Issues & Insights Vol. 20, WP 2 – Preparing for the worst: Was North Korea’s decision to develop nuclear weapons rational?

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Abstract

North Korea’s foreign policy decision-making procedure is highly centralized to a single leader or, at most, a few political/military elites. While democratic governments are restrained both horizontally and vertically, authoritarian regimes are relatively free of constraints from the public. This paper examines the motivations behind North Korea’s nuclear weapons development in light of the rational deterrence model, then discusses the strategic implications of a rational, or irrational, North Korea. It concludes that North Korea’s decision to develop nuclear weapons was rationally motivated by the deteriorating security environment surrounding the state, but that this will not guarantee deterrence.

Keywords: Deterrence, Irrationality, North Korea, Nuclear Weapons, Rationality

Introduction

North Korea is voluntarily walking down the road of isolation. The question is why? What led to North Korea’s obsession with nuclear weapons, despite the heavy economic sanctions and its resulting “axis of evil” reputation? Scott Sagan asked the same question and provided three models of explanation, only to conclude that “different historical cases are best explained by different causal models.”[1] The same logic applies to the North Korean case; what happened in other countries cannot explain North Korea’s motivations to develop nuclear weapons. Multiple dimensions must be dealt with, looking inside and outside the state, considering the systemic impact, and accounting for misperceptions or miscalculations by a political leader.

First, I will discuss the basic logic of rationality and irrationality under nuclear deterrence theory, then determine whether it may be applied to North Korea in evaluating the motivations of its nuclear program development, and finally will extract implications based on the results. This paper finds that North Korea’s decision to acquire nuclear weapons was rational considering the structural pressures of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. However, I argue that rational motivations in acquiring nuclear weapons do not automatically erase the possibility of irrationality in the future, nor ensure deterrence.

[1] Scott Sagan, “Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons?: Three Models in Search of a Bomb,” International Security 21, no. 3 (Winter 1996/97), 85.

PacNet #10 – Why North Korean human rights is a regional security issue

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This article originally appeared at The Daily NK and is reprinted with permission.

Whatever the rationale, I had some tentative hope at the end of 2017 and start of 2018 that the Trump administration would do the right thing on North Korea. While President Donald Trump’s speech to Seoul’s National Assembly in November 2017 was mostly lauded for its praise of South Korea and their success in modernizing, as well as his relative restraint in threatening North Korea, he also used his speech to highlight the North’s mistreatment of its own citizens. His State of the Union address the following January highlighted not only the Warmbier family, who lost their son Otto to the North’s predations, but also North Koreans who risked life and health to escape.

Then, in February 2018, Trump met with escapees from North Korea. After listening to their “amazing” stories, he was implored to do more to bring attention to their plight, especially the repatriation of defectors back to the North from China.

North Korea’s crimes against humanity have been documented extensively by human rights advocates such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. And yet, such aggression against the rights, dignity, and even the lives of North Korean citizenry consistently takes a back seat to the threat posed by its nuclear and missile programs.

The closest human rights have ever come to centrality in discussion on North Korea took place in the latter half of 2014, following the release of the report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK. The report catalogued the state’s sustained assault on freedoms of speech, religion, and association, the routine sexual violence—particularly against women in its prison camps—and the government’s role in exacerbating the catastrophic famine of the 1990s. Its panel explicitly compared North Korea’s atrocities to the Holocaust. One member even suggested that the regime’s very nature was incompatible with human rights reform.

This led, later in 2014, to resolutions at the UN General Assembly and Security Council condemning these abuses. While Russia and China prevented actual punitive measures at the UNSC, the UNGA ultimately adapted the resolution after dozens of countries co-sponsored it.

More than five years removed from those votes, a pair of things stand out. One is how North Korea itself reacted to the news. While most observers saw China and Russia’s veto of the resolution at the UNSC as inevitable, Pyongyang appeared rattled by the proceedings, launching unhinged and personalized attacks on members of the panel and leaders supportive of the resolution. It attempted to articulate an alternative vision of human rights, and attempted to discredit defectors who served as witnesses (with mixed results).

