4 Ways out of the Korean Crisis

A soldier salutes from atop vehicle carrying a missile past a stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during the parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, in Pyongyang

Washington cannot neglect deterrence, of course, but the balance of effort must rest with creative diplomacy at this late date.

Before elaborating these proposals, however, it will be essential to dismiss two unfortunate myths. The first is that any negotiations with North Korea are bound to fail. That conclusion is primarily derived from the experience of the 1994 Agreed Framework, and recent analyses of that episode show more than a little blame also belongs with the U.S. side regarding haphazard implementation. That critical agreement may well have been killed for ideological reasons, as one expert rendering reveals. A second extremely widespread myth concerns the supposed viability of new and enhanced sanctions to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The logic is flawed on many levels, not least that North Korea is a very different country than Iran. But the core problem is actually that nobody knows how to “collapse” a regime possessing nuclear weapons. Perhaps Pyongyang suddenly caves and becomes malleable. Alternatively, perhaps the Kim regime calculates the end is near and so places all bets on the desperate, irrational gamble of (nuclear) war. In short, the sanctions logic of ever intensifying pressure puts far too much stock in the rational mind while ignoring the fact that irrational and passionate impulses are everywhere evident in human behavior—to the point that such impulses may be called “normal.” With a healthy respect for a rational and reasonable negotiated solution to the current crisis, the discussion below outlines four possible structures for a negotiated settlement.

China’s Dual Track Solution

Chinese diplomats have been active in promoting diplomatic solutions to the increasingly tense standoff on the Korean Peninsula. Foreign Minister Wang Yi outlined a double suspension (双暂停) in March 2017 under which Pyongyang would freeze both nuclear and missile tests in exchange for a suspension of the large, annual U.S.-ROK military exercise. Regrettably, the proposal has not received adequate discussion, analysis or debate by experts in U.S. media. The more comprehensive and similarly sounding “dual track” (双轨制) proposal was fully discussed in a 2016 academic article that was published in the journal Northeast Asia Forum (东北亚论坛) by Wang Sheng and Ling Shengli. The essence of the proposal seems to be a joining of the denuclearization goal together with a second track that rests on a “cessation of hostilities—peace treaty mechanism” (停和机制). They suggest that this peace process would need to be realized gradually, encompassing four phases. In the first phase, Pyongyang’s agreement to freeze its program would require some “sort of ‘compensation’” (定的补偿). During a second phase encompassing year three to year five, the United States and ROK could reduce or halt their exercises, as North Korea agreed to inspections and denuclearization, while opening up its economy. A third phase from year five to year eight would witness enhanced security through making denuclearization irreversible, establishing conditions in which North Korea “could become a normal member of the world community” (成为国际社会的正常一员). In the final phase, year eight to year thirteen, a permanent peace treaty could be signed and, now that North Korea had increased trust with its neighbors, Pyongyang’s national interests could be served by a reemphasis on economic goals versus military goals (国家利益的重心由军事向经济的大转移).

Cooperation Spiral Solution

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