from Asia Unbound

Restoring Boldness and Flexibility to U.S.-ROK Coordination on North Korea

September 01, 2009

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North Korea

South Korea

Diplomacy and International Institutions

United States

Song Min-soon is former foreign minister of the Republic of Korea and a National Assemblyman with the Democratic Party.

The North Korean issue, including its nuclear problem, has been the most difficult of many challenges to bilateral policy coordination within the U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) alliance. This is clear from the fact that since the first nuclear crisis in the 1990s, successive administrations in Seoul and Washington have alternated between periods of policy convergence and divergence. Pyongyang has since conducted two nuclear tests despite a series of bilateral and multilateral denuclearization efforts.

Such mounting insecurities underscore the need for closer bilateral policy coordination on North Korea, with potentially far-reaching consequences. First, effective coordination will accelerate denuclearization and pave the way toward a solid peace process on the Korean Peninsula. Since these two issues are effectively inseparable, our two governments must first realize that the North Korean nuclear issue is unlikely to be resolved without the establishment of a permanent peace regime. Second, closer U.S.-ROK coordination will enable the United States and South Korea to build a foundation for multilateral security cooperation in Northeast Asia as envisioned in the September 2005 Joint Statement. Third, by curbing North Korea’s nuclear development, joint efforts will help prevent nuclear proliferation in Northeast Asia and strengthen the global nonproliferation regime by setting a precedent for negotiated resolution of nuclear problems in places like Iran.

Mindful of these shared interests, our two governments have been coordinating North Korea policy on the basis of the following three principles as the foundation for robust bilateral consultations toward adoption of the September 2005 Joint Statement.

First, we will not tolerate North Korean possession or proliferation of nuclear weapons under any circumstances. Second, we shall promote in a coordinated manner the improvement of inter-Korean relations and U.S.-North Korea relations to jointly reinforce the process of denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. Third, while inducing a constructive Chinese role, we must ensure that our actions allow North Korea no room to misappropriate them as excuses for reneging on its commitment to abandon its nuclear program.

The boldness, creativity, and flexibility inherent in these principles, however, were no longer heeded when Lee Myung-bak came into office and hardliners prevailed in the final year of the Bush administration. A case in point is our insistence on adopting the verification protocol during disablement as a precondition for supplying remaining shipments of heavy fuel oil committed to North Korea in the February 13, 2007, implementing agreement. This move was an apparent shift from the intentional ambiguity that had characterized the earlier understanding to adopt the verification protocol at a point after disablement but before dismantlement.

This shift, however, reduced the likelihood of China’s support for the direction of U.S.-Korea policy coordination and hardened North Korea’s position. Since then, the Six Party Talks were sabotaged by hardliners in Seoul,Washington, and Pyongyang and effectively derailed. Inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korea relations worsened and the prospects for denuclearization diminished. This misguided policy coordination eventually provided North Korea with an excuse to conduct a second nuclear test.

In order to get the stalemated denuclearization process back on track, we should adjust policy coordination in the following direction. First, we should eliminate any possible grounds for North Korea’s own justification for its nuclear development. We should fulfill our obligations under the February 2007 Agreement, thereby compelling North Korea to complete disablement.  This step will undermine any North Korean pretext for resisting the terms of verification.

If North Korea continues to be evasive after such bold measures, we—with Chinese endorsement—should be unequivocal in demonstrating the harsh price. While verification measures are surely the sine qua non of disarmament, we should be careful to not compromise our joint denuclearization efforts by disregarding the wisdom of constructive thinking in determining the exact timing of verification. So we should take the pragmatic approach of pushing back the agreement on verification until after the completion of disablement.

Second, the improvement of inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korea relations must be mutually reinforcing. In so doing, we should remember that North Korea has always played off inter-Korean relations against its relations with the U.S.and vice versa. The Democratic Party victory in Japan will further fuel such North Korean tactics. With these factors in mind, the U.S.and ROK governments must establish a complementary structure of negotiations at the Six Party Talks, between North Korea and the U.S., and between the two Koreas. In so doing, we need not try to predetermine a specific format or sequence of negotiations since it is not central to the actual task of containing the North’s nuclear ambitions.

Third, both our governments should be aware of the complexities that arise from the ambivalence with which South Koreans respond to North Korean actions. While the majority of Koreans favor improved ties with North Korea, they also demand an appropriate level of firmness. The tragedy is that these fluctuating sentiments are influenced by an inordinately politicized domestic rivalry of ideology and interests. If the U.S .is perceived to side with one particular sentiment amidst Korea’s failure to de-politicize the North Korea issue, it might potentially prejudice Korean views in a way that inhibits a fair appreciation of our bilateral alliance.

Finally, we should recognize that setting a fixed timeframe will only complicate the problem and delay the achievement of our shared goals. This is because unlike in democracies where the possibility of government change necessitates a timetable for new policy goals, North Korea is comparatively less pressed—at least ostensibly—to meet a political deadline and therefore can negotiate with long-lasting tactics and goals. If we insist on a fixed schedule and push for fast results,North Korea will only have more negotiating cards.

It is hard to expect that North Korea will give up its nuclear ambitions altogether. Even so, the current situation requires us to prevent North Korea from becoming a real nuclear power and pursue constructive strategies based on the cooperation of all relevant parties. In the short run, we should implement the UN Security Council sanctions but at the same time exert our boldness and creativity to work toward the goals of the September 2005 Joint Statement.  If we can return to the wisdom and flexibility that produced some of the best moments of the Six Party process, we will inch closer toward bringing North Korea to the right side of history while simultaneously laying a foundation for lasting peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia.