[Column] It's time to initiate 4-party talks between the two Koreas, the US and China
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The Joe Biden administration has officially begun in the US. It has declared its intent to clear away the negative legacy of the Donald Trump administration and change course from chaos to order, from conflict to unity, and from isolation to cooperation. With its emphasis on cooperation with allies, will it be possible for the Biden era to restore the principle of harmonizing interests after its collapse under Trump? Now that we have the chance for dialogue and communication, it’s time for us to get our strategy in order.
The central focus of the Biden administration’s Asia policy is reining in China. It is envisioning a system of cooperation with the US as a central axis and the allies as its spokes — carrying on the Trump administration’s policies on China while reforming the “operating system.” In contrast, the North Korean nuclear issue will be reexamined from square one. The China containment part is concrete, while the North Korean nuclear issue remains fuzzy. The most crucial tasks in the dialogue between Seoul and Washington will be narrowing this interest gap in Asia policy and the nuclear issue, preventing our differences from putting us at cross purposes, and seeking harmony rather than conflict.
To begin with, a resolution to the North Korean nuclear issue will need to be kept separate from the US-China rivalry. Ever since the failure of the North Korea-US summit in Hanoi in February 2019, Pyongyang and Beijing have grown closer, Seoul and Pyongyang have grown farther apart, and Pyongyang’s demands of Washington have become more militant. The new order that has taken shape assigns a more central role to China. Structurally, the North Korean nuclear issue can’t be resolved without cooperation between the US and China. We need to turn the Korean Peninsula into a buffer zone for the US-China feud by enlisting China’s participation in the multilateral approach that the US is envisioning. It’s time to start up four-party talks involving South and North Korea, the US, and China.
Second, we need to break out of the security dilemma feedback loop. As North Korea advances its nuclear capabilities, that will lead to an arms race on the Korean Peninsula. Within Northeast Asia, we will see China further developing its anti-access strategy and the Biden administration showing off its strategy for a military response. There’s greater potential for the security dilemma to touch off a negative sort of synergy both on the peninsula and in Northeast Asia as a whole. A resolution to the North Korean nuclear issue can only start when we escape the security dilemma trap. Peace on the peninsula can only be preserved when it is backed up by robust security — but it’s also clear that we can’t keep the peace if we don’t make peace in the first place. We need to look at a suitable level of deterrence under the present circumstances.
Stopping division in its supply chain
Third, we need to stop division in the supply chain. At its 8th Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Congress, North Korea opted for a strategy of self-reliance; China has declared a “dual circulation” strategy centering on domestic circulation. Both of them are girding for long campaigns in the economic sphere as the political situation becomes increasingly unpredictable. But the economic cooperation between them continues, and it will continue in the future. China keeps supplying North Korea with food and fertilizer aid. As sanctions persist into the long term, the North Korea-China economic sphere will become structured around items that are not subject to sanctions.
In addition to the arms race, division in the supply chain operates as another centripetal force in inter-Korean relations. We need to recognize the importance of economic measures in a solution to the nuclear issue, and we cannot afford to give up on trilateral cooperation (South and North Korea and China on one hand, South and North Korea and Russia on the other), no matter how hard it gets.
Ultimately, we’re going to need to come up with a quick resolution to the North Korean nuclear issue. It’s always the case with solutions that you have to start over from where things break down. There are two important things when it comes to solving the nuclear issue. First, there needs to be a concrete plan for implementation rather than an agreement on generalities. Most of the members of the Biden administration’s foreign affairs and national security team were also key players in the Iran nuclear deal. That deal included a detailed implementation plan — a text that stretched out for nearly 100 pages.
Obviously, North Korea and Iran are at different stages in terms of nuclear development, and it would take too much time to develop an implementation plan for the entire process. But the Biden administration’s negotiation team is going to want to come up with a detailed implementation plan for some initial measures, and we will need to prepare for that.
The importance of trust building
The second key thing is the importance of building trust. With the Iran deal, a snapback approach was used for the lifting of sanctions; under this approach, the relief is revoked if the agreement is violated. Snapback provisions are a form of conditional agreement for a situation where trust is not present. Quite a lot could have been achieved over the past two years had the Hanoi summit led to a snapback agreement on sanctions relief in exchange for dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear facility. Even more unfortunately, the Trump administration used the snapback provision as grounds for backing out of the Iran nuclear deal, which means Pyongyang most likely has less trust in the snapback approach than before.
But a snapback is a safeguard for situations where trust is in short supply, and it won’t be an issue anyway if the agreement is honored. The crucial thing here is the importance of trust. Trust is formed through the honoring of promises, and it takes time to build. If snapbacks are temporary measures, then trust-building is a driving force to ensure sustainability. We need steady efforts to build trust through the negotiation process.
Given North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, both the negotiations and the implementation are poised to be long-term battles. We need to get the negotiations started quickly, with our priority focus on freezing the North’s nuclear capabilities. Stopping them is the only way to steer the situation from deterioration to resolution.
When it comes to the North Korean nuclear issue, doing things today is always easier than doing them tomorrow. As time passes, North Korea’s nuclear capabilities grow, and the problem becomes more complicated. Sometimes, pessimism is more realistic than optimism. The only way we can find a solution is when we leave behind yesterday’s expectations and recognize the seriousness of the situation. We need a profound understanding of the changes in the Korean Peninsula order. We need to recognize that we have a long way to go. And we need to work to broaden support both internationally and domestically.
By Kim Yeon-chul, associate professor at Inje University and former unification minister
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