Changing North Korea's Course will Take Cooperation

July 12, 2016Global Challengesby East Asia Forum

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North Korea keeps testing the world's resolve.

The 26th meeting of the North East Asia Cooperation Dialogue (NEACD), a one and a half track forum whose membership mirrors the Six-Party Talks, was held in Beijing late last month. North Korea began to attend the NEACD in 2002, but failed to show up in 2014 and 2015.

Although senior officials from the US and North Korea participated in the NEACD 2016, sadly it appears that it too has passed without puncturing the near total absence of open communication with Pyongyang. This has now been the case for some seven years, four of them under North Korea’s new young leader, Kim Jong-un.

These seven years have seen North Korea involved in a string of crises with the South. North Korea also conducted three of its four nuclear test explosions, escalated its long-range missile development program and, very probably, reactivated the reactor at Yongbyon that provided its small initial stock of plutonium. As much as one half of this plutonium could now have been consumed in test explosions.

The location of North Korea’s uranium enrichment plant — the strong suspicion in the US intelligence community that such a plant existed was the principle cause of the second nuclear crisis in 2002–03 — has never been determined. Nor has it been confirmed that any of North Korea’s four test explosions were fuelled by highly enriched uranium rather than plutonium.

Pyongyang has been unable to resist broadcasting the news that it has acquired the ability to deliver compact, lightweight nuclear warheads over great distances, certainly out to all of Japan and Guam, and, in principle, to the continental United States. These claims still seem to be well ahead of reality but North Korea’s dogged, inexorable progress is undeniable.

China has always held the key to effective pressure on Pyongyang. However, it has used its role as convenor and host of the Six-Party Talks to keep itself somewhat detached from the other players and prioritise China’s longer-term geostrategic interests over non-proliferation objectives. These interests, concisely, are to preserve the status quo on the Korean peninsula until China can see a path that would ensure sharply diminished US and Japanese influence there.

The moment of greatest promise for a negotiated outcome probably came in September 2005 when all six countries agreed on a comprehensive and generous package of measures. All parties had talked at length on how to sequence these measures and keep everyone’s balance sheet of obligations and rewards adequately aligned. This opportunity slipped away, perhaps because North Korea was frightened of the internal changes that saying yes might lead to.

Since then, China has on several occasions signalled its impatience and even anger at North Korea’s dogged pursuit of a stronger nuclear weapon capability, but at the end of the day Beijing has not been prepared to significantly change the balance of carrot and stick that it and the United States could jointly bring to bear on Pyongyang.

Many observers, particularly those in China, still insist that Beijing is bringing a decisively new and harder line to the North Korea issue. The trouble is that even if this proves to be the case, Beijing is 25 years late. The North Korean nuclear issue has become deeper and harder far in advance of China’s new ‘intolerance’. At this advanced point, Beijing will have to consider far more radical changes in its approach to North Korea if it wishes to be a player of consequence in finding a stabilising diplomatic solution to this lamentable stalemate.

Getting North Korea to begin to walk toward a more constructive and collegiate future must involve being conspicuously responsive to its declared concerns and interests, and generous with the measures designed to address them. This is certainly within reach — we essentially got there in 2005.

Pyongyang must also be made fully aware that the determination to see it reverse course on nuclear weapons is shared by all participants and that this determination is reflected both in the generosity of the terms offered and the preparedness to risk regime change if it still declines to implement the agreement in full.

This is something that North Korea has not yet encountered. China has not been prepared to convince North Korea that persuading it to abandon its nuclear weapon program is a high-priority Chinese objective. It is obviously critical that diplomacy foster the image of the pull factor being dominant: North Korea embracing this path for positive reasons. It is probably even more critical that Pyongyang be in no doubt about the reality of the push factor, even if that factor is diplomatically consigned to the ‘deep background’.

Pulling North Korea out its rut and sustaining its commitment to a different future will have to be a combined effort. This is not so much because Pyongyang needs friends and protectors. It has more to do with the fact that Pyongyang is nervous about the United States, cool toward Japan and suspicious of China, and wants all three states to be where it can see them.

North Korea: testing the major powers is republished wtih permission from East Asia Forum