By Kim Rahn
A sanctions-only approach will not resolve the issue of North Korea's nuclear program, and both pressure and dialogue should be applied at the same time, experts on the Korea issue said.
With South Korean President Moon Jae-in set to have a summit with U.S. President Donald Trump from June 29 to 30, they said Moon's step-by-step approach and attempts for talks and negotiations may produce more chances to move the issue forward.
|Ken E. Gause|
"We first need to understand Kim Jong-un's calculus for dealing with the international community. All of his decisions are in support of two core interests: 1) regime survival and 2) perpetuation of Kim family rule," he said in an email interview with The Korea Times.
Gause said Kim would refuse talks if the terms for dialogue do not meet these interests. "The regime says that sanctions must be removed before dialogue can happen. What it is really saying is dialogue cannot be focused on denuclearization, which Kim sees as central to his core interests."
He said the international community needs to have a new approach to open dialogue, such as broadening the aperture for discussion beyond denuclearization coupled with incentives. "Otherwise, why would North Korea enter into talks designed to defang the country and leave it vulnerable to regime change?"
Gause stressed both the carrot and the stick, because the latter will make Pyongyang understand the former is a preferable path. "If Pyongyang realizes that continuation toward a nuclear program will threaten Kim's core interests, and it has an attractive alternative of engagement, which addresses its interests, then a freeze of the program might be possible."
"I think all sides need to drop any unnecessary preconditions if they want to engage in full-blown, official talks related to security and denuclearization," the former senior adviser for North Korea at the Department of Defense said via email.
Aum said nongovernmental exchanges may not lead the North to the negotiation table. "The area where President Moon does have leverage ― and where North Korea does seem to care ― are U.S.-South Korea combined military exercises, emphasis on a peace treaty, and the transition of wartime operational control. So it's not surprising that he may raise these issues with President Trump during their summit," he said.
In that sense, they said Trump's hard-line stance will not help resolve the issue, adding it would only accelerate Kim's nuclear programs.
"If we threaten military pressure, he might temporarily slow his nuclear program, but he will eventually return to it once the pressure subsides. Engagement provides another set of incentives for him to weigh against the nuclear program. In the near term, engagement might not end the program, but it might freeze it, thus creating the space for a final solution sometime in the future," Gause said.
Aum said much of Trump's North Korea policy is just rhetoric and outsourcing pressure to China, which may not have any impact on Pyongyang or Beijing. "However, if North Korea gets impatient about potential negotiations and conducts a major demonstration, such as a nuclear test or intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test, and Trump feels like he has to respond in a new way, then we should all be concerned about what his response is, whether it's military action or enhanced sanctions on Chinese entities."
Regarding the role of China in resolving the North Korea issue, they did not expect Beijing to take more active actions.
"China has continued to prioritize stability on its border over denuclearization, so it's difficult to see what more the U.S. and South Korea can do to persuade China to take different actions, other than threaten military action against North Korea," Aum said.
Aum said China could take some steps to increase pressure on Pyongyang, such as stronger enforcement of U.N. sanctions against Chinese entities assisting North Korea, cutting off its fuel subsidy and decreasing imports of North Korean coal, labor and other goods. "But it's very unlikely that China will take these types of action because it doesn't want North Korea to collapse."
Gause also said, "Stability, not denuclearization, is Beijing's primary interest. Denuclearization is the ultimate goal, not the opening move. The quicker Washington and Seoul realize this, the easier it will be for them to develop a viable North Korea policy that stands a chance of succeeding."
In late last month, Cheong Wa Dae said it found procedural flaws by the former Park Geun-hye administration in the deployment of a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery here, and Moon ordered a full-scale environmental impact assessment, which would delay the full installation of the defense system for about a year. This decision has reportedly caused discomfort to U.S. policymakers including Trump. China, which opposed the deployment and took economic retaliation against Korean businesses, is also closely watching the situation.
Aum said the delay would not damage the South Korea-U.S. alliance but the whole THAAD issue is an irritant in both the Seoul-Washington relations and the Seoul-Beijing relations.
"If Moon decides to move forward with the THAAD deployment, which I expect he will, then he needs to get assurances from Trump that the U.S. will weigh in with China to prevent further economic retaliation," he said.
Gause also said the slow rolling of THAAD could help Moon get Beijing's support with the North Korea issue. "This is how he needs to sell it to the Trump administration, which is also trying to get China to enhance its role in solving the North Korea problem."