Two important global events that are about to happen may sound alluring to some Americans: first, the United States government may jettison or significantly alter the nuclear deal with Iran; and Chairman Kim Jong Un of North Korea will begin to negotiate terms for long-overdue peace with South Korean President Moon Jae In, when they meet on April 27.
Later in May or June, Kim is supposed to meet with President Donald Trump to discuss paths to denuclearization, and peace will bubble up all over the Korean Peninsula. Who knows? Perhaps the principals will be awarded the Noble Peace Prize and Trump will have achieved the ultimate upstaging of his immediate predecessor, Barak Obama.
Unfortunately, such diplomatic feats may turn out to be fantasy, not least because unilateral solutions may offend certain countries that have very real national security interests in northern Asia. The troika of peacemakers would have to overcome not only logic but also the natural prerogatives of the United Nations, which over 73 years of Cold War history is the only force that has continuously mediated on behalf of Koreans to the north and the south of the Military Demarcation Line.
For the time being, however, neither Trump, Kim nor Moon seems to be willing to politically afford or to acknowledge — or to even forthrightly confront these complicated legacies. It is much easier to hang on to fact-free narratives, promote unrealistic expectations and risk another round of failed peace negotiations. Such a strategy, however, perhaps poses the biggest risks.
Ironically, the first victim of such a game plan seems again to be the UN, whose chief political officer, Jeffrey Feltman, an under secretary-general, visited the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, in early December, inspiring the sudden Korean Spring. On his return from meetings with North Korea’s foreign affairs minister, Ri Yong Ho, and the vice foreign affairs minister, Pak Myong Guk, Feltman reported that he did not receive commitments from the North but “left the door ajar” to a “negotiated solution.” (Feltman retired from the UN in March; his replacement, Rosemary DiCarlo, another American and former State Department diplomat, begins work in May.)
Feltman’s hopeful message was immediately smashed by Trump, whose threats to “totally destroy” North Korea, according to news reports, remained his priority.
Attempts to sideline the UN with rash political moves have as long a history as the entire Korean conflict. At the start of the Cold War, Russian and American disagreement over what was best for Korea led to a five-year trusteeship over the divided country, nominally managed by the UN but controlled by Russian and US occupation troops. The Korean War was fought between a North Korean-Chinese alliance supported by Russia against a South Korean-UN command authorized under Resolution 84 (1950), which was de facto American-led and staffed.
No victor emerged, but after a war of attrition an armistice was signed under UN auspices by North Korea, China and the US on behalf of the UN.
Along the 38th parallel, the 2.5-mile-wide Korean Demilitarized Zone became the border between the two nations, which technically remain at war today. The Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission, or NNSC, composed of Swedish, Swiss, Polish and Czechoslovakian observers, was mandated to ensure compliance with Article 13 c) and d) of the Korean Armistice, which required that the signatories not introduce additional troops or arms.
South Korea and the US violated these prohibitions almost immediately after they came into force, clearly pursuing a strategy to eject the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission. In June 1957, the US said bluntly that it no longer accepted the restrictions under paragraph 13 d) and followed up in early 1958 with the deployment of the first US nuclear arsenal in South Korea.
The betrayal of its commitment under the UN umbrella is conveniently forgotten in the fact-free world of today’s American punditry, which prefers to highlight North Korean violations of agreements instead. Nevertheless, it should surprise no one that North Korea may be as wary as the other negotiators in the upcoming talks.
Possible objectives of the inter-Korean mediation, perhaps invigorated by South Korean promises to lift some of its sanctions on North Korea, include:
- Mutual recognition of each country’s existence as a precondition for further bilateral agreements
- Cessation of hostilities as a prelude to a peace agreement
- Completion and signing of a new version of the 1992 Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula
- Resumption and perhaps extension of the joint cooperation zones in Kaesong and Kumgangsang in North Korea
- A formal peace agreement between the two Koreas
- Establishment of a nuclear weapons free zone for the entire Korean Peninsula
Fueled by possible temporary relief from US and UN sanctions, objectives for the North Korea-US mediation could include:
- US recognition of North Korea as a sovereign nation
- Security guarantees for both South and North Korea as a precondition for talks about denuclearization
- The lifting of US sanctions against peninsula-wide nuclear, chemical and biological weapons
- A formal peace agreement to replace the Armistice, opening the way to full diplomatic relations and unhindered trade.
Whether any of these objectives will actually be tackled during the negotiations remain to be seen. Chances are that Kim’s meeting with Moon and Trump will conclude with bombastic statements of little practical consequence. The challenge faced by the parties is to achieve results that meet their own needs without threatening the strategic interests of China, Russia and Japan.
If the American and Korean leaders spurn those interests, they will likely pay a heavy price once they try to obtain the UN Security Council’s cooperation in lifting or changing UN sanctions on North Korea. Last July, Russia and China aligned their policies when they unveiled their own road map for North Korea. It proposed “double freezing” and resuming the six-party talks.
The freezing relates to both North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests, as well as to the US-South Korean military exercises and expanding deployment of missile defense and navy assets. While Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, expressed satisfaction that, de facto, the plan is being carried out, he is also hinting that Russia and China intend to play a decisive role in the negotiations.
Russia and China are ready to reject the current global missile shield that the US, according to Lavrov, is deploying in South Korea and Japan to encircle Russia and China, by “using the same old North Korean nuclear problem as a pretext.”
“It is in our interests not to give rise to such tendencies,” Lavrov stressed. “And so, it is necessary to sit down at a negotiating table.”
It is easy to predict that if such vital Russian and Chinese national security demands are not addressed in a North Korea agreement, the two veto-wielding powers will block any mediated result and possibly withdraw support from future UN nonproliferation sanctions.
To navigate such possible consequences, the Trump administration should operate with a comprehensive policy offered by a well-briefed team of negotiators. We will soon hear a hint about the quality of planning going into the negotiations when Trump unveils his decision over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, on Iran in mid-May.
If he exits from the agreement while engaging with Kim, Iran will have incontrovertible evidence that violating the terms of the Nonproliferation Treaty; quickly building a threatening nuclear arsenal; and aiming it against the US and its allies is Iran’s surest bargaining chip.
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