Along the way, they revealed that the attacks on the “dignity of the Supreme Leadership” uniquely difficult to bear.

Secondly was how quickly a pair of engagement-minded leaders, former presidents Barack Obama and Park Geun-hye, embraced the resolution. Both had been elected promising a different (i.e. warmer) relationship with the North following a deterioration of ties under their predecessors. Both had reached out to Pyongyang with proposals—Park’s were (crudely) rejected out of hand; at least one of Obama’s was embraced in 2012, only to have its spirit violated shortly thereafter.

Obama and Park’s embrace of the human rights agenda for North Korea, late and half-hearted as it was, was the right thing to do. That they probably did so for the wrong reasons—diplomacy had gone nowhere and they appeared unsure of their next move—matters little in the end.

Except as a contrast to the actions of their predecessors. Moon Jae-in has shown no interest, and instead focused on an agenda of inter-Korean reconciliation. To the extent that he has shown a passion for human rights, it’s in those of Koreans victimized by Japan decades ago.

As for Trump, the exceedingly brief period between the end of 2017 and start of 2018 represents the totality of his engagement with the issue. Instead, he sought to strike a deal and rid the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons—a dilemma a generation of American diplomats failed to resolve before him. The reason for that is something North Korea seems to know, though its US and South Korean interlocutors appear not to—neither peaceful unification nor peaceful coexistence with democratic South Korea is possible while Pyongyang exercises the right to violate its subjects’ human rights at will.

As long as neither of those are possible, North Korea will defend itself with nuclear weapons. This realization does not mean ruling out negotiations, and it does not mean opening the door to war for regime change. It only means doing the right thing—giving a voice to escapees, supplying those in the country with information and a means of escape, and working with the international community to speak with one voice on the subject.

Since Washington seeks to avoid both war and the recognition of North Korea’s nuclear status, avoiding human rights means perpetual stalemate.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

YL Blog #27: Reinforcing the US Extended Deterrence in the ROK and Japan

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I attended the US-ROK-Japan Trilateral Strategic Dialogue on September 5-6, 2019 in Maui, Hawaii as a part of Pacific Forum Young Leaders delegation. In this piece, I would like to discuss key lessons of the dialogue session at Maui and lay out next steps for trilateral security cooperation.

Nuclear Policy Discussions among Allies

First of all, participants from the ROK and Japan expressed concerns over the credibility of the US extended deterrence with President Trump’s statements on downplaying the role of alliance. While the working level relationship is robust and alliance coordination mechanism is well in place, there were increasing concerns over the prospect of high-level decision to abort or undermine alliance commitment. As a result, a few participants from the ROK and Japan invoked an example of the US-NATO nuclear sharing to illustrate a way to enhance the US extended deterrence in East Asia.

On the other hand, the US participants expressed subtle opposition against the NATO style nuclear sharing on two grounds. First, the US side urged the ROK and Japanese counterparts to understand better what it takes to have NATO style nuclear sharing, both in operation and burden sharing. The US side questioned whether the ROK and Japan are ready to operationalize and plan nuclear weapons into its respective national security planning, while in mindful of public opinion and potential oppositions. Second, and less explicitly articulated during the discussion, the US participants expressed its concern over escalation control during crisis. The sharing of nuclear weapons, though neither the ROK nor Japan will be able to launch it without consultation with the US in advance, invites uncertainty of controlling escalation from the US side.

Requirements of Coordinated Nuclear Policy

Nevertheless, all three nations agreed in principle that there is a need to enhance allies’ nuclear policy discussions. Such discussion will have to bear in mind the following consequences. First, nuclear policy discussion requires responsibility for all actors, both in operational and financial terms. The US domestic decision making on nuclear sharing notwithstanding, the ROK and Japan should assess the pros and cons of NATO-style nuclear sharing option in terms of its implication on allies’ force structure and costs of such planning. Second, domestic opinion of each nation should be taken into consideration – in particular that of Japan. Co-operating nuclear weapons with the US can invite strong opposition from domestic factions, considering Japanese views on the role of nuclear weapons. Third, broader regional security situation – China and Russia – has to be considered to minimize the potential oppositions from regional actors. While nuclear sharing options may suffice as critical national interest, regional actors may beg to differ and advance its own nuclear posture.

