By Paul Liem | December 14, 2021
The question for the Biden administration is not why the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea, repeatedly rebuffs its offer to restart talks, “without preconditions.” The question is, rather, what is there for the United States to lose, or possibly gain, from considering North Korea’s precondition for the resumption of talks - that “the key to establishing new DPRK-U.S. relationship lies in the withdrawal of its hostile policy towards the DPRK.”
Reacting to the Biden Administration’s characterization of North Korea’s missile testing as a violation of UN resolutions while sponsoring South Korea’s recent arms build-up, including missile testing, DPRK Ambassador to the United Nations, Kim Song, called upon the U.S. “to remove the double standards towards the DPRK.” In his address to the United Nations General Assembly, September 27, 2021, Kim went on to state that if the U.S. wants to see the Korean War come to an end, “it should take the first step towards giving up its hostile policy against the DPRK by stopping permanently the joint military exercises and the deployment of all kinds of strategic weapons which are leveled at the DPRK in and around the Korean peninsula.”
The Biden Administration has stated that it has no preconditions to restart up talks with North Korea. The only preconditions on the table then are those of North Korea. Let’s consider them.
What if the U.S. and South Korea stopped characterizing North Korea missile tests as “provocative,” and acknowledged that North Korea has at least as much to fear from the U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) military alliance, and the U.S. nuclear umbrella over the ROK and Japan, as they of North Korea’s nuclear and conventional weapons programs? Since the doctrine of nuclear deterrence defines first-strike capability as the deterrent and the U.S. far exceeds North Korea in this regard, it serves no purpose to single out the latter as the provocateur, other than to demonize it. Does the United States need to cast North Korea as the villain in order to justify its continued military alliances with South Korea and Japan? That has been the rationale, to be sure. But those alliances are not subject to negotiation between the U.S. and North Korea. They will remain in force as long as South Korea and Japan renew their alliances with the U.S., or discontinue them, of their own volition.
Regarding the DPRK’s demand that the U.S.-ROK war games be cancelled permanently, they’ve been cancelled before, temporarily, resulting in the thawing of hostilities most recently in 2018 while talks were underway leading to the U.S-DPRK Singapore Summit, June 12, 2018. One year later they were halted again in hopes of rekindling diplomacy after President Trump walked from the U.S.-DPRK Hanoi Summit, February 27 2019, unwilling to meet North Korea half way. Cancelation of “upcoming” war games, would be well received by Pyongyang, and by itself could result in resumption of diplomacy to end the exercises permanently.
On the cusp of an escalating cold war with China, underscored by the Biden administration’s diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, and hostilities with Russia over Ukraine, U.S. military presence in Northeast Asia is not about to dissipate. But must U.S. strategic weapons be leveled at the DPRK? Under what circumstances, if any, would North Korea not feel threatened by the deployment of U.S. strategic weapons in and around Korea? Moreover the fear of some members of U.S. Congress, that a Declaration of the End of the Korean War, as proposed by President Moon Jae-in, would open the door “for the removal of U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula before the North has fully denuclearized,” and “ would have disastrous consequences for U.S. national security, erode our combined deterrence, and jeopardize the lives of tens of millions of Americans, Koreans, and Japanese,” is unfounded. Neither the withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea, nor agreement to declare that the war has ended, are among North Korea’s preconditions for talks, and what may turn out to be on the other side of the door is subject to negotiation by the parties; it is not foretold.
In sum, the U.S. could refrain from publicly disparaging North Korea’s missile testing, it could cancel upcoming war games, and it could engage in dialog to assess whether or not there are conditions under which North Korea would not feel threatened by the U.S. military foothold in South Korea and the region. It could do these things without having to lift any sanctions, provide any humanitarian aid, and without jeopardizing its security commitments to South Korea and Japan. But regrettably, the U.S. continues to identify North Korea as a threat. In its Global Posture Review, November 29, 2021, the U.S. Department of Defense calls upon allies to “deter potential Chinese military aggression and threats from North Korea,” and commits to permanently stationing previously rotational Apache helicopter and artillery headquarters in South Korea. Moreover, the U.S. has just added new sanctions on DPRK entities and individuals, the first leveled by the Biden administration. Given these developments there is no reason to be hopeful that the U.S. will give consideration to North Korea’s preconditions for talks, unless the U.S. were to arrive at a new calculation and entertains the possibility that it has a better chance of achieving its geopolitical goals in Asia with North Korea as friend, rather than foe.
