Can Trump provide North Korea with credible guarantees?

Asia World

Author: Editorial Board, ANU

Following the third meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on 30 June 2019 at the Demilitarized Zone near Panmunjom, hopes were rekindled of renewed US–North Korea negotiations. These hopes now hang delicately in the balance.

Will this third meeting go down as a critical trust-building moment or the empty rhetoric of reality TV diplomacy?

People watch a TV that shows a North Korean missile for a news report on North Korea firing short-range ballistic missiles, in Seoul, South Korea, 31 July 2019 (Picture: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji).

People watch a TV that shows a North Korean missile for a news report on North Korea firing short-range ballistic missiles, in Seoul, South Korea, 31 July 2019 (Picture: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji).

North Korea has conducted six short-range missiles tests since late July while decrying US–South Korea joint military drills. These tests violate UN Security Council resolutions but not the US–North Korea Singapore agreement, and while they don’t directly threaten the continental United States they menace regional neighbours. Trump’s apparent tolerance of short-range missile tests risks a rift with US allies such as Japan and South Korea.

The debate on North Korea in US media circles too often seems to be stuck between rusted-on Trump supporters who praise his diplomatic efforts and Trump critics who bash him for legitimating the Kim regime.

On one side of the fence, the Trump camp lauds his actions as a peacemaker. They characterise Trump’s decision to become the first sitting US president to hold a summit meeting with Kim, as well as to step foot into North Korean territory, as evidence of his bold and brave diplomacy. They credit Trump for calming US–North Korea tensions from boiling over in 2017. They chant that Trump deserves a Nobel Peace Prize. This praise ignores the lack of forethought that went into Trump’s decision to meet with Kim as well as the role that Trump’s own reckless ‘fire and fury’ rhetoric played in ratcheting up the tensions in the first place.

On the other side, Trump’s detractors criticise him for failing to understand the stakes with North Korea. They worry that Trump is at risk of making a bad deal with North Korea that would allow it to keep its nuclear weapons or missiles in one form or another. They decry Trump for legitimising the Kim family dictatorship and the brutality that underpins it. They criticise Trump’s engagement of Kim as a reflection of his own dictatorial tendencies. Such criticism, however, tends not to offer a serious alternative to the ‘strategic patience’ of the Obama administration and returns the North Korea question to the ‘too hard’ basket.

This partisan divide obscures a bigger and more complex picture.

Denuclearising North Korea requires a fundamental transformation of the country’s relations with the outside world and its place in the international community. It requires changing North Korea into a country that does not perceive itself as needing nuclear weapons to guarantee its survival. This requires guarantees to North Korea against regime change, military security through a peace treaty, and economic development through international assistance.

As Jia Qingguo explains in our lead article this week, the United States is not positioned to provide these guarantees credibly on its own.

First, the United States is hard-pressed to ‘convince North Korea that it will respect its sovereignty and refrain from intervening in domestic politics. Even if the current administration makes this commitment, there is no assurance that the next administration will uphold it’.

Second, ‘the United States cannot give a convincing and lasting military security guarantee’. This requires the transformation of the current Korean War armistice agreement into a permanent peace treaty with the buy-in of other relevant regional players, especially China and South Korea.

Third, ‘the United States cannot deliver significant economic assistance — the White House has never done such a thing for a country like North Korea and Congress would never approve it’. Economic assistance needs to be provided multilaterally as it has been in the past through the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (1995–2006) and the Six-Party Talks (2003–2009).

Providing credible guarantees to North Korea can only be achieved in cooperation with other countries. Yet, as Jia explains, the Trump administration’s unilateralist ‘America First’ approach to foreign policy and its confrontational posture toward China stands in the way of attempts to forge such multilateral cooperation.

China has often been identified as a key partner whose cooperation is necessary to realise a comprehensive resolution with North Korea. Yet tensions between the United States and China continue to escalate. The United States has labelled China as a ‘strategic competitor’, launched a trade war with China, gone after Chinese high-tech companies such as Huawei, and labelled China a currency manipulator despite China failing to meet the US Treasury’s own criteria for such designation.

‘This hostility has had two major implications on North Korean denuclearisation negotiations. As China and the United States move toward confrontation, North Korea has more reason to believe that it can keep its nuclear weapons. And China may hedge against possible US confrontation. In this situation, Beijing is likely to assign a higher priority to friendship with Pyongyang than to delivering denuclearisation’. And ‘China is unlikely to approve additional sanctions, as long as North Korea does not conduct new [long-range missile] tests’.

Trump’s willingness to meet with Kim and negotiate with North Korea should be seen as a first and necessary step in a longer journey toward a comprehensive resolution of the North Korean denuclearisation problem. Rather than criticising Trump for engaging with North Korea, Trump critics would better focus their criticism on the unilateralist and protectionist scourge that undermines the ability of the United States to lead multilateral initiatives, including the vital efforts needed to denuclearise North Korea.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

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