4 Ways out of the Korean Crisis

A soldier salutes from atop vehicle carrying a missile past a stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during the parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, in Pyongyang

Washington cannot neglect deterrence, of course, but the balance of effort must rest with creative diplomacy at this late date.

The above proposal has some definite strengths in that it remains firm on the goal of denuclearization and yet seeks to take the security and economic interests of Pyongyang seriously. Moreover, these Chinese analysts agree that “sanctions are a necessary tool” (制裁是必要手段). But there is a general lack of specificity and one can perhaps detect hints of a frustrated “big brother” attitude, for example, in the call for Pyongyang to demilitarize and seek greater “opening to the outside world” (对外开放). Such goals are laudable, to be sure, but it is not realistic for the agreement to attempt serious reforms of North Korea’s governing practices. I outlined a practical way forward in my book: a “cooperation spiral” that puts a premium not on internal reforms, but rather on conferring concrete strategic (or alternatively prestige) benefits to all parties. The spiral evolves from smaller, more symbolic steps to larger compromises. To make a start, the United States could propose that Chinese and U.S. military staffs walk some of the battlefields of the Korean War together. Another rather simple initiative could involve China, the United States, South Korea and, yes, also North Korea in relatively simple multilateral patrols in the Yellow Sea to monitor fisheries or practice search-and-rescue operations. The next steps in the spiral would involve a symbolic withdrawal of U.S. troops in exchange for Beijing and Pyongyang agreeing to invigorate the now rather moribund 1961 defense treaty, enabling the symbolic reentry of Chinese troops back into North Korea. Once that balance has been established, a further step could initiate direct talks between the United States and North Korea, while China would oversee a freeze in North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. That freeze would secure the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and North Korea and after some institutionalization of China-ROK military ties to reassure Seoul, the biggest leap could complete the spiral. In that final “grand bargain,” Washington would offer a very significant (but not total) withdrawal of forces from the Korean Peninsula in return for a complete and verified denuclearization process (with proliferation safeguards) overseen by China.

The Umbrella Solution

The cooperation spiral outlined above has numerous intricate steps that can be sequenced in different ways, but may ultimately be too complex and difficult to negotiate and adhere to. Alternatively, diplomats may have to focus on the “heart of the matter.” As stated above more than once, it is most feasible to exchange denuclearization for security assurances. Recall that President John Kennedy gave over a “non-invasion pledge” to the Castro regime as part of the agreement to remove Soviet missiles. Sen. Rand Paul strongly hints at this approach with his latest peace proposal on the North Korean Crisis, wherein he innovatively suggests that Chinese soldiers be invited to return to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas—a location they left in the late 1950s. Paul may or may not realize that many Chinese strategists have actually come to a very similar conclusion. Thus, in my survey of Chinese perspectives on the North Korean nuclear issue from earlier this month, it was evident that at least three major Chinese foreign-policy analysts—Yan Xuetong, Wang Xiaobo and Dai Xu—have all explicitly endorsed the notion of extending a Chinese security umbrella in some form. That Beijing is warming to such ideas was, moreover, suggested by an unusual English-language editorial in Global Times (环球时报), reposted on the official Chinese military website on April 12, 2017, that emphasized China’s growing power and its willingness to protect North Korea. I have advocated myself for this type of solution since publication of my 2015 book in which I pointed out the strange paradox that the peninsula might actually be stabilized by a return to the stark 1950s-style superpower deterrence of bipolarity. However, there is a problem with this approach and that is primarily that Pyongyang may not trust Beijing enough to accept the umbrella even if offered.

The Moscow-Tokyo Solution