Why American Talks with North Korea Should Not Be About Denuclearization

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump smile during the second North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in this photo released on March 1, 2019 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). KCNA via REUTERS ATTENTION EDIT
March 21, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: Korea Watch Tags: Hanoi SummitTrump-Kim SummitNorth KoreaCVIDPeace Regime

Why American Talks with North Korea Should Not Be About Denuclearization

Instead, Washington must focus on the big picture—the future of Northeast Asia itself.


A declaration to end the Korean War improves the relationship with both actors on the Korean Peninsula

Holding the US-North Korea relationship hostage to denuclearization will continue to strain the US-ROK alliance. A declaration is equally – if not more – important for South Korea. It was the South Korean administration that originally proposed an end-of-war declaration – and for obvious reasons: it is insurance against a return to provocations and entrapment in what it perceives as Washington’s war. President Moon Jae-in in his 2018 Liberation Day Speech stated that “taking responsibility for our fate ourselves” is the way to peace and prosperity on the peninsula. The US-ROK alliance relationship has navigated polarized politics in Seoul with  opposing visions for how to best achieve both security and autonomy. Moon’s policies support national sovereignty, and he has undertaken defense reforms undergirded by the progressive ideological legacy of jaju gukbang, or self-reliant defense. Through an unprecedented investment in indigenous defensive capabilities along with reconciliation with Pyongyang, Seoul is seeking to expand its sovereignty while maintaining security.


Moon also campaigned on a promise to transfer wartime operational control (OPCON) to the South Korean military. Seen as an antiquated structure infringing on the sovereignty of a country that views itself as a middle power, the issue of OPCON transfer has become a symbol of a deeper historical legacy of foreign control and stifled South Korean autonomy. Many young South Koreans – both on the left and the right – are now eager to be treated as a peer partner of the United States. In light of these sentiments, withholding a peace declaration only fuels the sense in Seoul that Washington’s hardline non-proliferation priorities serve as a veto on Korean sovereignty and an opportunity for peace.

Experts in Washington worry of the unintended consequences of a declaration, but robust institutionalized channels of US-ROK alliance coordination are in place to meet such challenges. An end-of-war declaration is a non-binding political gesture that would create a pathway to an eventual legally-binding peace treaty. What North Korea views as intermediary steps between a symbolic declaration and a formal peace regime need to be fleshed out. While they may very well contradict US and South Korean views, the fear that a declaration is a tactic that will entrap the alliance in an unraveling process highly underestimates its numerous coordination mechanisms. Despite the longer-term risks that a declaration could catalyze a divide in Washington and Seoul’s approaches to regional security, the recently formed US-ROK Working Group and Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group (EDSCG), along with the established Security Consultative Meeting (SCM), are in place to ensure close consultation on progress towards denuclearization and peace on the peninsula. To allay US fears of a hollowing out of USFK force posture on the peninsula, Moon has also insisted that a peace treaty is not linked to troop presence.

A peace declaration also reduces the risk of nuclear proliferation in South Korea and the wider region. 2017 polls showed that 60 percent of the South Korean population supported the pursuit of indigenous nuclear capabilities and nearly 70 percent favored redeployment of US tactical nukes. The Moon administration has heretofore opposed calls from conservatives to redeploy nuclear weapons to the peninsula. However, whether South Koreans ultimately pressure their government to obtain nuclear weapons is contingent upon their perceptions of security. A revitalized US-ROK alliance and a hostility-free relationship with the North – even with minimal nuclear capability – is possible. Without a new relationship prompted by an end- of-war declaration, mounting perceptions of insecurity coupled with undercurrent desires for nuclear sovereignty and self-reliant defense could spur a nuclear security dilemma in East Asia.

