To the brink and back

After being close to military action last year, how the U.S. and North Korea agreed to talks

June 12, 2018 02:15 am | Updated 09:56 am IST

Less than a year ago, North Korea scored a ‘nuclear double’. In July 2017, it launched two intercontinental ballistic missiles, the first capable of reaching Alaska, and the second, the Hwasong-14, capable of reaching California. In November, it detonated its most powerful nuclear weapon — a 120 kiloton-boosted fission device.

For long, North Korea had been seen as an impoverished state, run by a megalomaniac dictator, trying to punch way above its weight by defying the United Nations and the U.S. Yet, last year, it was very close to establishing a viable nuclear deterrent against the world’s biggest superpower. True, it was still perfecting the weapon’s miniaturisation and ensuring the missile’s accuracy and safe re-entry. That might take a little more time but the U.S. has already felt deterred from taking pre-emptive military action.

By late 2017, these developments had brought the world closer to a potential nuclear exchange than perhaps at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It was not clear at that juncture whether the U.S. would attempt a strike on North Korea and how the latter would respond. Nor was it clear whether North Korea would up the ante further by firing its missiles closer to Guam or the U.S. mainland, albeit without a nuclear payload. Meanwhile, both North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump kept exchanging threats and barbs.

Fortunately, matters have greatly improved since, aided by some statesman-like initiatives by South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Today, Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump will sit across the table and start negotiations.

The impact of sanctions

When North Korea pulled out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 and intensified its nuclear programme, the UN imposed sanctions. But the North Korean regime continued to conduct missile and nuclear weapon tests, provoking the UN and the U.S. to impose more severe sanctions in the hope that North Korea would abandon its nuclear programme. But that did not happen.

The prolonged sanctions have had a very serious impact on the North Korean economy. Monthly exports from the country plunged from about $240 million in 2016 to less than $50 million by the end of 2017. Exports even to China, its main trading partner, slumped last year by 81.6% year-on-year to $54.34 million. Oil supply is seriously endangered.

But the resulting hardship has not caused any internal protests or revolt in North Korea, threatening Mr. Kim’s rule. The North Korean people have lived thorough much worse deprivation, particularly during the famine years from 1994 to 1998. The regime survived those years through a combination of a brutal internal security apparatus, political indoctrination, and tight media control.

The situation is much better today. The per capita income of about $1,300 is not much lower than that of some South Asian nations. Russian, Chinese and South Korean colleagues who have visited Pyongyang in recent times tell me that the atmosphere there is not one of gloom and doom. Movie theatres are open, taxis can be seen plying the streets, and shelves in shops are reasonably well stocked. The price of rice has remained nearly constant over the past five years at around 5,000-6,000 Won (about 60 U.S. cents in the open currency market). Corn, a cheaper staple, is sold under just 24 cents per kg. The regime has also tacitly loosened its control on the marketplace, letting private production and sale of essential consumables to go on.

But although North Korea has found the sanctions manageable and continued with its nuclear programme, it would certainly like to have the sanctions eased. Mr. Kim had offered to negotiate this with the U.S. directly. But Mr. Trump had dismissed such offers, both during his campaign and during his Presidency, categorically insisting that he would not even consider negotiating with the “little rocket man” unless the latter first got rid of his nuclear assets.

Such a precondition for talks was clearly not acceptable to North Korea. Its nuclear assets had been built to address its long-standing fear of regime change attempts by the U.S. There has been a deep-rooted conviction in the successive Kim regimes that only a nuclear deterrent can keep the U.S. at bay — a view that has only been reinforced by the downfall and eventual assassination of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi after he gave up his nuclear programme.

South Korea’s role

Fortunately, 2018 saw some ‘Olympics diplomacy’ coming to the rescue. President Moon, who originally hails from North Korea and had always shown a conciliatory approach towards the North Koreans, invited the country to participate in the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February. The North Koreans responded positively. This provided the diplomatic opportunity for the two Koreas to address more serious bilateral issues as well as the stand-off with the U.S. A North-South summit was scheduled for April and, more importantly, a message was conveyed to the U.S. that Mr. Kim had expressed his “eagerness to meet President Trump as soon as possible”, that he is “committed to denuclearisation”, and that North Korea would “refrain” from any further nuclear or missile tests. In turn, Mr. Trump climbed down from his demand that Mr. Kim first dismantle his nuclear arsenal, and immediately accepted the invitation for a summit. These moves were rightly hailed the world over as acts of statesmanship on both sides. Mr. Moon also deserved a large part of the credit.

The Kim-Trump talks were announced without the usual groundwork and lower-level discussions. Lack of coordination also led to some wrong signalling, with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and National Security Adviser John Bolton referring to the ‘Libyan model’ for the talks. Mentioning Libya was akin to waving a red flag to the North Koreans, who angrily denounced Mr. Pence and Mr. Bolton, causing Mr. Trump to cancel the summit in retaliation. Once again Mr. Moon stepped into the breach as an intermediary and the meeting has now been restored.

To Mr. Trump’s credit, he has further softened his earlier demand for “the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula” before any lifting of sanctions and has instead settled for “credible steps” by North Korea towards that goal. The North is extremely unlikely to give up its entire nuclear deterrent, no matter what the inducement. Instead, it might, in stages, offer to suspend further weapon and missile tests, desist from producing more fissile materials and from non-deployment of shorter range missiles that could threaten Japan or South Korea, and perhaps work towards partial disarmament. This will enable both sides to claim success by invoking the convenient ambiguities of the word “denuclearisation”, even as the negotiations drag on till the U.S. congressional elections in November.

R. Rajaraman is Emeritus Professor of Physics, JNU, New Delhi

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