplicitous, double-dealing behavior, is needed in assessing the extent to which Pyongyang is serious about its latest attempt at outreach.
2) ‘Action for Action’: In order to ensure that the North Korean leadership’s apparent concessions are and not merely an attempt to stall for time, it is necessary for the U.S. and its allies to affirm that the concessions that Pyongyang seeks are clearly tied to verifiable North Korean progress is deactivating its missile and nuclear programs. In light of the high levels of mistrust, it would be necessary for such concessions to take place on the basis of simultaneous reciprocal actions agreed to in advance by all parties –– such an approach had proven crucial in previous interactions such as the Fourth Round of the Six Party Talks that had resulted in the Joint Statement of September 2005.
3) Consultation: In order to ensure that none of the relevant parties perceives its interests to be neglected, the process of engagement with Pyongyang has to involve constant and frequent consultation between the U.S., South Korea, Japan, and China. Implicit in this is the necessity of continued affirmation of the U.S. security commitment to the ROK and Japan. This is vital in assuring Seoul and Tokyo that, whatever the outcome of the latest developments with North Korea, the U.S. nuclear umbrella over its allies will remain firm and thus avert the prospect of the ROK or Japan developing an independent nuclear arsenal (and, in so doing, spark off a regional nuclear arms race).
4) Restraint: Even whilst Pyongyang has given the appearance of wanting to reach out to the ROK and U.S., it remains necessary for both Seoul and Washington to acknowledge the longstanding North Korean proclivity for unpredictable behavior that includes continued undertaking of armed skirmishes against the ROK, and unilateral DPRK reneging on given agreements. If anything, it is even possible that, if called to press ahead with the complete dismantlement of its missile and nuclear programs, Pyongyang may choose to manufacture an incident that can be blamed on the U.S. or ROK, thereby giving North Korea a pretext to return to a more aggressive posture. Such a development could, in turn, be seized on by Washington hawks to further push a fickle administration into unilaterally initiating airstrikes against North Korea (in so doing, risking escalation into full-scale war).
The balanced diplomatic postures adopted by ROK President Moon Jae in and U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis are instructive in this regard. Although President Moon has been heavily criticized by conservative circles in South Korea over his supposed ‘appeasement’ of North Korea, such a claim is an oversimplification. Moon’s diplomatic strategy is better understood as a subtle blend of keeping the channel open for diplomatic dialogue with Pyongyang, whilst simultaneously boosting Trump’s ego to ensure that Seoul can continue to count on the alliance with the U.S. should Pyongyang return to aggression against the ROK.
Similarly, Secretary Mattis has demonstrated a subtle blend of deterrence alongside diplomacy with Pyongyang. An intelligent soldier-diplomat, statements released by Mattis reflect his appreciation of the effectiveness of military deterrence against Pyongyang’s brinkmanship, whilst concurrently emphasizing his preference for diplomacy in defusing tensions with North Korea. At the same time, acknowledging the extent of Trump’s personal ego and lack of foreign policy experience, Mattis has consistently taken care to remain on good terms with the President in order to steer Trump away from his worst instincts.
The present moment sees the gathering pace towards a summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un, in so doing underscoring the critical role of cool heads and experienced foreign policy hands in restraining their more temperamental counterparts. Whilst this author is skeptical about the prospects of a long-term breakthrough in seeking the denuclearization of North Korea, the higher priority –– and an objective held by Moon and Mattis –– is in ensuring that Pyongyang is denied a pretext for returning to ‘Madman Diplomacy’ through brinkmanship.
Er-Win Tan is a Featured Contributor to The Strategy Bridge and an Assistant Professor at Keimyung Adams College, Keimyung University, Daegu, Republic of Korea. He is currently writing a book that examines the asymmetrical structure of the U.S.-North Korean security dilemma.
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Header Image: In this April 27, 2018 file photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, prepares to shake hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in over the military demarcation line at the border village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone. (Korea Summit Press Pool photo via AP)