At the same time, North Korea factor should be considered when measuring the pros and cons of nuclear sharing option. In other words, we need to calculate whether the marginal benefit of nuclear sharing option exceeds the negative costs of the DPRK’s enhancement of its nuclear weapons program. It is possible, without full confidence on the US extended deterrence, that the ROK and Japan will develop its own nuclear arsenal or take other measures necessary to compensate for lacking US extended deterrence. Such prevention of nuclear proliferation in the region itself is certainly a benefit. In addition, co-operation of nuclear assets in the region could bolster strong deterrence against adversaries including but not limited to North Korea alone. On the other hand, it has to be noted that the DPRK has expressed critical views on the US-ROK combined military exercises, with or without the US strategic assets such as B-52 bombers. It is certainly the case that the DPRK will respond in its kind on the ROK and Japan’s decision to co-operate the US nuclear weapons in the region.  

Will Coordinated Nuclear Policy Solve Allies’ Concerns? 

Separate, however equally important, issue is that the nuclear sharing option may not address the root cause of allies’ concern on the US extended deterrence. The nuclear sharing option may not address the concern over the credibility of US extended deterrence because such arrangement can be reversed by high-level political decisions, likewise the extended deterrence itself. While such mechanism of co-operating nuclear arsenal in the region offers aesthetic of firm extended deterrence, the fact does not change that the US can change its policy as it withdrew tactical nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula in 1990s. Furthermore, the nuclear sharing option does not allow US allies an option to launch nuclear weapons without explicit US consent. In other words, nuclear weapons may be a paper tiger without full US endorsement.

The credibility of extended nuclear deterrence is a puzzle that can never be solved easily. Nuclear policy discussions certainly will have marginal effect on strengthening the US extended deterrence in the region, both in the ROK and Japan. However, such arrangement comes with financial cost and adversaries’ aggressive responsive measures have to be considered. On top of that, a nuclear sharing mechanism may not address the root cause of concern over the credibility of extended deterrence. Considering aforementioned variables, nuclear policy discussions among allies have merits both in terms of minimizing misunderstandings among allies and increasing the credibility of extended deterrence. While it is uncertain how such policy discussion will conclude, the process of nuclear policy coordination will certainly offer a room to address allies’ concern over the US extended deterrence.

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.

YL Blog #22: Managing US-China Strategic Competition by Overcoming the Perception Gap

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In recent years, the U.S.-China relationship has been undermined by their increasing bilateral economic disputes, the strategic and economic tensions between U.S. and China are escalating, which has caused much concerns across the world. In the United States, many political elites share a narrative of disillusionment with China, which believes that the U.S.’s longstanding policy of “engagement” has failed. Meanwhile in China, interpreting bilateral tensions as containment from the United States is a considerable tendency. From 2017, Trump administration has published National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy and Nuclear Posture Review, collectively articulated China as a strategic competitor, claims the great power competition is return. Since then, the world has witnessed more confrontational interacts between China and the United States. To many observers, whether the United States and China are in competition is no longer a topic to discuss, and the concern that current competition between the two major powers could escalate into a comprehensive confrontation seems not impossible.

Under such circumstance, it is crucial to develop preventive measures to make sure that U.S.-China relationship will not fall into a comprehensive confrontation. How can both sides cooperate to manage this competition and prevent it from escalating into a more adversarial relationship or conflict? Closing the perception gap between China and the United States could be a fruitful approach.

