In the next week, U.S. President Donald Trump will meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi, Vietnam. There is much talk about how the meeting will shake out. The divisions on the American side are stark, and most of the debate will be over North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
As it should be. The North’s nuclear weapons are clearly the most destabilizing change in regional politics in a while. There are widespread fears the North will proliferate or sell them, exhibit poor command and control, use them to blackmail South Korea and Japan, or even launch them in extreme circumstances.
But it is worth noting that there is a multitude of other issues in the U.S.-North Korea relationship, or more properly put, in North Korea’s relationship with the rest of the world. Ideally, some of these issues will at least be mentioned. And some of them demand at least some movement, if not resolution, if any durable deal with the North is to be clinched.
These other concerns include both immediate strategic or military issues, as well as larger political issues. Beyond nuclear weapons, strategic issues Trump will need to address at some point include:
Missiles: This goes without saying. North Korea has no reliable delivery vector for its nuclear weapons beyond missile platforms. Its air force is clapped out and woefully inferior to allied air power. Moreover, other delivery scenarios include outlandish terrorist ideas like driving a small boat or submarine up the Han River into Seoul. It is unclear how many intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) the North has (less than one hundred, I hear), but if Trump only focuses on ICBMs, America’s regional allies, most obviously Japan, will feel that Trump has abandoned them.
Missile Launchers: North Korea has learned from the Soviet Union. Unlike the Americans who put their large missiles in underground silos, the North Koreans drive them around, presumably to avoid U.S. satellite coverage. Here the numbers of transporter-erector-launchers (TELs) they have are even more speculative than the number of ICBMs they possess. There is also reasonably good evidence that their TELs come from China, which is a sanctions violation, but means China must somehow be involved in reducing their numbers.
Other weapons of mass destruction: North Korea has long been rumored to have developed chemical and biological weapons. Public information is very sketchy. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tried to bring this up with Pyongyang after the Singapore summit, but to no avail. Even if the nuclear threat is reduced, the biological and chemical threat to Asian cities near North Korea will remain.
Beyond these strategic issues—all of which are likely part of the Trump outreach negotiations—are larger political issues. Some movement on these is almost certainly necessary for non-military, political concessions like a peace treaty, exchange of liaison offices, or recognition. There are many groups in South Korea, Japan, and the United States with deeply vested interests in the liberalization of North, and they will almost certainly push back on a Trump deal that simply sidelines these issues to pursue an agreement on strategic problems only. These issues include:
Human rights: This is the big one, arguably the most important stumbling block to moving North Korea’s relationship with the world beyond narrow, reciprocal arms control swaps. If North Korea is genuinely going to “come in from the cold” and rejoin the international community, by, say, joining the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, or opening a liaison office in Washington, D.C., it will have to be more normal in its treatment of its own people. The most definitive statement on North Korean human rights analogizes the regime to the Nazis and the camps to Auschwitz. Many states and groups will simply not interact with a regime whose human rights record is worse than ISIS’. One could easily see daily demonstrations in front of a North Korean liaison or embassy in Seoul or Washington, DC. Human rights advocates and conservatives in America, South Korea, and Japan will fight bitterly any final status deal that leaves North Korea’s internal Orwellian structure unchanged.
Abductees: It is well-known by now that North Korea abducted several dozen Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 80s. Less well-known is that several hundred South Koreans are also being illegally held in North Korea. (South Korean governments do not mention this often.) In Japan especially, this issue has become a defining problem which simply must be resolved in some at least reasonably satisfactory way. This is likely why Trump agreed to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s request to mention abductees at Hanoi. Abe himself helped make this issue into a huge one in Japanese politics, and now he needs to some kind of resolution if Japan is to go along with détente with North Korea.
Liberalization generally: Beyond these human rights issues, the sheer awfulness of North Korea—the totalitarianism, the cult, the police state, and so on—make any kind of long or even medium-term deal with North Korea very hard. A large number of citizens in democratic states will instinctively reject normalization with a state, literally, akin to George Orwell’s 1984. This means that no deal with an unchanged North Korea will ever really stick. It will always be contested, if only on moral grounds. South Korean conservatives, for example, are implacably opposed to normalization, and when they re-take power, they will almost certainly try to roll-back the détente of current President Moon Jae-In. Neo-conservatives in the West will think the same, and liberal parties in the West too will have real trouble stomaching North Korea’s extreme brutality at the same time they seek to develop a less belligerent, post-Iraq, post-Trump foreign policy. Trump may not care about human rights or the lightening of the regime’s harsh rule, but enough others do that it will constantly undercut any deal struck.
This brief list illustrates the huge strategic and ideological gaps faced at Hanoi. They do not mean a deal is impossible. But they do portend that any deal will likely be narrow, focused on specific, verifiable swaps. The broad-front détente Moon Jae-In seeks is much harder for many to swallow given the character of the North. At some point, if Trump really wants a viable re-orientation of the relationship, he (and Moon) will have to confront that.
Robert E. Kelly is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University. More of his work may be found at his website, AsianSecurityBlog.wordpress.com. Image: Reuters