This post is authored by Patricia M. Kim, senior policy analyst with the China program at the U.S. Institute of Peace. It is part of a project conducted by the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, supported by the Smith Richardson Foundation and Korea Foundation. This series of posts will address the U.S. nuclear posture in Northeast Asia, implications of North Korean nuclear and missile programs for U.S. extended deterrence commitments, operational and tactical dimensions of deterrence on the peninsula, and regional dimensions of stability. To further stimulate an open discussion of these issues, we would like to invite reader responses. Please contact Ellen Swicord at firstname.lastname@example.org for submission guidelines if you are interested in contributing a response.
There is nothing like a major crisis or unprecedented diplomatic opening for rallying normally contentious neighbors around a common cause. If a collective fear of war on the Korean Peninsula facilitated coordination among Northeast Asian states in late 2017, and optimism for a diplomatic resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis animated the region in early 2018, the pendulum has swung back from the two extremes and settled into a messier, muddled reality.
Although North Korea’s nuclear program and strategic competition between the United States and China remain the top concerns for all in the region, diverse interests and objectives among all of the regional players guarantee a complex strategic landscape in the years ahead.
Closing Window of Opportunity for Diplomacy With North Korea
Despite a flurry of summit meetings since 2018 between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in, Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, and now Vladimir Putin, negotiations with North Korea remain stalled. Pyongyang has yet to demonstrate genuine interest in taking systematic steps toward denuclearization and has continued instead to expand its nuclear and missile programs while demanding sanctions relief. Kim recently declared in front of his country’s Supreme People’s Assembly that he would give negotiations with the United States a chance until the end of this year. Soon after he supervised the test of a new type of “tactical guided weapon” to send the message that he will not be coerced into a deal and can easily revert back to the days of missile and nuclear testing brinkmanship.
Frustrations are mounting in Seoul among those who believe progress on inter-Korean relations is being held hostage by the Trump administration’s hardline on sanctions. The Moon administration has tried to balance between Pyongyang’s demands and Washington’s position that sanctions should not be lifted until North Korea takes concrete steps toward denuclearization. It has done this by pushing along incremental, nonetheless significant, measures such as inter-Korean military tension reduction measures and the exploration of joint development projects. But many believe Seoul’s thankless role of serving as a mediator between Washington and Pyongyang is beginning to reach its limits.
Meanwhile, Beijing is much less motivated to exert as much pressure on Pyongyang as it did in 2017 now that the situation on the Korean Peninsula has stabilized with Washington and Pyongyang engaged in negotiations. Chinese leaders instead are fully consumed with Washington’s increasingly hardline policies toward their country and the U.S.-China trade war in particular.
While rising U.S.-China bilateral tensions do not preclude the possibly that Beijing could play a more constructive role in disarming Pyongyang at some point, there are no indications thus far that it intends to do so. Beijing continues to support North Korea’s calls for sanctions relief and has relaxed its own sanctions enforcement over the last year. Without a serious deterioration of the status quo with another North Korean nuclear test, for instance, or the elevation of sanctions enforcement to the number one priority on the U.S.-China bilateral agenda, Beijing is unlikely to do much more. For now, Chinese leaders seem comfortable leaving Seoul to do the heavy-lifting in keeping negotiations moving forward.
The reality is that time is running out for the diplomatic track. With election year just around the corner, the Trump administration will have increasingly less bandwidth to engage in extended negotiations and little appetite for risky moves. Furthermore, having publicly set a deadline for the end of this year to sign a deal, Kim may feel the need to resume missile or nuclear tests or engage in some other major provocation to save face at home if December comes and he has yet to win significant economic concessions. Any such move would stall negotiations at best, if not plunge the region back into the tense days of “fire and fury.”
Long-term Security Architecture for the Korean Peninsula in the Midst of Competition With China
Even if negotiations picked up speed, significant road blocks beyond the issues of denuclearization and sanctions remain ahead. Arguably the most difficult of these will be finding agreement among the four main parties—North and South Korea, the United States, and China—on a long-term security architecture for the Korean Peninsula.
Since the beginning of nuclear negotiations, North Korea has advocated for the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” While it has yet to define precisely what this means for the southern half of the Korean Peninsula, it likely includes demands such as banning the deployment of U.S. strategic assets to the peninsula, scaling back military exercises, U.S. troops, and missile defense cooperation within the U.S.-ROK alliance, and possibly even retracting the U.S. nuclear umbrella over its ally. A more extreme demand could include the abrogation of the U.S.-ROK alliance for the sake of “neutralizing” the Korean Peninsula.
As negotiations proceed, China will support North Korea’s push for security concessions from the United States and South Korea. While doing so, it will try to shift the balance of power in the region in ways that are favorable to its own interests. Although it is unlikely to lead the charge for the “neutralization” of the Korean Peninsula, Beijing will enthusiastically back North Korean and South Korean voices behind such a call given its desire to reduce the United States’ presence in its backyard and weaken the U.S.-led alliance network in Asia. Conversely, Beijing is unlikely to accept any extension of positive security guarantees from the United States to North Korea or otherwise allow the Korean Peninsula to lean toward Washington.
Although the Moon administration has clearly stated that the U.S.-ROK alliance is a bilateral matter and not on the negotiating table, no consensus exists in Seoul on whether and how South Korea post-denuclearization of North Korea, or a unified Korea, would fit into the U.S.-led alliance network. While almost all would agree that Seoul must maintain good relations with both Washington and Beijing given its geographical location and economic realities, South Koreans remain divided largely along liberal and conservative fault lines on the future security orientation of the Korean Peninsula.
Although many Koreans (and others in the region) might find a “neutral” Korean Peninsula unobjectionable in theory, immediate questions would arise of how neutrality would be realized, whether it would require negative or positive security guarantees from the major powers, and how any such agreement would be enforced given the many outstanding conflicts in the region such as territorial disagreements between China, Japan, and the two Koreas in the East China Sea.
There are no clear answers in Washington, either, on these difficult issues, which have implications far beyond the U.S.-ROK alliance and raise questions about the future role of the United States in Asia. In the midst of growing strategic competition with China, many in Washington are unlikely to want to diminish the U.S. presence in the region, not to mention lose a key ally. For instance, although Trump has expressed interest in pulling U.S. troops from South Korea, the U.S. Congress has imposed barriers on the president’s ability to significantly reduce the number of troops using the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act. Furthermore, all the key U.S. national strategy documents emphasize the importance of working with U.S. allies—South Korea included—given the “return of great power competition” with China and Russia.
Strategic clarity and a long-term vision for Northeast Asia are sorely needed to provide direction in the messier, muddled reality that has arrived in Northeast Asia. Now is the time for frank and extensive dialogues, first between the United States and its Asian allies, and then with China, North Korea, and Russia. Given the many conflicting interests among the key players, it is difficult, at present, to imagine a mutually agreeable security architecture for the region. But without such understandings in place, a resolution to the North Korean nuclear crisis, let alone peace, will remain elusive.