Establish a meaningful intergovernmental dialogue between China and the United States to address strategic issues should be a priority. Although the United States has long sought such dialogue, Chinese officials are always express it is not the right time (“the conditions are not ripe”), refuse to conduct any official strategic dialogue regardless it is bilateral or multilateral. As many Chinese participants pointed out, the refusal is largely because China processes a much smaller nuclear arsenal than the United States and Russia, and given China’s no-first-use policy and it’s thinking that nuclear weapon is only for prevent nuclear coercion, opaqueness on nuclear policy has special value in China’s deterrence. There also many different perceptions between China and the United States: while China claims it’s already possesses credible and secure second-strike capability, calls for mutual no first use or mutual no targeting commitment between China and the United States, the United States asks for better understanding on Chinese nuclear thinking and developments, calls for transparency. Consider the lack of mutual trust and understanding between China and the United States, official strategic dialogue could be possible only if compromise made from both sides: Chinese official would need to consider engage to more meaningful, transparent strategic dialogue, while Washington would need to acknowledge that the United States and China are in mutually vulnerable strategic relationship, recognize this premise of strategic stability.

Despite of whether China and the United States could conduct official strategic dialogue, both parties should immediately seek to establish crisis management mechanisms. As a matter of fact, some military to military mechanisms have been established between China and the United States, and achievements have been made: in 2014, China and the United States have signed memorandums of understanding of notice on major military operations as well as codes on unplanned encounters at sea. These documents provide channel for communication during conflicts or crisis, also indicated that despite the tension and dispute, China and the United States could conduct pragmatic cooperation in certain areas. Such mechanisms should be well maintained and fully utilized. But existing mechanisms are far from enough, more such mechanism are needed. Consider China has maritime dispute with many countries in the Indo-Pacific region, and the United States has security commitment with its allies in this region, mechanisms on preventing conflict triggered by third party are in special need.

In recent years, deep distrust and suspicion increasingly plague the bilateral relationship, the worrisome trend of “prepare for the worst scenario” is emerging in both China and the United States. Such distrust has been amplified by information asymmetry, and the two major power is falling into a dangerous action-misinterpret

 -reaction loop. As an outcome of China’s rise, China is increasingly aggressive on preserve its rights, while the United States views any revise of current international system as challenge to its supremacy, and its current policies seems focus on slowing down China’s development and trying to decoupling China from international market. But is this the only way? Find common interest and work together could be an alternative approach. Since China says it’s not interested in pursue supremacy, claims its seek for peaceful development is not a trick, but a matter of strategy, it may need to adopt a more transparent, fair approach to implement its geo-economic initiatives, and the United States may need to resist its instinctual respond, try to shape China’s behavior by cooperate in certain areas such as climate change and global trade reform. Indeed, China’s rise poses challenge to the current U.S led system, but it should be viewed as an opportunity for global governance rather than nightmare.

I’m truly grateful to Pacific Forum for offer me this opportunity to engage this strategic dialogue. From the dialogue, my personal takeaway is both satisfactory and frustrating. The satisfaction is because I noticed participants from both sides are genuinely willing to address the issue on bilateral strategic relationship, the frustration is from a glimpse of how huge the perception gap between China and U.S, and this truly worries me. I do believe that by working together China and the United States could build a just, harmonic, sustainable international system, but the path to it is bound to fitful.

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.

YL Blog #21: Mitigating the Danger of Nuclear Escalation in a Western Pacific Crisis

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The potential of a crisis between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is an inherently chilling proposition. Beyond the substantial loss of life that could be expected to accompany any conventional confrontation the existence of strategic nuclear forces on both sides raises the specter of inadvertent nuclear escalation. During the recently concluded 11th US-China Strategic Dialogue held in Maui US and PRC participants gathered to exchange views on the state of nuclear deterrence in the region. Participants identified a variety of potential drivers of inadvertent escalation, including practical difficulties involved in differentiating nuclear forces from conventional forces, the commingling of Nuclear Command, Control and Communications (N3) with conventional Command and Control (C2) capabilities, and a lack of mutual understanding regarding the scope of US policy under the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.

