Image of US President Donald Trump, China's leader Xi Jinping and North Korea's Kim Jong-un. Photo: Getty Image

US-North Korea negotiations have reached an impasse. The issue at stake is whether Pyongyang should be obliged to relinquish its nuclear weapons before or after the formal conclusion of the Korean War.

Washington insists that Pyongyang give up its nukes prior to any discussion of a peace regime to replace the Korean War Armistice Agreement. However, North Korea, China and even US ally South Korea believe that the time is ripe to issue a joint peace declaration and start working toward officially ending the war.

Pitfalls of a peace agreement

To be sure, reaching an agreement on a symbolic peace declaration – let alone a peace regime or a legally binding peace treaty – is not a trivial matter for Washington. At such an early stage in the negotiation process, it would represent a concession several magnitudes greater than President Donald Trump’s agreement to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

In fact, Washington has plenty of reasons to oppose broadening the scope of its negotiations with Pyongyang. The primary reason is that if the US joins a Korean peace declaration now, in effect opening the door to discussions about a peace regime, Pyongyang, with Beijing’s support, could try to shift the focus of US-North Korea talks away from the issue of denuclearizing North Korea. Instead, they might turn the negotiations into debates over the necessity of the US-South Korea alliance and the justifications for a US military presence in the region at a time when lasting peace would supposedly be taking root on the Korean Peninsula.

In short, Washington would risk losing control of the negotiation agenda before it has obtained any significant concessions on denuclearization.

On the other hand, it is inconceivable that Pyongyang would ever completely disarm without, at minimum, first sitting down with US officials and other major stakeholders and hashing out key details of a future peace regime.

Pyongyang maintains that its development of nuclear weapons is a response to “hostile US policies” and, therefore, peace must precede denuclearization. And the Kim regime is currently in a stronger negotiating position than ever before. It is believed to possess 10-20 nuclear warheads, fissile material to produce another 30-60 nuclear weapons, and a number of seemingly functional intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Pyongyang isn’t likely to budge from its current position without knowing what Washington’s next big concession will be, and vice versa. Moreover, since neither side trusts the other to deliver on its promises, an agreement on next steps might not be sufficient to break the deadlock unless trust can somehow be taken out of the equation. So what’s next?

Eliminating the need for trust

One possible way forward would be for China to step in, not as a party to US-North Korea negotiations, but as a guarantor of an agreement that can help Washington and Pyongyang bridge their first serious impasse.

In order to break the current deadlock and test the proposition that the Kim regime can be persuaded to give up its nukes, the US may need to offer Pyongyang the peace declaration that it has long coveted. Yet the US should only do so as part of a clear quid pro quo with a solid insurance policy.

If the US is to offer North Korea more than it has ever offered before, it ought to make sure that it gets more than it has ever gotten. To that end, Washington could insist that Pyongyang: 1) recommits itself to the September 19, 2005, Six-Party Talks joint statement; 2) freezes its nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile programs; 3) declares its nuclear facilities and stockpiles of nuclear weapons and fissile material; and 4) allows international inspectors to inspect its nuclear weapons and fissile material.

China could use its position as an indispensable party to the United Nations sanctions regime on North Korea to ensure that Pyongyang and Washington uphold their respective ends of any future agreement. Beijing could pledge to tighten sanctions on North Korea and step up its sanctions enforcement efforts if Pyongyang doesn’t promptly deliver on its commitments. Conversely, Beijing could agree to lift sanctions unilaterally and offer economic assistance to Pyongyang if Washington fails to follow through on its promises.

Such an arrangement could help overcome the lack of trust and sequencing problems that have resulted in the current stalemate. As an added bonus, it would give Beijing a new, important role in resolving the North Korea issue without yet requiring Beijing’s direct involvement in negotiations.

If the “Beijing guarantor” model proves successful, it could be used again to advance negotiations further until the point when Washington and Pyongyang are ready to include China directly in the negotiation process.

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Kristian McGuire

Kristian McGuire is an independent Washington-based research analyst and associate editor of Taiwan Security Research. His work has appeared in The Diplomat, Newsweek, the South China Morning Post, The Interpreter, and TSR Weekly Report. You can contact him at kristianmcguire@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @KrisAMcGuire