Despite the lack of progress on denuclearization, Washington should not grant unilateral concessions and sanctions relief to North Korea as a way to induce denuclearization until Pyongyang takes substantial steps to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, experts said.
Steve Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, was supposed to meet with his North Korean counterpart following Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s fourth trip to North Korea on Oct. 7. But Biegun’s hoped-for discussion on denuclearization with North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui did not take place.
Ever since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed to completely denuclearize North Korea at the June 12 Singapore summit with the U.S. President Donald Trump, Pyongyang has been demanding sanctions relief and implementation of confidence-building measures (CBMs) that it says will guarantee North Korea’s security.
North Korea objects
Several days after the Pompeo’s most recent trip to Pyongyang, a North Korean diplomat told the U.N. General Assembly’s Sixth Committee, the primary forum for the consideration of legal questions, to adjust sanctions placed on North Korea.
“It is abnormal that the U.N. Security Council, which was so eager to express concerns about the tense situation in the Korean Peninsula, keeps silence on the current positive trend of peace occurring on the Korean Peninsula up to now,” said In Chol Kim, first secretary of the North Korean mission to the United Nations in New York.
“Even over one year after [North Korea] discontinued nuclear tests and rocket test launches, the U.N. Security Council has yet to lift or relax its sanctions resolutions by turning a blind eye to requirements,” said the diplomat, calling attention to a U.N. resolution that stipulates a periodic review of sanctions as situations change.
South Korea support
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, in an effort to improve ties with North Korea, has supported Pyongyang’s bid to secure sanctions relief and security assurances, and attempted to rally international support for those goals while in Europe last week.
“I believe the international community needs to provide assurances that North Korea has made the right choice to denuclearize,” said Moon at a recent press conference in Paris. “We must further encourage North Korea’s denuclearization process by easing U.N. sanctions.”
Although experts view confidence-building measures as an essential aspect of maintaining a delicate relationship between Washington and Pyongyang, they warn against granting unilateral concessions unless the North takes verifiably reciprocal steps. Confidence-building measures could range from means to reduce military tensions to economic concessions such as sanctions relief.
Scott Snyder, director of the Program on U.S. Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said, “CBMs are necessary and should primarily include jointly agreed measures followed by verifiable actions.”
According to Evans Revere, a former State Department official who negotiated with North Korea, the U.S. has already taken important unilateral measures toward easing tensions and building trust with the North.
“The U.S.-[South Korean] suspension of major military exercises, for example, was a unilateral measure that reduced U.S.-[South Korean] military preparedness, while North Korea took no similar steps to reduce its own military exercises,” said Revere, who is currently a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institute.
The U.S. suspended three high-profile joint drills with South Korea following the Singapore summit, and the Pentagon announced last Friday it will halt a joint air defense drill with South Korea that was scheduled for December.
Ken Gause, director of the International Affairs Group, believes the denuclearization process should be embedded in a larger framework of confidence building measures, and sanctions relief should be granted after Pyongyang makes progress toward denuclearization.
“The U.S. should back away from denuclearization as the focus of the North Korean policy and replace it with a peace regime whereby denuclearization becomes a part of a reciprocal process of CBMs,” said Gause, who has written three books on North Korean leadership. “In return for substantive concessions on the nuclear program, the U.S. and [South Korea] would provide security guarantees and economic incentives. Examples of this would be a declaration of the end of the Korean War and sanctions relief.”
A peace declaration
Pyongyang and Seoul have been pushing for a peace declaration that would eventually lead to a peace treaty.The Korean War ended in 1953 with an armistice rather than a peace treaty.
Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said the U.S. should consider granting Pyongyang a peace declaration as a confidence-building measure after North Korea discloses the full inventory of its nuclear arsenal and agrees to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, to enter the country to inspect and monitor its nuclear sites.
“To reciprocate, the U.S. and [South Korea] should make an end-of-war declaration and also issue a joint-U.S.-[South Korean] vision statement defining what they see as the elements of a peace treaty, what conditions are needed to finalize it, and the relation of a peace treaty to denuclearization,” Manning said.
Inducements failed before
Revere said that confidence-building measures should be “reciprocal, not unilateral” and cautioned against giving sanctions relief to North Korea as a way to induce denuclearization because the tactic failed in the past.
The Clinton administration removed economic and trade sanctions on North Korea, and the Bush administration took North Korea off the state sponsor of terrorism list to show good faith, but Revere said, “The North Korean response to this was to intensify its efforts to develop its nuclear weapons program.”
He instead urged Washington continue to increase pressure on the North.
“We have learned over the years that the one thing that has the potential to succeed in convincing North Korea to denuclearize is pressure, in forms of sanctions and related measures,” Revere said. “If North Korea is convinced that its future is in danger, I believe that the North Korean leader will be compelled to make the right decision.”
On Thursday, North Korea and South Korea finished removing all weapons from the Joint Security Area, known as the Panmunjom truce village in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that divides the two Koreas. They had agreed to take this step at the third inter-Korean summit held in September. The United Nations Command, which oversees the DMZ, met with North and South Korea on Monday and supported their agreement to withdraw firearms and ammunitions from the area.
Also on Thursday, the State Department announced that Biegun will be traveling to Seoul from Oct. 29 to 30 to discuss with South Korea “the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea.”