On Sunday, June 30, 2019, US President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met at Panmunjom’s “peace village” for a historic meeting – the first time for a US President in the People's Democratic Republic of Korea.
The meeting – initially favored by a US President’s Twitter message to Kim Jong-un at the Osaka G20 Summit – lasted about 50 minutes and has already had its first result: the resumption of a working-level negotiation between the two countries regarding the number one issue, namely denuclearization.
It should be immediately noted that – for the North Korean power elite – “denuclearization” means: a) eliminating the nuclear potential held by the North American Armed Forces in South Korea; b) bilaterally removing the missile systems between the North and the South of the Korean peninsula; c) maintaining an acceptable level of nuclear energy for electricity production.
Finally, it also means ensuring an acceptable level of nuclear technology that can remain in North Korea even after an effective negotiation, if the political winds in the USA, Japan, and Taiwan changed direction.
What does the USA want when it talks about North Korea’s “denuclearization”?
In essence, it means maintaining a minimum but acceptable standard of military presence in South Korea, with a view to avoiding North Korea’s military annexation of South Korea, as well as maintaining a US military bloc of as many as 15 bases in South Korea – hence a level of conventional deterrence that also applies to Japan (and Taiwan) and a first strike force in South Korea, so as to allow the subsequent action of the bases around North Korea. Especially Guam.
The US Armed Forces consist of as many as 35,000 soldiers, while the US military presence in Japan is only slightly higher, reaching 40,000 units.
Moreover, Kim knows very well that China does not absolutely want to border on US military bases – and the same holds true for the Russian Federation, albeit only for the tiny border between Russia and North Korea.
From this viewpoint, Kim is certain about the strong and continuous support for the negotiation with the United States at first from China and secondly from Russia.
Hence, neither China nor Russia wants a too powerful North Korea, capable of carrying out operations – including military ones – on the peninsula and of filling South Korea with American soldiers.
History repeats itself: after the secret negotiations with Secretary of State Kissinger in 1971 to open a relationship with the USA, China immediately reassured the North Korean leaders that its aid would not be lacking and that the détente between China and the USA would also favor North Korea in its future relations with the United States.
Certainly, a part of the US power elite has often cherished the idea of a purely military and definitive solution for North Korea.
Here the joke by the Italian Communist leader, Palmiro Togliatti comes to mind, when – after the riots following activist Pallante’s failed attack on him – he told his Party’s representative in Lombardy, Giancarlo Pajetta, who had “occupied” the Prefecture of Milan: “Well, now what are you going to do with it?”
So what would the USA do with an impossible clash and with a probable nuclear escalation on Russia’s and China’s borders? How would Russia and China react to the loss of a friendly state and how would the other Asian States react to the breaking out of a war in Korea to “bring democracy”? Pure madness – and Kim knows it all too well.
Some US circles are less aware of it. Also some US brokers and mediators with North Korea, such as my unforgettable friend, Bob Gallucci, knew it very well. Certainly, the tension that had mounted between China and North Korea, immediately after Kim Jong-un’s rise to power, was North Korea’s only real strategic mistake, which its Leader quickly corrected, by even turning it into a preferential relationship.
The North Korean Leader reached two other successes in the negotiations with the USA: the tested and substantial uselessness of international sanctions, which did not change the North Korean power at all, and the small economic boom that accompanied the early years of his power – an expansion that must absolutely be preserved.
Kim Jong-un, however, also knows very well that the regime survival is linked to stable, robust and long-term economic growth.
Clearly, there is a real “Chinese faction” within the North Korean power elite, that sometimes fights against the one closely linked to Kim Il-Sung’ system.
Nevertheless, Kim Jong-un – who is a careful and skillful politician, capable of calculating the right strategic equation – has also realized that it is not at all useful to alienate China. Quite the reverse. It should be recalled that the sanctions against North Korea were imposed by the UN Security Council with China’s and the Russian Federation’s favorable votes.
Considering that all the UN Security Council’s members voted in favor of those sanctions, albeit for very different reasons, they can be lifted only if everyone agrees to do so.
Hence the sanctions – at least by the United States – could be lifted only if North Korea permanently and, above all, completely relinquishes its nuclear weapons and its ICBM carriers and medium-range launchers, which would quickly silence Guam, Japan, Taiwan and obviously South Korea.
Certainly, the IAEA has so far proved to be effective in monitoring situations very similar to those in which North Korea currently finds itself.
