Time is ripe to start bilateral talks between the US and North Korea
The continuing standoff between USA and North Korea on the latter’s nuclear and missile programmes and the resulting deterioration in the security environment of North East Asia continue to be a matter of concern to the international community. On December 15, at the UN Security Council meeting on North Korea, Antonio Guterres, Secretary General (SG) of the United Nations, described the situation on the Korean Peninsula as the most dangerous peace and security issue in the world today, stating: “I am deeply concerned by the risk of military confrontation, including as a result of unintended escalation or miscalculation.” Unless resolved to the satisfaction of both USA and North Korea, the standoff will continue to fester and only add on in a significant manner to the various other international security concerns. As the SG correctly noted “Any military action would have devastating and unpredictable consequences.” Therefore, all diplomatic avenues must be explored to resolve the issue.
Given North Korea’s past history of resiling from treaty and agreed commitments as well as the ideology driving the current US administration, a final solution to this issue will require the active participation of and a provision of guarantee by the UN Security Council. But in the initial stages, the process would require committed bilateral talks between the US and North Korea on the contours of the final agreement, with the details to be worked later with the full participation of UNSC permanent members.
The time is opportune now for the international community to press for the start of such bilateral discussions between the US and North Korea leading to the full participation of UNSC in the final negotiations. There are a number of encouraging signs for the start of such talks.
First, although North Korea has successfully tested long range missiles, there is considerable doubt in the minds of US and South Korean defence officials about North Korea’s capability to effectively deliver a nuclear warhead on the US mainland. The US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, during an off-camera briefing with reporters at the Pentagon on December 15, is reported to have said that he does not believe that North Korea’s current intercontinental ballistic missiles are capable of hitting the continental US. He also said that North Korea’s November ICBM “has not yet shown to be a capable threat against us right now”. While that may be true as of now, there is no reason to doubt that North Korea, if unrestrained, will not develop such capabilities in the coming years through further tests. It is, therefore, in the vital national security interests of the US to start talks with North Korea to prevent such a threat from actually materialising.
Second, even though North Korea may be apprehensive about the true intentions of the US, it is also in its vital national security interests to start talks with the US. The US has been instrumental in getting the UNSC to impose a variety of sanctions on North Korea. While in the past most of these sanctions were of a non-threatening nature, mostly directed towards the denial of missile and nuclear related items and technologies to North Korean entities and limited financial sanctions against North Korean officials, the most recent sanctions are far more extensive and intrusive with serious implications for North Korea’s economy and security.
The UNSC sanctions mandated after September 2017 include: (i) a full ban on coal, iron and iron ore, and adds lead and lead ore to the banned commodities subject to sectoral sanctions; (ii) a ban on North Korea’s export of textiles (including fabrics and partially or fully completed apparel products); and (iii) a limit for all refined petroleum products in terms of the amount allowed for supply, sale or transfer to North Korea. The first two measures will severely affect North Korea’s export earnings. The export of coal, ores and apparel products constitute nearly two thirds of North Korea’s exports earnings. A complete ban on their exports will do much damage to its not only in terms of revenues but also employment since North Korea’s textile industry is heavily dependent on the export market. Since these bans were introduced only in late 2017, their effects are yet to be fully felt. But with the ban in full force in 2018, North Korea’s economy will undergo severe stress. It is, therefore, in North Korea’s interest to negotiate an agreement that results in at least partial relief.
Some analysts have expressed doubts about China’s commitment to the sanctions. It is true that a total Chinese commitment to the sanctions regime is necessary for it to have any effect. Chinese imports of the banned items constitute more than 99 per cent of North Korea’s total exports of these items. Therefore, Chinese cooperation is essential for the working of the sanctions and their effectiveness. Notwithstanding the various reports about China’s non-compliance, all evidence suggests that the Chinese have been acting according to the letter of the sanctions resolutions even though their heart may not be fully in it. China’s coal imports from North Korea, which was in excess of US $ 1 billion, on average during the preceding years, has dropped to $ 413 million in 2017, only slightly above the $ 400 million limit set by the UNSC. China’s imports of iron ore from North Korea had already dropped in 2016 to less than $ 75 million from the earlier levels of more than $ 200 million, even though no restrictions on iron ore imports were in place then. While one has to await the full set of China’s 2017 trade data, there is no reason to believe that China would not have fully complied with the sanctions regime. Therefore, North Korea does face a real threat to its economic wellbeing as a result of China’s compliance with the sanctions put in place by the UNSC.
Given these factors, some of the statements made by the US Secretary of State gain a degree of significance. At the Atlantic Council-Korea Foundation forum in Washington earlier this month, Tillerson said: “We’re ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk…….We’re ready to have the first meeting without precondition. Let’s just meet and see — we can talk about the weather if you want.” (Although the statement referred to “without precondition”, it did imply that North Korea would not conduct any further nuclear or missile tests during the talks). Some subsequent statements attributed to Tillerson can be interpreted to mean that he went back on his statement at the Atlantic Council-Korea Foundation forum, although it is not entirely clear whether he is not in favour of his earlier stand. In addition, all other parties to the conflict – South Korea, Japan, China and Russia – have welcomed Tillerson’s statement.
In a press briefing made after Tillerson’s Atlantic Council-Korea Foundation forum talk, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Beijing welcomes all efforts to ease tensions and promote dialogue. “China has already proposed “double suspension” proposal and we hope that the United States and North Korea can meet each other halfway and take meaningful steps on dialogue and contact,” Lu said. China’s “double suspension” or “freeze for freeze” proposal is that North Korea halt all ballistic missile and nuclear tests and that the United States and South Korea halt all military exercises. The Russian foreign Minister too has welcomed Tillerson’s proposal.
Therefore, all the requirements for the start of bilateral negotiations between the US and North Korea – on the scope and contours of an agreement to (i) limit North Korea’s nuclear and missile progress and thus assure the national security of the US and (ii) provide relief to North Korea through the removal of UN sanctions, under an international UNSC guarantee to assure the protection of the North Korean regime against external attempts at regime change – are in place. It is time for the international community to undertake a concerted effort to persuade the US and North Korea to begin negotiations in earnest.