The Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang. Photo: Oliver Wainwright
The Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang. Photo: Oliver Wainwright

There are a number of reasons why there has been little substantive progress on North Korea’s denuclearization. Some blame can be laid at North Korea’s door, but there is also a failure of the United States to understand what North Korea has been saying all along – most notably in the declaration the two countries signed in Singapore in June.

The devil in the detail

To appreciate the importance of agreeing upon terms, take the example of insurance policies.

In the opening pages of any insurance document, the company spells out in painful detail exactly who the parties involved are and how they are affected by the insurance contract. Next, the company precisely defines each key term, to the point where all key terms used in the contract are defined.  The insurance buyer may not like all of the terms but, thanks to this detailed process, at least is fully aware of specific coverage and exclusions.

This is how negotiations with North Korea need to be conducted. Without common definitions of the terms, there can be no true understanding. Lacking that, there will be no lasting progress.

But even if the terms are precisely defined, and if the North agrees to those precise definitions, and if the North accepts those terms for use in an eventual pact regarding denuclearization, there is still the matter of reciprocity and timing.

Denuclearization was not the only clause

The agreement signed by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump in Singapore on June 12 contains four key clauses.

  1. The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new U.S.–DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.
  2. The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.
  3. Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
  4. The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.

In post-June negotiations, North Korea has been making repeated reference to easing sanctions, and most especially, to ending the Korean War – the two top clauses (respectively, “peace and prosperity” and “a lasting and stable peace regime.”) The North Korean side has also delivered on the fourth clause.

The top two clauses, however, have largely been ignored by the US side. Instead, Washington has focused almost exclusively on the third clause (“total denuclearization”).

Moreover, the US administration paid no attention to a critically important aspect of the statement: the order in which the clauses appeared. Denuclearization is third, yet the American negotiators have proceeded as though that is the first item of business.

One could argue that the North is only stalling, and that could well be a fair accusation. However, it is important to consider things from Pyongyang’s perspective.

Realistic options to forestall stalemate

Pyongyang has, for decades, seen Washington as its mortal enemy. Given Trump’s bluster about “fire and fury” being visited upon the North, Kim might logically conclude that providing an inventory of all of North Korea’s nuclear facilities – Washington’s current demand – would be the equivalent of handing the Americans a list of targets.

Whether or not Washington believes the North Korean negotiators are acting in good faith, their concerns must be understood. As the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu is said to have stated: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” US negotiators need to understand Pyongyang for progress to be made.

Many experts doubt that North Korea will ever fully denuclearize. They may be right. Whether or not this is the case, a point can be reached where, perhaps, there is a freeze, as has been promoted by China. Failing that, negotiators could work toward a détente, such as the United States established with first the Soviet Union when it got the bomb, and then later with China when it joined the nuclear club.

It has been done before and Washington knows how to do it again – if impediments to progress can be overcome.

Kim’s geopolitical concerns need to be understood, and consideration needs to be paid to those concerns if North Korea and the United States are to walk the path toward denuclearization together.  For the present, though, it is quite unlikely that Washington can achieve its espoused goal of complete denuclearization, and unless a dictionary of commonly-defined terms can be agreed upon, it will be impossible to proceed anywhere.

Potential for failure

This is all further complicated by two potential train wrecks.

The first is that Trump craves something that his predecessors could not accomplish: a denuclearization agreement – any denuclearization agreement.  The second is that the window of opportunity for a pact that is acceptable to the US is rapidly closing as South Korean President Moon Jae-in rushes to cement relations with the North without much regard for the eventual costs of so doing.

A meaningful agreement must be struck before the already withering support for sanctions – the only pressure left to bear on Pyongyang – is completely gone. Already China and Russia are ignoring UN sanctions as both countries support North Korea.

Time is running out and the odds are becoming greater than the ongoing set of summits and negotiations will drag on and on – a process that will once again benefit only Kim’s regime.

Robert E. McCoy is a former US Air Force intelligence specialist who was stationed in Asia for 14 years. 

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