Asia Pacific / Politics

Could peace talks help defuse North Korea?

by Eric Talmadge


The new U.N. sanctions on North Korea are out, and they are going to pinch Pyongyang hard. But they also beg a big question: Since sanctions thus far have failed to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, are tougher ones really the most effective way to bring the North out of its hardened Cold War bunker?

Is it time to flip the script?

China, a key broker in the North Korea denuclearization puzzle, thinks so. It wants the U.S. and North Korea to sit down for peace talks to formally end the Korean War.

That idea has always been a nonstarter in Washington, which insists the North must give up its nuclear ambitions first. But some U.S. experts think it might be a viable path forward.

Advocates of sitting down with a nuclear-armed North Korea are the minority camp in the U.S. And even those who do support the idea generally agree that sanctions can be a useful tool in pushing negotiations forward, if there is a coherent and internationally coordinated follow-up plan on where those negotiations should go.

However, sanctions can also backfire, pushing an insecure and threatened regime into a more defiant — and potentially more dangerous — direction.

Pyongyang gave a hint at that possibility Friday in its first official response to the sanctions, saying the measures were an “outrageous provocation” that it “categorically rejects.” North Korea threatened to carry out countermeasures against the U.S. and other countries that supported the sanctions.

While such threats usually amount to nothing, the U.N.’s efforts to change the North’s behavior through sanctions haven’t amounted to much, either.

“Sanctions have sort of become the default strategy for not having a strategy,” said Joel Wit, speaking from the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

“If you don’t have a strategy, you don’t have objectives, you don’t know how to deal with a problem, you press that button,” said Wit, who in the 1990s was a U.S. State Department official deeply involved in North Korea negotiations. “You press the sanctions button and pretend that’s a strategy. But it really isn’t, in and of itself. It’s part of a strategy.”

U.N. sanctions have long been the main tool to put international pressure on North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program. They were imposed after its first nuclear test in 2006, then in 2009 and again in 2012 and 2013.

But the North has refused to give up its nukes. It has made them a central part of its military and diplomatic strategies and enshrined its right to have them in its constitution.

In the end, 50 days after North Korea carried out its Jan. 6 nuclear test, Beijing joined the U.S. in imposing tougher sanctions that were approved unanimously Wednesday by the U.N. Security Council. But it insisted sanctions alone will never solve the nuclear issue. Instead, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi suggested a “parallel track” approach that separates nuclear talks from negotiations to replace the more than 60-year-old Korean War armistice with a peace agreement.

“What the Chinese are saying is, what’s your strategy, what are your objectives? OK, sanctions, great. But what are you trying to achieve?” Wit said. “As a general rule, the U.S. really hasn’t had a strategy.”

Wit said an initial step could be to work out a declaration that the Korean War is over and begin a negotiation process toward a more formal peace arrangement, which could involve suspending or halting annual military exercises with South Korea, establishing borders, getting rid of the demilitarized zone, and cross-recognition, along with the nuclear issue.

In exchange, the North would have to agree to suspend the things Washington doesn’t want it to do — like nuclear tests and missile or rocket launches.

“It would get complicated, no doubt about it,” Wit said.Washington’s long-standing demand has been the North must either give up its nuclear program or verifiably demonstrate it is willing to do so before any serious peace talks can start. Pyongyang wants talks first, since it says the threat of a U.S. invasion is what forced it to develop a nuclear deterrent to begin with.

The U.S. has recently indicated a little more flexibility on the idea of a “parallel track” in negotiations. The White House said that before the latest nuclear test, North Korea sought to discuss a peace treaty with the U.S. but got cold feet after the U.S. insisted denuclearization be part of the discussions.

“I don’t think we’re in a position to rule out possible discussions on a peace process. But we’re not going to decouple that in any way from what really needs to happen, which is complete denuclearization and adherence to the six-party process,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said Thursday.

David Straub, associate director of the Korea Program at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, said that given North Korea’s record in negotiations and its position never to give up nuclear weapons, “it would not make sense to begin parallel nuclear and peace treaty talks.”

Straub noted the U.S. and South Korea, along with China, tried to negotiate a peace treaty with North Korea in four-party talks from 1996 to 1998.

Another attempt to negotiate through the denuclearization issue and discuss a permanent peace mechanism was made in six-party talks that added on Japan and Russia and were held intermittently from 2003 to 2009.

“China is well aware of this history of peace treaty talks with North Korea,” he said. “But China wishes to deflect international, especially U.S., criticism that it is not doing enough to induce Pyongyang to give up nuclear weapons.” China is by far North Korea’s biggest trading partner.

Although Afghanistan is generally placed atop the lists of America’s longest wars, the Korean War, which began in 1950, is technically still going on. The armistice — in effect, a cease-fire — ended the fighting in 1953.

That may seem like semantics to some. American troops haven’t died in a direct confrontation with North Koreans since two army officers were killed in the “Ax Murder” incident along the DMZ in 1976. But it has had a tremendous impact on North Korea’s siege mentality, been used to justify its martial law-like restrictions on political and civil freedoms and significantly warped regional security in general.

With few good options and other priority foreign policy issues on its plate, Washington under President Barack Obama has exercised “strategic patience” — essentially refusing direct talks while keeping the sanctions pressure high and bolstering relations with U.S. allies in the region.

Zhiqun Zhu, director of the China Institute at Bucknell University, said that policy has clearly failed and underscores the fundamental problem in Northeast Asian security, which he said isn’t North Korea but “distrust between the United States and China.”

He called Washington’s policy an attempt to “outsource” the heavy lifting on denuclearization to Beijing, which he said no longer sees itself as an ally of Pyongyang and has significant doubts about Washington’s intentions.

“How can one say that the U.S. policy has not failed?” he said. “Some in Washington may oppose direct talks with Pyongyang — how can we reward bad behavior? — but how can you expect North Korea to simply give up the nuclear program without receiving any tangible benefits in return?”