Concerns over the distinguishability of nuclear forces were primarily raised by US participants. US participants noted that discriminating between nuclear and conventional PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) transporter-erector-launchers (TELs) would represent a particular challenge in a crisis situation. This raises the prospect of inadvertent destruction of PLARF nuclear missile systems, which would cause conventional forces to unknowingly degrade the PRC’s nuclear deterrent. In a similar vein, US participants also expressed concern over potential difficulties differentiating between PLA Navy ballistic missile submarines and attack submarines. During a conventional conflict any unintentional destruction of PLA nuclear-capable forces, to include SSBNs, would degrade the PLA’s nuclear deterrent, and potentially lead PRC policy makers to erroneously conclude that opposing forces were engaging in a deliberate effort to remove the PLA’s ability to deter an external nuclear attack. Such an assessment could drive an increase in PLA nuclear forces’ readiness posture, and thereby create an unintentional cycle of escalation.

US participants also raised questions regarding the dangers of comingling N3 and C2 functions. This largely reflects the fact that while US nuclear forces are organizationally and operationally distinct, falling under the aegis of US Strategic Command, PLA nuclear forces remain more closely tied to their individual branch of service. The most prominent concern on behalf of US participants was the dual-role of the PLARF, which provides both strategic (nuclear) deterrence and conventional medium and long-range precision fires (China Brief). The potential ability of the PLARF to degrade US power projection in the Western Pacific has been the topic of intense public discussion (RAND/USCC). To the extent that degradation of the PLARF’s C2 networks during a conventional conflict would adversely impact the responsiveness of its subordinate nuclear forces commingling N3 and C2 could create substantial risk of nuclear escalation. Inadvertent degradation of N3 systems could serve to drive an increase in PLA nuclear forces’ readiness posture, including the preemptive dispersal of TELs, leading to unintentional escalation. 

The potential danger inherent in lack of shared understanding regarding new language in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review became apparent over the course of the conference. During one session a PRC participant raised the potential that US early warning satellites may be destroyed during a regional conflict. This prompted a visceral reaction from multiple US participants, who pointed to the importance that the US places on maintaining the integrity of its early warning systems. It was noted that under the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review “attacks on U.S. or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities” were included as extreme circumstances under which the US may consider the employment of nuclear weapons. Clearly there is additional work needed to clarify the exact definition and delineation of key terms.

Despite all of the misunderstandings and misgivings that were identified over the course of the dialogue, there remain a number of options for policy-makers on both sides to improve mutual understanding and reduce the risk of nuclear escalation. The role of the Nuclear Risk Reduction Center (NRRC) as a durable channel of communications, for the transfer of relevant technical data and arms control notifications during pre-crisis situations, and for direct dialogue during periods of tensions, should be viewed as a model of effective bilateral confidence building measures. One avenue for increasing transparency and improving crisis communication would be to expand the mandate of the NRRC by concluding new bilateral agreements to allow data exchanges with the PRC. Alternatively, policy makers could establish a parallel set of institutions designed along the lines of the NRRC dedicated solely to data exchanges with the PRC. In the long term policy makers on both sides could also explore the possibility of selectively disclosing a portion of their N3 architecture, and pre-identifying potential operating areas for mobile nuclear forces, in order to begin establishing baseline expectations regarding which assets and areas would be considered most critical to maintaining strategic deterrence in a crisis scenario. These disclosures would create a level of mutual vulnerability but could also aid in crisis management by providing a more clearly defined set of expectations for decision-makers on both sides.

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.

 

YL Blog #16: Fostering Trust and Dialogue to Manage US-China Strategic Competition

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Early this month, the US Department of Defense released its Indo-Pacific Strategy Report. In the said document, the DOD stressed the primacy of the Indo-Pacific Region in terms of priority level and citing inter-state strategic competition with China’s as the chief concern for US national security. This view about China is shared by the analysts and strategists, at least on the US side, who attended the recently-concluded 11th US-China Strategic Dialogue held at Lahaina, Maui on 17-18 June 2019.

