The international community made clear this week that it wants to talk to North Korea about ending its nuclear program. But getting North Korea to the table would be tough, according to international security experts.
“A lot of things would have to happen and I’m not sure any of them are possible at this moment,” said Andrea Charron, director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba.
While touring Asia this week, U.S. President Donald Trump told a Japanese audience, “The era of strategic patience is over,” and painted a dystopian picture of the North Korean regime while visiting South Korea. But, he also took a somewhat gentler tone, urging Pyongyang to “come to the table” and “make a deal.”
This comparatively gentler language is due to the reality that the “stakes are very high” when it comes to war on the Korean peninsula, said Tina Park, an expert on North Korea and executive director of the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, based at the Munk School of Global Affairs.
Charron thinks it’s likely that Japanese and South Korean officials warned Trump of the danger to their people if there was an armed conflict. “I’m sure that South Korea and Japan are whispering that in Trump’s ear: that the people who would be hit first and hardest in a military showdown would be the neighbouring states.”
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, whose country is most directly threatened by North Korea, said that he and Trump agreed to apply maximized pressures and sanctions on North Korea until it returns to “sincere” talks on disarming its nuclear and missile programs. He also said that South Korea and the U.S. were prepared to give the North a “bright future” if it gave up its nuclear program.
Chinese President Xi Jinping said, “We are devoted to reaching a resolution to the Korean peninsula issue through dialogue and consultations.” He said he would support the denuclearization of the peninsula.
The problem is, Kim Jong Un is not at all interested in giving up his nuclear weapons, said Charron.
“His sole concern is self-preservation,” she said.
“And the lesson he has learned is that the best way to ensure that you can keep an iron grip on your country is never to give up weapons once you’ve attained them.”
He’s seen regimes in Libya and Iraq topple as soon as they limited their nuclear programs, and doesn’t want the same to happen to him, she said. And because he’s also afraid of making concessions and showing weakness to his own people, he’s not going to talk.
Park disagrees, saying that North Korea could be enticed to the negotiating table with specific, collective offers from the international community.
These could include things like suspending joint military drills between the U.S. and South Korea in exchange for freezing North Korea’s nuclear programs, offering food and oil aid, changing sanctions, and the possibility of withdrawing U.S. forces from South Korea as part of a peace agreement.
“We can only resolve the North Korean crisis with diplomacy and deterrence,” said Park.
“We must have a unified position when it comes to negotiating with North Korea and also be willing to offer real concessions if we are interested in changing their behaviour.”
It’s happened before – although it didn’t last, North Korea did come to the table under the Agreed Frameworks under the Clinton administration. “Ultimately, it did not stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons but it sure did slow them down,” she said.
It took a massive famine to get North Korea to negotiate though, said Charron. “It was usually because food aid was desperately needed.”
And even if there was a famine, she’s not sure that Kim Jong Un’s concern for his people would outweigh his desire to remain leader at all costs. “Even a massive famine may not be enough to persuade him to come to the negotiating table.”
“This is really the problem from hell.”
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-With files from the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse