Incentives for a Rapprochement on the Korean Peninsula

UPF webinar, 27th November, 2020

A contribution by Amb. Marc Vogelaar

(spoken text prevails)

Amb. Marc VogelaarWe all want peace, both on the Korean Peninsula and beyond. But the question is how to get there. That’s where diplomats come in!

I do have a moral judgment on the North Korean regime, its human rights violations and the threat it poses to the region and the international community. Many people do. But many observers are better placed than me to analyze why things went wrong on the Korean Peninsula since 1953. I was trained to be a diplomat, not a scholar. Therefore, I hope to add value to our debate by suggesting a pragmatic solution that, in my experienced view, appears a viable option for making headway.

In passing let me just say that I gained personal experience in working with North Korea during the three years that I served as a director with the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) in New York, during which time I visited the country several times. I may refer to the KEDO project in a moment, because its rise - and fall - contains useful lessons for future reference.

A way out

The North Korean crisis has lasted for over two generations. Let me summarize the stalemate in 5 points:

  • the Korean War has not ended; the ceasefire is fragile
  • the Korean Peninsula remains divided and heavily armed
  • North Korea has developed nuclear weapons and will not give them up
  • the international community refuses to accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state
  • neither putting pressure on, nor striking deals with, North Korea have shown lasting results so far.

How to untie this Gordian knot? Violence is no solution. You don’t end the Korean War by resuming the Korean War. Dialogue then? Yes, but a dialogue can only be productive if the deal that results is fair and proves sustainable. So, let’s take a look at what might lead to a fair and lasting deal.

All tools - except one - in the diplomatic toolkit have already been put to the test. They all failed. The only option remaining is, in my view, a broad deal that reconciles the legitimate aim of nuclear non-proliferation with catering for North Korea’s security concerns and economic needs. Not unlike the Agreement Framework of the mid-nineties, which led to the KEDO project, but a broader and more binding version of it.

For a start, let’s try not to consider North Korea’s problems as weak spots. Our objective should be to defeat North Korea, but to induce it into being an acceptable member of the international community. For Pyongyang, this implies complete, verifiable, irreversible nuclear disarmament, including intercontinental ballistic missiles. It should also rejoin the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), respect human rights and give up its illicit arms trade.

In exchange, we should pledge full and formal security guarantees. Without these Pyongyang will never give up its nuclear weapons, which the regime considers a guarantee for its survival.

The best way of reaching this compromise is to formally end the Korean War, not as a reward, but as a catalyst. A Peace Treaty would imply the recognition of the integrity of North Korea’s territory by all belligerents. A formal treaty would bind signatories more strongly than a bilateral or even a multilateral agreement, like for example the nuclear deal with Iran (JCPOA).

In addition, massive and unrestricted economic assistance needs to be put on offer, which means ending (or at least suspending) international sanctions. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, most North Koreans have rapidly become impoverished. They are narrowly kept alive by China. Although, as of late, there are some modest signs of economic recovery, the country desperately needs humanitarian aid and foreign investments. Offering the latter would create political leverage.

Such an encompassing tradeoff cannot be achieved through pressure. You don’t hold a gun to the head of the one you are negotiating with. Military threats and economic sanctions seem only to have hardened North Korea’s resolve to not comply with international norms.

The Agreed Framework of 1994, as a step-by-step agreement, appeared a viable alternative, since it linked political concessions and economic benefits. However, the deal collapsed because North Korea secretly continued its nuclear weapons program and because of poor implementation of the agreement, not by KEDO, but by some governments that were its stakeholders.

Multilateral action

Now is the time to act. The nuclear standoff between the US and the DPRK has become as volatile as the nuclear bombs that triggered it.

The bilateral Singapore Summit of 2018 produced a joint statement with promising commitments on both sides. Incoming president Biden should build on this first step, rather than reverting to the policy of “strategic patience” of President Obama. Unlike the adventurous Singapore Summit and the rather unhelpful one that followed in Hanoi; however, the next step should be duly prepared with major stakeholders, especially China.

Down the road, contributions from South Korea, Russia, Japan and the EU would be indispensable to corroborate the peace process. Only coherent multilateral action may lead to peace, and to finding “the way to get there”. Let’s just hope and pray that, in the meantime, Kim Jong Un will refrain from military provocations. “Give peace a chance”!

Closing remarks

The North Korean nuclear crisis is not just a problem of the United States or of the international community. It is above all a problem of the North Korean population, which suffers under domestic repression and international sanctions. Mere containment of the DPRK won’t help the people who live there.

We all are morally obliged to take up this challenge, not through violence or by just talking, but by putting an encompassing gamble on the table. Just present Kim Jong Un with a package he can’t refuse! I believe such a daring approach reflects the spirit of the co-founders of UPF, who went to North Korea some 30 years ago to engage the founder of the DPRK.

And what if this gamble doesn’t fly? We would just go back to square one. But at least we would have tried our level best!

Thank you.

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