[Analytics] Denuclearizing N. Korea: Six options for Biden

Joe Biden, who campaigned in Georgia in October, is the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state since 1992. Image: GETTY IMAGES. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

You can be pretty certain that North Korea will carry out some type of military provocation soon after Joe Biden steps into the Oval Office next month. Less than three months after President Barack Obama took office, North Korea launched a long-range rocket, and six weeks after that conducted a nuclear test. Victor Cha specially for the War on the Rocks.

North Korea launched a medium-range ballistic missile in February 2017, three weeks after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, while he was dining with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe at Mar-a-Lago. It then conducted a ballistic missile event almost weekly in the following month of March. If Kim Jong-un repeats history, then this will naturally shape a tougher line in the inevitable U.S. policy review on North Korea. If Kim stays quiet, on the other hand, then this might influence the review in a different direction. Regardless of these path-dependent dynamics, the Biden administration’s internal debates will revolve around six core “negotiation models” for denuclearization. Here are the pros and cons of each approach and whether they would appeal to the Biden administration.

The Default: Action For Action

This is an engagement-oriented approach that seeks denuclearization through an accumulation of “mini-deals” rather than a single big deal. This is a negotiation similar to what had been done with President Bill Clinton’s 1994 Agreed Framework and President George W. Bush’s 2005 to 2007 denuclearization agreements in the Six Party Talks. It would consist of incremental and calibrated steps on each side involving a freeze of nuclear operations at the main nuclear complex at Yongbyon in return for partial sanctions relief (what the Chinese refer to as a “freeze-for-freeze” model). There would be protracted dealings between working-level experts, and agreements would require maximal verification of the other’s incremental concessions stemming from the high degrees of mutual distrust between the parties.

The advantage of this approach is that mini-deals are easier to negotiate and sell domestically, in part because they require smaller up-front payments on both sides. Protracted negotiations usually coincide with lower levels of North Korean provocation according to data compiled by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which could be sold to domestic policy audiences as evidence of the policy’s success. Under this model, the U.S. administration would negotiate a comprehensive freeze of nuclear operations in and around the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, including the production of fissile material. However, the problem with this approach is that it is likely to get stuck in the same place as it has in the past, which is North Korea’s refusal to provide a declaration of its nuclear and missile inventory. Pyongyang balks at the maximal levels of verification that would be necessary from Washington’s perspective given high levels of distrust.

Biden would probably assess this to be the default policy absent any North Korean fireworks after the election. It would have the support of China and South Korea, as engagement-oriented Seoul wants to see a continuation of diplomacy from the Trump years, and Beijing seeks to escape blame from the international community for every episode of North Korean rambunctiousness. So the “action-for-action” model might jump start the negotiations and demonstrate early success, but then be supplemented by other approaches outlined below.

The Libya Model

Based on Muammar Gaddafi’s surrendering of his weapons of mass destruction programs in 2003, this model is a containment-oriented approach that focuses on higher levels of pressure and coercion to achieve denuclearization in a single iteration of diplomacy. This model’s champion is former National Security Advisor John Bolton. He demands unilateral denuclearization steps by one side (North Korea), premised on a strategic decision to abandon all of its nuclear capabilities. The strategy leverages intense sanctions pressure and the threat of preventive military action in order to compel the Pyongyang leadership to see that they are safer without these weapons than with them. Unlike the action-for-action model, this negotiation commences with a full declaration and inventory of the North’s capabilities, even before a freeze. The rationale behind this upfront unconditional demand is to create a credible signal of the target state’s intent to denuclearize. In Bolton’s view, the Libya model envisages North Korea’s weapons being crated up and shipped out to U.S. national laboratories in a relatively short timeframe.

This approach is the most direct path to denuclearization, but it is nearly impossible to achieve. Gaddafi didn’t have any nuclear weapons when he preemptively disarmed, while Kim has many. Moreover, Kim saw what happened to Gaddafi after he made the deal and doesn’t want to suffer the same fate.

Biden might adopt this hardline option if North Korea ramps up provocations in early 2021 after his inauguration. South Korea and China would likely oppose this policy because it would invariably spark a crisis on the peninsula, while Japan would likely support it for the clear commitment to a complete denuclearization outcome.

Comprehensive Coercion

This approach focuses on maximum pressure, leveraging the U.N. sanctions regime as well as bilateral sanctions by states against North Korea. It is a strategy of compellence that imposes as much pain as possible on North Korea economically as punishment for pursuing nuclear weaponization in order to convince Pyongyang to negotiate in earnest over denuclearization (unlike the unilateral and up-front disarmament capitulation demanded by the Libya model). We saw elements of this strategy at the end of the Obama administration and in the first year of the Trump administration. This policy would be an easy sell domestically because every U.S. president likes to look tough on North Korea. But it would not garner support from China, a key player in any sanctions regime, nor from the engagement-oriented South Korean government. Finally, unless coupled with a clear exit ramp for diplomacy, this strategy might result in unintended military escalation by inciting a desperate Kim to lash out.

