Realigning America’s Strategy Toward Korea

Realigning America’s Strategy Toward Korea

“North Korea would like to be a normal state with economic relations with the rest of the world. I think they do want a peace treaty ending the Korean War. They do want to normalize relations with the United States. However, they want all those things as a nuclear-weapon state.”

On April 13, Victor D. Cha, Professor at Georgetown University and former NSC Director for Asian Affairs, shared his thoughts on the North Korean nuclear issue in a special conversation titled “Realigning America’s Strategy toward Korea” at Yale University's Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. Nuno P. Monteiro, associate professor of political science at Yale, served as moderator. A group of Jackson graduate students organized the talk, which was co-sponsored by the Yale Council on East Asian Studies.

Professor Cha said that North Korea’s biggest concession in a Trump-Kim Jong-un summit would be “to engage in arms control dialogue with the United States, not denuclearization dialogue.” His advice to the Trump administration was to delay the planned summit with North Korea because “a summit is not a strategy” and “a summit without a strategy is dangerous.”

Below are excerpts from the talk.

Q. What does Kim Jong-un want from the summit?

Just the handshake with Donald Trump would be worth the trip in the sense that North Korea has wanted to be on equal footing with the United States for decades. Beyond that, they would like the lifting of sanctions. In the end, I think they would like the United States to remove all of its strategic assets from and stop rotating strategic assets on the peninsula. End the nuclear umbrella over Korea and Japan. Then, maybe after that, the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

They want all these things as a nuclear-weapon state. Their main concession would be to engage in arms control dialogue with the United States, not denuclearization dialogue. That is very problematic for the United States because the U.S. core position is, “give up nuclear weapons and then we can talk about normalization, peace treaty, economic assistance, energy assistance, all this stuff.”

We are coming up on a summit where the core positions of the two parties are clearly in conflict with each other. There are ways to finesse that at the margins in a long negotiation process after the summit, but at the end of that process, unless there is a change in one of those core positions, it’s not going to end successfully.

Q. What would be the outcome of the summit?

As we get closer to this summit, I think all parties including the United States, North Korea, and China are going to realize that nobody has an interest in this failing. For that reason, I think what will happen is that there will be a big television event, lots of big words about peace, normalization, the end of the Korean War, and denuclearization. Then it will be pushed off toward a negotiation process going on for two years. In the meantime, North Korea would adhere to its self-imposed testing ban. From the perspective of the news and markets, people would see that as a relatively stable outcome.

But when we get toward the end of this, I don’t think North Korea will give up all of its nuclear weapons. They are not going to be testing, but they are going to be producing warheads so that they can be in a position at some point years down the road saying, “We’re ready to negotiate a partial reduction on warheads.” The South Korean national security advisor conveyed the North Korean leader saying that North Korea is willing to talk about the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula if the security of the regime is guaranteed. The media all talked about this as a breakthrough. President Trump even tweeted like it was a big breakthrough. But anyone who has studied this issue or has been in negotiations knows that this is not anything new.

What I advocated when I was testifying on the Hill on Tuesday was that the North Koreans need to reaffirm what they agreed to in 2007. In 2007 they said that they would abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and they put it in writing. At least the first step would be for them to reaffirm that.

Q. What has been China’s role in the current situation?

A meeting took place between the leaders of China and North Korea. I think that was certainly motivated by the fact that Trump had agreed to meet with the North Korean leader. But I think this was also part of a longer process where the Chinese leadership realized that they needed to change their policy toward North Korea. By the time they got to the Party Congress, they were in this historically unique position where they had bad relations with North Korea and South Korea at the same time. That’s pretty amazing. You have to work pretty hard to have bad relations with both. I think the [China-North Korea] summit that happened was also part of a broader change when, after the Party Congress, the Chinese leadership was willing to move from these standoffish policies they had with both Koreas, for different reasons, to one in which they are actually engaging with both of them. The first step was the summit with the North Korean leader. The second step was to start to relax the economic sanctions against South Korea for the THAAD missile defense deployment.

Q. Is there any chance that President Trump would propose a big deal to North Korea and President Xi would tell the leader of North Korea to take it? Does China have that leverage?

The Chinese might do that, but I don’t think the North Koreans would accept it. The hard part is that the North Koreans believe two things: One, China will not cut them off completely. Two, the United States will not attack them. As long as they believe those two things, they will continue to operate in this very truculent way.

Q. What would happen if President Trump doesn’t win a second term and we have a Democratic government that doesn’t agree with the deal?

If would be hard for Democrats to criticize if there is a deal. From a Democratic perspective, they want negotiations. If Trump came out of this and said, “We’ve done this deal, these guys have negotiated it,” I don’t think there would be people in congress on the opposition that would say, “that’s bad.” Even if the Democrats won in November, I don’t think they would oppose the deal. I think they would like to see where it leads to. I don’t see domestic politics as having a major impact on implementation regardless of the scenario.

The negotiation itself and the implementation is problematic. We can do a freeze. We can get IAEA monitors back in there. We may even be able to disable some of the facilities. The problem is when we get to the declaration of all weapons and materials. This is what the North Koreans will not do because the next step after declaration is international verification. Inspectors go and inventory all the stuff because you are going to take it out. That’s the step the North Koreans will not do. Or they will provide a list that says, “We have a 5MW reactor in Yongbyon, about 10 bombs worth of plutonium.” Basically, the assessment in 1998. Everybody knows they have more than that. That will be a problem. I don’t know if Trump and the North Korean leader can do a deal where the North Korean leader will commit to giving a real declaration and then negotiating verification and removal. That will be a big step.