However, can the Vienna-based UN agency replace a strategic choice? Obviously not.
Hence, we are back to the formula that characterized Bob Gallucci’s negotiation with the North Korean regime, which began in 1993: the dismantling of the Yongbyon reactor, the only source – as far as we know – of North Korean plutonium, in exchange for the US and IAEA acceptance of two civilian light-water reactors for the sole production of electricity.
The Agreed Framework put in place by Bob Gallucci lasted about nine years, also despite all the piques and rebounds of the Republican Party-dominated US Senate on the transfer of fissile material, technology, etc.
On the other hand, North Korea’s nuclear issue reflects an even more profound political and strategic issue.
When the USSR – which was North Korea’s greatest supporter in the 1970s and 1980s, followed by China – collapsed, the advice that China gave to North Korea was to start the “Four Modernizations” also there, with a view to avoiding ending up just like the Soviet Union.
Nevertheless, the question put by the North Korean power elite was simple and rational: what would happen to us and to the regime if we opened the door to economic reforms and then inevitably to the policies adopted by China?
Hence, North Korea’s political use of nuclear power that also envisages – under certain conditions – the dismantling of nuclear weapons, in exchange for the lifting of sanctions and for aid flows from the West, also with a view to reducing China’s “invisible hand” in North Korea.
The United States would like a Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible Dismantlement (CVID) in keeping with the provisions of UN Resolution No. 2270 of 2016.
Conversely, for North Korea, the dismantling of nuclear weapons also entails the removal of 28,500 out of the 35,000 US military stationed in South Korea.
A possible solution – albeit far from easy – is the mere freezing of the North Korean nuclear program.
Kim Jong-un has often hinted at the fact that North Korea itself could give up its nuclear and missile research activities.
The Punggye-ri nuclear test site has already been closed by the North Korean government unilaterally.
This solution of freezing the North Korean nuclear program would also be a rational solution. North Korea would not be forced to dismantle its weapon systems first, thus exposing itself to evident risks of military and political destabilization. The United States would be certain that the North Korean potential remains stable and that it is a system it can already oppose. Finally, the economically important possibility of resuming a robust “Sunshine Policy” would open up for South Korea.
Japan – which is anyway rearming – would see an opportunity to reopen the long-standing issue of North Korea’s abduction of its citizens. China does not want a change in the balance of power on the Korean peninsula, but it would open a market of one hundred million new consumers for its products. Finally, Russia could support a “new North Korean deal” with economic aid and political support, thus avoiding North Korea putting all its eggs in one basket, namely China.
Moreover, also North Korea’s military nuclear capacity – sold to many customers at a “strong” currency – is a far from negligible source of income for the North Korean regime. Hence ensuring to North Korea the lost revenues from the sale of nuclear and missile technologies, but also setting a rational time schedule for the phasing out of North Korean nuclear facilities.
This should add to the actual and effective lifting of sanctions against North Korea, which are so severe that they would destroy also a rich and diversified Western-style economy.
Moreover, North Korea could initially suspend only the ICBM tests, while maintaining – albeit for a short period of time – the exercises with short and medium-range missiles designed to hit Japan.
Thus, a void of power could be avoided in the region, which may be tempting for many people, especially in South-East Asia.
However, the nuclear component of the North Korean submarines – which could be excluded from the framework of negotiations – should be studied.
We could then ask North Korea to adhere again to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT).
Furthermore, the structural weakening of the North Korean military system should be accompanied by a Treaty – signed by the USA and its allies in the Pacific region – which guarantees to North Korea that the United States or other countries will in no way take advantage of North Korea's new weakness.
Moreover, in exchange for denuclearization, the USA could turn the 1953 armistice into a real peace Treaty, with mutual diplomatic recognition and the opening of normal commercial and financial channels.
The USA, however, needs not to be alone in the long negotiations with North Korea.
If the European Union mattered in foreign policy – not only for the usual trite talk about budgets – this would be a good opportunity for it to come to the fore.
However, this will not happen. Certainly, the ideal would be a tripartite agreement between the USA, China, and the Russian Federation.
It would allow to slacken the regional tension, as well as to favor the trade-off between economy and military policies in North Korea, and enable Russia and China to make its interests clear to North Korea.
Furthermore, we could think of a Bank for Korea’s Transformation, which would favor the modernization of North Korea’s industry and allow to ensure widespread wellbeing, which is Kim’s only guarantee to stay in power for a very long period of time.