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Why Small Deals with North Korea Could Work

Image of North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un. Image Credit: North Korean State Media.
Image of North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un. Image Credit: North Korean State Media.

Big-Bang Deals with North Korea Fail; Go Small and Build Up: South Korean President Moon Jae-In’s term ends in March. He was an extraordinary figure in the history of South Korean diplomacy. He entered office determined to resolve, not just manage or mildly improve, the decades-old inter-Korean stand-off, to reconcile the two Koreas into a durable ‘peace regime’ in the place of an ‘unstable armistice.’ This laudable goal was exciting and raised high expectations. But Moon regrettably made no breakthroughs. North Korea is basically unchanged from what it was five years ago. It is time to step back and consider smaller, more achievable deals in the place of dramatic, but highly improbably ‘big bang’ breakthroughs.

On entering office in 2017, Moon immediately aimed high. He first sought a peace treaty to end the legally unresolved Korean war. Then he pushed for summits between the US president, Donald Trump, and the North Korean supreme leader, Kim Jong Un. After all these initiatives fell apart, he pushed for a symbolic, non-binding ‘end of war’ declaration. Nothing came of all this, and years of time, which might have been spent on doable, cumulatively expanding deals, were wasted in search of a TV-ready, Nixon-goes-to-China moment

Why There is No Korean War Treaty

The best way to end the Korean War and finally resolve the stand-off is via a treaty (and not this curious nonbinding declaration of the last few months). Moon, correctly, started with this but quickly became bogged down in the details which have bedeviled a treaty for decades:

First, Korea is not at ‘war’ in anything other than a legal sense. There are no moving armies, no drone strikes, no insurgencies. If the armistice is ‘unstable,’ as Moon says, it is because North Korea violates it. The US and South Korea have never struck the North. So there is no pressing military need on the allied (South Korean-US) side for a treaty; this is not Afghanistan 2021.

Second, South Korea never signed the armistice, but China did. So it is not clear if South Korea would need to sign a treaty, whereas China would need to. That would invite China only deeper in Korean affairs, where China has a pretty established record of bullying the South. This would provoke a lot of push-back from Moon’s domestic opponents in South Korea.

Three, a paper treaty means nothing if it is not accompanied by changes on the ground, specifically major demobilizations on both sides, plus some kind of deal on North Korean weapons of mass destruction. In an environment of deep ideological and strategic mistrust, that is unlikely. So signing the treaty would not really accomplish any actual changes.

Four, a treaty would undercut the legal rationale for a United Nations and US presence in South Korea. If a US/UN withdrawal were not accompanied by major North Korean disarmament, a treaty would be akin to unilateral Southern disarmament. South Korean conservatives would fight this bitterly and seek to reverse it as soon as they re-took the presidency.

Trump-Kim Summitry Failed Too

Moon’s other big-bang effort was to bring the US and North Korean leaders together. A US-North Korea summit has long been a hope of the South Korean progressive camp to end the war. The Korean status quo, their thinking goes, is overrun and dominated by the ‘blob’ – the vested interests of militaries, think-tanks, contractors, the foreign policy community, and so on. The way to break through the encrusted, ossified division is by leader-level action which would push aside all these hawkish and reactionary voices to breakthrough to a new deal.

This is attractive. It cuts the peninsula’s gordian knot with one clean stroke. It envisions a grand gesture of redefinition, like President Richard Nixon’s trip to China or President Jimmy Carter’s shepherding of the Camp David Accords. But it assumes a US counter-party genuinely committed to a deep process of détente, as Nixon and Carter were. Trump very clearly was not.

Precisely the Trumpian characteristics – disinterest in US foreign policy traditions, lust for media attention, disdain for detail – which made Trump amenable to meeting Kim also undercut Trump’s ability to actually clinch Moon’s much-hoped-for breakthrough. We now know, for example, that Trump did not prepare for his meetings with Kim. We also know that his interest was primarily in how a prospective North Korea deal with play in the US media. Trump neither understood nor cared for the strategic issues. Nor did he make any effort to move US opinion regarding North Korea. Congress, the State and Defense Departments, and the foreign policy community were hugely skeptical of Trump’s haphazard effort. Trump was effectively alone in his desire for a deal; it was motivated by his vanity not strategy; and once he met serious opposition at home and the North Koreans wanted to negotiate in detail, he unceremoniously dropped the whole thing.

Go Small Next Time

On the cusp of a new South Korean presidency, the lesson of the media-fueled Moon-Trump rollercoaster of expectations and failure is to start small and put in the actual grunt-work of diplomacy. Moon and Trump both ignored the details of the division which has mired it for decades, betting on sheer personality and media exposure. This failed dramatically. No amount of charisma and big TV events will overcome the deep-seated strategic and ideological divisions in one shot. There is no silver bullet. The tragedy of Moon’s presidency is that for all his commitment to peace and détente, he leaves no durable agreements behind because he insisted on an all-in-one breakthrough deal akin to the Camp David Accords of 1978.

Smaller deals require less trust and turn on lower stakes. Hence they are more achievable and, if successfully completed, open the door for future bigger deals. So instead of asking for North Korea’s complete denuclearization, South Korea and the US could start by asking for one full modern weapon (missile, warhead, launcher) to establish more clearly what the North has; in exchange, the US could support the rollback of a specific painful sanction such as the luxury good import or coal export ban. If this worked, a next step might be a freeze of North Korea missile testing for another sanction repeal. If that worked, we might then negotiate another swap, and so on. Progressively, these deals would widen toward greater and greater stakes, building trust over time to take larger and larger chances.

Neither Moon nor Trump wanted to do this dull diplomatic grunt-work. Both sought the glory of the all-encompassing deal. Both failed, wasting years of diplomacy – yet again – as the North improved its WMD further. It is time for greater realism and manageable, workable deals.

Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kellywebsite) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well. 

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Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well.