For outside observers, this perspective is understandable. On the military front, China has undergone massive military modernization, upgraded its nuclear capability, fortified its assets in the artificial islands in the South China Sea it occupied to the point where some experts believe that these man-made facilities can now be capable of serving as offensive and defensive bases for China in the Pacific, heightening security risk for the US and its allies who view China’s military rise as threatening. The Chinese government has also used its economic clout to gain political advantage, providing loans to least developed and developing countries to build their infrastructure, primarily through “the Belt and the Road” Initiative, and using predatory economic practices to coerce these nations to support China’s interests, to the detriment of the US and other nations.   

The explicit articulation of the geopolitical rivalry between the US and China in official documents is a major concern expressed by the representatives from the Chinese side during the Dialogue. The change of perception about China being a “strategic competitor” instead of a partner for cooperation has led to the worsening of the relationship between the two countries. China has always forwarded, and it is a view that is consistently articulated by Chinese practitioners in Tracks I, II, and III, its policy of peaceful development where it does not seek absolute security for itself, but common sustainable comprehensive security for all.

The problem with this claim, however, goes back to a point that is repeatedly brought about during the Dialogue, that of the inability of China to provide reasonable assurance in face of facts to the contrary. The Chinese side always insist on the purity of its intention and the US side remaining unconvinced, just as what we have seen during the Dialogue. Chinese representatives kept on harboring that it does not intend to use its nuclear force against the US, for example. It begs the question then if it is not meant for the US, then whose actor/s are they targeted on. Because of the US commitment with its allies in the Region, China’s nuclear program is of particular interest. 

China, on the other hand, is increasingly concerned with the US’s use and deployment of more low-yield nuclear weapons, a strategy noted in the 2018 US Nuclear Policy Review. They fear that because low-yield missiles create lower collateral damage and are equipped with better navigation system and mobility, the risk of such weapon being activated is higher compared with high-yield bombs. Deployment of these missiles therefore exacerbate the security situation in the Region.    

This element of distrust is exacerbated by asymmetric information, wherein both sides are second guessing each other in the absence of formal dialogues at the high-level to discuss pertinent issues, especially in relation to military and nuclear capabilities and strategy. In the absence of complete information, the tendency for both sides is to prepare for the worst case scenario, which might lead each party to assume that the other is carrying more arsenal than it has in reality. Arms build-up is the natural recourse, which further breeds insecurity not only between the two countries, but also within the region and outside of it. 

The importance of maintaining communications and transparency, especially at the high-level, is very important to help resolve information asymmetry and arms build-up. Both sides, however, are currently at an official deadlock, with only Track 1.5-2 levels like Pacific Forum providing platforms for dialogues. While these kinds of talks create an avenue to exchange views and sides, it cannot displace Track I in terms of informing and directing policies and interventions at the State-level. 

The reasons behind the non-existence of official talks, especially now at a time when such dialogues are necessary and when situation is not at its worst, have to be addressed. The representatives from the Chinese side during the recently-concluded US-China Strategic Dialogue offered some areas that the US can work on. First is in the matter of agenda. The Chinese representatives noted the tendency of the Americans to include other sensitive topics, sometimes at the last minute, that derail talks from happening in the first place. There is also the issue of venue and visa issues, which prevents or limits the participation of some experts due to travel bans or sanctions imposed on some vital organizations to the talk. Another sticking issue is the prevailing perception on the Chinese side that the US is not sincere in its offer for talks. An example that was cited during the Dialogue is when the US invited China to be part of the New START, knowing full hand that statistics wise, it cannot be an effective party to such agreements.  

When in talks with the Chinese, one almost cannot escape hearing references to great Chinese thinkers. To understand the Chinese psyche is something that every negotiator should also consider. China has always aspired to realize the “Chinese Dream” – a grand process of national resurgence that will return China to the position of global centrality it enjoyed before it suffered from a “century of humiliation” at the hands of the West and Japan. It views Asia as its Region and will always try to assert itself as the main regional power in Asia. 

It will be very difficult for the US to force its ideology on China given “historical hurts” and current regional ambitions. The best recourse is therefore to endeavor to open up official dialogues and mitigate the problem of asymmetric information. This will help prevent militarization of the Region and minimize the likelihood of “accidents” that can de-escalate the current situation into a full-blown crisis and confrontation. It is in the interest not only of the two countries for such talks to exist, but also the rest of the players, big and small, whose very existence might be placed in jeopardy because of competition between the US and China, who both ironically, claim to be the main arbiter of peace and security in Asia and the Indo-Pacific.

