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It is time to act, not react, on North Korea

Point of View, 29.03.2021 Research Areas

After new provocations, North Korea is back on the agenda of the international community. The US must not engage in a rhetorical tug-of-war. Instead, it must act quickly, says Eric J. Ballbach. Europe can also play a role in this.

Although things have been quiet in recent months and there has been no active dialogue between North Korea and the United States (US), developments in recent days suggest that Pyongyang is back on the agenda of the international community. First, it became known that the US has been reaching out to North Korea through several channels, starting in mid-February, but it has not heard back. North Korea then published two statements within as many days by two high-ranking officials. On March 16, Kim Yo Jong criticized the joint US–South Korea military exercise, warning that if Seoul dares “more provocative acts,” North Korea may abrogate the Inter-Korean Comprehensive Military Agreement of 2018. She also cautioned the US that if “[i]t wants to sleep in peace for [the] coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step.” Two days later, First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui was quoted saying that North Korea sees no reason to return to nuclear talks with Washington, calling its outreach a “cheap trick.” These statements coincided with a warning issued by the head of the US military’s Northern Command that North Korea might begin flight testing an improved design of its intercontinental ballistic missiles “in the near future.” On March 23, Pyongyang tested two cruise missiles before qualitatively upping the ante with a short-range ballistic missile test on March 25, constituting a breach of UN Security Council Resolutions.

Although these developments may suggest that a further escalation on the Korean Peninsula is inevitable, North Korea has thus far been following its traditional playbook by signaling a message that leaves all options on the table, ensures maximum room for maneuver, and – at least from Pyongyang’s view – places the ball in the US’ court. North Korea is raising the stakes ahead of the conclusions of the policy review process in the US while simultaneously conveying the message that the door is open for re-engagement at some point. “In order for a dialogue to be made,” Choe states, “an atmosphere for both parties to exchange words on an equal basis must be created.”

Biden’s North Korea policy review

Further developments in US–North Korea relations will, to a significant extent, depend on the outcomes of the policy review process. Although this process is not yet completed, it is apparent that the policies of the Biden administration will differ significantly from those of the Trump administration.

First, we should not expect Donald Trump’s personalized diplomacy to continue under Joe Biden. Rather, Washington is trying to restore a consultative process by involving the regional actors in northeast Asia more directly in the North Korea question – and possibly trying to (once again) multilateralize the nuclear issue in the longer run. During the visits of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to Japan and South Korea, Blinken stated that the Biden administration was consulting closely with the governments of South Korea, Japan, and other allied nations while also acknowledging that Beijing “has a critical role to play” in any diplomatic effort with Pyongyang. Whether more consultation leads to actual consensus remains to be seen.

Second, the US will most likely propose a processual solution to the nuclear issue. In an op-ed in the New York Times in 2018, Blinken himself argued that the best deal the US could reach with North Korea “more than likely will look like what Barack Obama achieved with Iran.” He wrote that an interim agreement “would buy time to negotiate a more comprehensive deal, including a minutely sequenced road map that will require sustained diplomacy.”

Third, the new administration seems to place a greater focus on the human rights issue in its policies on North Korea. During his visit to Seoul, Blinken made clear that the US would not only address security concerns, but also the North Korean government’s “widespread, systematic abuses” of its people.

Three lessons from the past

Act, not react: As past experiences with North Korea have shown, it is now critical for the United States to act quickly and clearly communicate its new North Korea strategy to both its allies and Pyongyang. If official communication channels are blocked, the facilitation activities of individual European Union (EU) member states and/or Track 1.5 intermediaries could be helpful. Until then, it is crucial not to get sucked into rhetorical tugs-of-war with North Korea. If the international community fails to act quickly on North Korea, Pyongyang will likely once again resort to a crisis-inducing policy, thus forcing the international community to react to its expected provocations, rather than preventing further escalation in the first place.

Separate the issues: The North Korean nuclear issue is complex. Solving the military and security components of this issue will inevitably require addressing a range of related political, diplomatic, economic, and even historical issues. As the case of the Six-Party Talks has shown, however, one individual negotiation process can quickly become overwhelmed by the multitude of challenges and issues associated with the nuclear issue. As such, it is essential to establish adequate formats with the right participants to address the respective issues and challenges.

There is a role for Europe: Although there is no doubt that the EU is only a peripheral player in Korean Peninsula security issues, the current debate on a new Indo-Pacific strategy provides an important opportunity for Brussels to critically reflect on its own approach to North Korea, as it has failed to achieve its stated goals, i.e., denuclearizing the peninsula, strengthening the non-proliferation regime, and improving the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Although the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula will not be front and center of this new strategy, the EU needs to show greater political will to contribute toward solving the pending security issues in the region if it wants to strengthen its profile as a security actor in the region.

This text was also published at fairoberserver.com.