Since the debacle of the Hanoi Summit, North Korea has been demanding that the U.S. “approach us [DRPK]with a new calculation.” In his speech to the 14th Session of the Supreme People’s Assembly of the DPRK, April 12, 2019, General Secretary Kim Jong Un intimated that there could be a third summit, “with the condition that the US has the right attitude and finds a methodology that can be shared with us, we would be willing to try one more time.” The new calculation probably doesn’t mean that the DPRK would ever take sides with the U.S. in a cold war against China. However, the U.S. and North Korea may yet share interests in common upon which to found a partnership sufficient to deescalate the arms race on the Korean peninsula, and enable North and South Korea to make progress in implementing the Panmunjom Declaration on Peace, Prosperity and Reunification of the Korean Peninsula of April 27, 2018.
North Korea doesn’t wish to be dependent upon China, and would benefit from having normalized relations with the U.S. as a counter balance. It may therefore adopt a policy of neutrality vis a vis tensions between the U.S. and China, and may be willing to tolerate continuation of security agreements between the U.S. and ROK provided that measures it takes to secure its sovereignty are tolerated, in kind. For the U.S., normalized relations with North Korea would expand its influence to encompass both Koreas, and check the influence of China and Russia on the peninsula. However, the sticking point is the denuclearization matter. If, as terms for normalizing relations, North Korea is expected to accept the deployment of U.S. strategic weapons, in and around the peninsula, the deployment of U.S. troops in South Korea, the sale of U.S. weapons to the ROK, and the U.S. nuclear umbrella over the ROK and Japan, the D.P.R.K. may well expect the U.S. to accept, in kind, that it is a nuclear state.
Formal recognition of the D.P.R.K. as a nuclear state is anathema to the U.S. For the Biden administration, as with its predecessors, denuclearization has meant disarmament of North Korea as a security threat and a free pass for inspectors to travel the country demanding access to “suspicious” facilities, unannounced. But that approach, over the past two decades, only succeeded in motivating North Korea to become a nuclear power. As long as the U.S. deems it necessary to deploy strategic weapons in and around the Korean peninsula, and its nuclear umbrella over Japan and Korea, what may be possible, between the U.S. and North Korea, is nuclear arms control, i.e., a partnership to manage the deployment of nuclear weapons in the region, minimize the possibility of their use, and eventually eliminate their presence altogether, if one can imagine it. Ironically, however, the greatest obstacle to achieving the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula has been refusal on the part of the U.S. to recognize North Korea for what it is, a nuclear state, and to arrive at terms for threat reduction that are mutually agreeable and realistic given the current state of affairs in which Northeast Asia is the most heavily militarized region on the globe, and bristling with Chinese and Russian nukes, as well as those of the U.S. and North Korea.
North Korea is still willing to reengage with the U.S. However, it insists that the U.S. approach it on the basis of a new “calculation.” Ambassador Kim explained, “If the current U.S. administration tries to solve the issue of the Korean peninsula, which had not been solved by the preceding administrations, by relying on the anachronistic method of calculation like the present one, the result would not be different from the past.” This can mean many things. In less cryptic terms, it could mean, simply, “stop treating us as a threat.” The ambassador’s statement would then read, “if you fail to stop treating us as a threat, ‘the result would not be different from the past.’” North Korea has stated clearly that diplomacy with the U.S. is possible, but not if the U.S. persists in singling out North Korea’s weapons programs as provocative; not if the war games continue, and not while it feels threatened by U.S. strategic weapons in and around the peninsula. If diplomacy is to resume, and bear fruit, recalculation is in order. The alternative? If developments stay on present course, the war exercises will continue, the U.S. will continue to sanction North Korea, the latter will continue to develop and test its nuclear weapons and missiles, the arms race on the peninsula will continue to escalate, and Korea may once again find itself standing at the precipice of nuclear war, unless the U.S. recalculates.
Paul Liem is the Chair of the Korea Policy Institute Board of Directors.