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How Diplomacy With North Korea Could Be Doomed From the Start

May 8, 2018, 3:25 PM UTC

Diplomacy is a good thing, and I always argue for some sort of diplomatic effort in the face of conflict. The planned meeting between the leaders of the United States and North Korea has the potential to open up dialogue and reduce tensions—and face-to-face meetings tend to result in a better understanding than other forms of communication.

However, if the Americans arrive at the talks expecting a dismantling of the North Korean arsenal, the efforts at diplomacy could be doomed from the start. It is important to manage expectations, and it is crucial to make sure that both sides are on the same page when it comes to understanding what’s being discussed and negotiated.

What sort of result might actually emerge from negotiations? The U.S. and South Korea should use diplomacy to push for ways to de-escalate tensions, perhaps even something as strong as including International Atomic Energy Agency inspections like the 1994 Agreed Framework, which among other things, granted the IAEA full inspection authority over North Korea’s reactors. North Korea pledged full cooperation with the IAEA, and the U.S. and North Korea agreed to open liaison offices in each other’s countries to facilitate communications. Indeed, such a proposal may have some real potential of success.

Spectators listen to a television news broadcast of a statement by North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, before a public television screen outside the central railway station in Pyongyang on September 22, 2017.ED JONES AFP/Getty Images
ED JONES AFP/Getty Images

However, it is important to note that the recent announcements emerging from the North-South summit can be viewed in a variety of ways. Consider North and South Korea’s vow to create a final peace agreement. This, on its face, is exactly what it means: a formal end to the Korean War. But there is some subtext to this agreement that may require further consideration.

One such issue to anticipate might be the likely demand of North Korea to remove U.S. troops in and around South Korea and the demolition of the demilitarized zone. There have been conflicting suggestions from the White House and news reports in recent days about whether this might be on the table. If this were to occur, it would be a fundamental change in the U.S.’s ability to project power on the peninsula.

A second possible subtext to the peace agreement would be that North Korea demand that the U.S. and South Korea end their 1954 mutual defense treaty, which came into existence due to the Korean War. This demand would tie in with one of the other discussion points to come out of the summit, the “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, which has been reportedly proposed by North Korea.

While the language of denuclearization might sound good, there is a caveat to this. As a number of defense experts have pointed out, what North Korea means by “denuclearization” and what the U.S. thinks it means may be two different things. What North Korea likely means is that it wants to ensure U.S. nuclear weapons are never again stationed on the Korean Peninsula. It may want to even push for an end to the U.S. extending its regional “nuclear umbrella” protections to South Korea and Japan.

The likelihood that North Korea is referring to actually dismantling its own nuclear arsenal is so slim as to be considered non-existent. Nuclear weapons have forced North Korea’s antagonists to agree to give them an audience. And North Korea isn’t South Africa, where concerns about regional threats have ended. Expecting North Korea to give up its arsenal while a variety of security concerns still exist is unrealistic. In that same vein, it should be considered that North Korea may have only agreed to halt missile and nuclear testing not only because of the international “maximum pressure” campaign, but more likely because it doesn’t need to test anymore.

How many nuclear testing sites does the U.S. or Russia still have? North Korea’s leadership believes it has achieved its goal of a nuclear arsenal and the miniaturization necessary to be able to put a warhead on missiles. According to the Arms Control Association—a U.S.-based nonpartisan organization promoting public understanding of arms-control policies—it is estimated that in 2017, North Korea had 10 to 20 warheads and the material to make 30 to 60 more. That means, in essence, that North Korea considers its nuclear ambitions to be met, and it’s now a member of the nuclear “club.”

Kim Jong-Un would be the first North Korean leader to meet with a sitting U.S. president. This is quite significant, as is the current path of North Korean diplomatic efforts (the trip to China, recent meeting with Vladimir Putin, the North-South summit), which shows that North Korea considers itself an equal now and expects to be treated as all others.

The U.S., South Korea, China, Japan, and all other interested parties need to recognize that what they want North Korea to have said and what North Korea actually means may be vastly different things. North Korea believes it has a seat at the big kids nuclear table. The U.S. and the others must realize that an attempt at negotiations where already tense participants have different perceptions and expectations would be a failed effort at best.

Christina Cliff is an assistant professor of political science and security studies at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H., where she teaches courses on global security & diplomacy and weapons of mass destruction.