Seek political buy-in from both parties in Seoul and Washington

Any sustainable agreement with North Korea must be codified and institutionalized in legislation that garners political buy-in from both major parties – in Seoul as well as Washington. The Washington foreign policy establishment’s disapproval of Trump’s North Korea policy and the fact that Congress possesses the sole power to ratify international agreements imply that Trump alone is not a credible negotiator to reset the relationship and implement an agreement in a sustainable manner. Though politically unpalatable, Congress will have to increase support for an agreement that will likely entail a freeze and slow reduction of North Korean nuclear assets. This is pragmatism; Washington simply lacks the leverage to obtain anything close to Bolton’s preferred Libya model of rapid denuclearization. Further, the efficacy of holding steadfast to the Cold War-era principle of non-proliferation should be more widely debated. Washington has formed political relationships with nuclear states (see Pakistan and India) upon realizing the limits of non-proliferation policy and the security benefits of non-hostile relations with nuclear states. The public’s threat perception of nuclear states like Pakistan and Israel are mediated by politics. Plenty of critics argue that North Korean nuclear weapons make the world less safe – but where are the voices in Congress arguing that positive relations and arms control make Americans safer?

The character of the North Korean regime and its grotesque human rights practices are issues separate from nuclear security, and consequently each issue is addressed by distinctive sanctions legislation. If a deal is reached that requires a slow easing of sanctions, close coordination between the administration and Congress will be necessary to ensure that implementation of a deal is not hampered by US law. It will also allow Congress the opportunity to justify the retention of certain sanctions that address non-nuclear issues to preserve a line of criticism of practices out of step with democratic values and international norms, but won’t threaten to de- rail the relationship. As such, Congressional oversight through regular updates every 90 days, as required by the newly ratified Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA), should be viewed as an opportunity to bridge political divisions and demonstrate to Kim’s regime that presidents are credible negotiating partners, despite their relatively brief role in the longer process.

The current discord between the administration and Congress fetters Trump’s credibility to negotiate an agreement that can be implemented over time. During the Clinton administration, a Republican-majority Congress withheld political support for the Agreed Framework. Washington delayed shipments of heavy fuel, minimally eased sanctions, and failed to gain Congressional support to fund light water reactors for Pyongyang. A 1998 Congressional hearing on the Agreed Framework suggested that politics prevented the implementation of a deal that was clearly in the United States’ national security interests. Today, the Trump administration views Congress as an impediment that must be bypassed instead of collaborated with, and Chairman Engel of the House Foreign Affairs Committee recently criticized the administration for failing to fully engage Congress in the negotiations. The Trump administration should view Congress as a powerful tool that can be utilized to demonstrate its credibility to negotiate a deal that can be implemented.

Significant hurdles to bipartisan support for North Korea policy remain in Seoul as well. President Moon has taken significant steps towards inter-Korean détente while alienating the conservative opposition. Much to the dismay of those on the right, Moon has bypassed the National Assembly and ratified the Panmunjom Declaration with the mere approval of his own cabinet. Alienating conservatives to sustain inertia and streamline policy may appear to Moon a political necessity in the present window of opportunity. But Moon, too, must eventually yield to the opposition to avoid the historical trappings of partisan agreements with North Korea.

President Moon’s strategic engagement with North Korea is also ominously linked to domestic politics in the south. Although Moon has employed most of his political capital on outreach to Pyongyang, his base is growing dissatisfied with his economic reforms. He has argued that such engagement will “give new growth opportunities” to the south – which just happens to be priority of South Korean voters. In a September 2018 visit to Washington, Moon attempted to mobilize support for international arteries such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and IMF to multilateralize engagement and draw North Korea into the world trading system. But while Moon argued for institutional engagement in the event of North Korea denuclearization, he also appeared to sidestep Washington in October by urging European countries to ease sanctions as a precursor to denuclearization.

Moon has promoted the idea that economic cooperation with North Korea is tied to the economic future of South Koreans. Recent efforts to establish rail and road networks are a precursor to Moon’s vision of creating an open energy, logistics, and transportation belt that reimagines South Korea’s geostrategic identity from an isolated appendage to a driver of growth on the Eurasian landmass. The danger of Moon pursuing such grand strategic endeavors, especially if pursued in a partisan manner, is an all-in shackling of his political fate to engagement in a way that can slide from principled towards unconditional.

Denuclearization is not the strategic priority

The preoccupation with denuclearization is myopic and no longer the correct starting point for policy towards North Korea. When understood as a geopolitical problem, it is paramount to recognize limitations of US power and manage competition with North Korea and China while preserving alliances, influence, and leadership.