Andrea Caymo (PH) is the Vice Consul and Economic Officer of the Philippine Consulate General in Honolulu.

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.

PacNet #3 – Nuclear flexibility necessary for North Korea’s economic development

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This article originally appeared at the Council on Foreign Relations and is republished with permission

Although Kim Jong-un’s latest words on New Year’s eve are a cause for concern, they seem more for negotiating leverage than indicative of a real change in North Korea’s trajectory. The global community needs to encourage the North Korean leader’s efforts to improve his country’s economy and make it more of a “normal country.”

Instead of giving a New Year’s speech, as he had previously done annually, Kim delivered a report concluding a four-day Workers’ Party Central Committee plenum. About 70% of the report addressed the economy, showing that economic improvement is of paramount importance to Kim. Kim was candid in admitting the economy was in trouble, revealing that a lack of economic progress in the past year was a major source of frustration for him. Kim highlighted areas that needed reform and declared that global sanctions on his country were choking its economic potential.

Indeed, it is the economic damage of sanctions that apparently drove Kim’s statements in the national security arena. Alleging that his country has received no economic benefit from dismantling a nuclear testing site and putting a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing, Kim questioned his country’s all-out focus on economic development since the shift from the previous byungjin strategy (simultaneous development of the economy and military). Claiming that the United States has not made any concessions in spite of his unilateral concessions on denuclearization, Kim implied that Pyongyang would resume nuclear and long-range missile testing and even unveil a “new strategic weapon” if the sanctions are not lifted.

Although these statements are disconcerting, they are clearly intended to maximize Pyongyang’s negotiating leverage, as Kim added that the extent and scope of his military response would depend on Washington’s reaction to his statements, making it clear that he was open to further negotiation. Further evidence that Kim is open to negotiations is that he did not name Trump even as he was criticizing the United States and he did not stage any military provocation, despite the previously threatenedChristmas gift.”

The onus is now on both Pyongyang and Washington to work out their differences if they are to avoid a reversion to the days of nuclear brinkmanship and high tension (the days of so-called “fire and fury”) before the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in 2018. Apparently, North Korea has demanded a gradual step-by-step denuclearization, reciprocated by relaxation of sanctions, while Washington has insisted on a comprehensive roadmap starting with defining the final denuclearized state and then spelling out the steps leading to that state. Whatever may have been the exact negotiating positions of the two sides, there was a serious enough difference between the two to cause a breakdown in the talks. This current impasse has led to Pyongyang’s demand for a new approach from Washington and Washington’s promise of a new flexibility.

The two sides must now show real flexibility in their actions, not merely in their words. Pyongyang must take more tangible steps for denuclearization beyond the symbolic dismantling of an old testing site, and Washington must seriously consider partial relaxation of sanctions in response. Perhaps a way to start would be finding a path forward on reconnecting rail and road links between the Koreas without explicitly violating the sanctions regime. Such an endeavor can help build the mutual confidence necessary for further progress in denuclearization and may eventually lead to building a gas pipeline across North Korea carrying Russian gas into South Korea.

The global community must encourage economic reform in North Korea and help persuade a frustrated Kim Jong-un that though such reform is not easy and may take time, it is necessary and worthwhile. The global community must support negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington by offering creative ideas to build mutual trust and break the impasse. Although the recent proposal by China and Russia at the UN for partial relaxation of sanctions has gone nowhere, Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo would do well to consult closely with Beijing and Moscow to discuss a common gradual approach to denuclearization accompanied by partial easing of sanctions.

Jongsoo Lee (jlee@brockcapital.com) is Senior Managing Director at Brock Securities and Center Associate at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University. He is also Adjunct Fellow at Hawaii-based Pacific Forum. The opinions expressed in this essay are solely his own. He can be followed on Twitter at @jameslee004.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.