The Trump Model

This sets out to achieve denuclearization through the use of high-level, leader-to-leader agreements. It is premised on the belief that there are two primary obstacles to achieving a breakthrough. The first is the absence of a direct dialogue channel with the leadership, which was absent in the 1994 and 2005 agreements. The second obstacle is mutual distrust. The idea behind the Trump model is to establish direct contact, build rapport, and create some transparency between the two leaders, which seems logical as there is only one person who makes decisions of consequence in the dictatorial state. Trump spent far less time on the details of the negotiation and far more on glad-handing the North Korean leader, giving him some face time, and hoping that a friendship could create the foundation for Kim’s strategic decision to work with, rather than against, the United States. The execution of this strategy is to seek a verbal and written denuclearization commitment at the ‘Dear Leader’s’ level and then use that to compel compliance at lower levels in the top-down North Korean state.

The advantage of this model is that it creates the possibility for trust-building, which could create new and far-reaching opportunities for denuclearization beyond an action-for-action incremental approach. The disadvantage, as we have seen from Trump’s summits with Kim in Singapore and Hanoi, is that the approach ends up legitimizing the North Korean leader with summit pageantry and theatrics without any meaningful progress on denuclearization if it is not followed up by substantive working-level negotiations. Furthermore, absent some coupling of this strategy with a pressure element, North Korea is unlikely to comply.

A Biden administration is unlikely to opt for this approach, though not ruling it out, without an abundance of spade work and deliverables negotiated in advance at the expert level. The engagement-oriented Moon Jae-in government in South Korea would strongly support an early summit by Biden to continue the line of communication with the North Korean leader established by Trump. China would also support summitry, but as we saw when President Xi Jinping responded to news of a Trump-Kim summit in 2018 by granting Kim several bilateral leader meetings, Beijing would harbor concerns about being cut out of a U.S.-North Korean deal.

Political Transformation

This is an engagement-oriented model that focuses on changing the political terms of the relationship before tackling longstanding denuclearization issues. It has not been tried by past governments. The Six Party talks and the Singapore summit each referenced “new relationships” but never sought early results. Without a fundamental change in bilateral relations, nuclear negotiations will remain mired in the tit-for-tat deals of the past that will eventually fail. The execution of this strategy would be initially to achieve a “freeze-for-freeze” agreement stopping nuclear operations at Yongbyon, but then the United States would shift focus to “new relationship” talks negotiating the prerequisites for a political normalization of ties between the two countries that would include a peace declaration, human rights, and security assurances. This transformation of political relations would then fundamentally change the environment in which Washington and Pyongyang could negotiate together new denuclearization steps, including a verifiable declaration.

The advantage of this approach is that it avoids front-loading predictable sticking points in negotiations, like a verifiable nuclear declaration. The human rights element of the policy would also align with U.S. values and be non-controversial with Congress. A North Korean concession on human rights might also constitute a credible signal of its intentions, which is also a difficulty of this approach as concessions on political opening by Kim could threaten the regime’s stability. A Biden administration might consider this approach absent North Korean provocations and if individuals with a humanitarian focus were put at the helm of U.S. diplomacy. The South Korean and Chinese governments would support pursuing a peace declaration as part of a political settlement but would balk at pushing North Korea too hard on human rights.

Arms Control

This is an engagement-oriented approach for which there is no precedent in North Korea negotiations but for which past examples can be found in arms control talks during the Cold War. This model focuses on capping and containing the most dangerous elements of weapons program. This negotiation would focus on achieving agreements that stop the growth of the North Korean nuclear threat and minimize the chances of inadvertent nuclear war, nuclear proliferation, and nuclear leakage. This approach would look fundamentally different from previous negotiations. Some of the priorities would include: a nuclear deterrence dialogue to avoid miscalculation and inadvertent nuclear weapons use; a no-transfer pledge to prevent horizontal proliferation (i.e., Pyongyang would agree not to transfer weapons or technology to others); cooperation on nuclear safety and security to prevent nuclear accidents (e.g., spills or meltdowns) and loose nuclear weapons; an agreement to ban the further production of fissile material and to ban nuclear testing; and an agreement to limit the range and payload of missiles.

This approach would be favored by those who think that the United States should accept the reality of a nuclear North Korea and should focus instead on practical and useful goals to reduce the threat rather than let the program continue to grow unimpeded. On the other hand, it would be politically controversial because it would appear as though the United States has resigned itself to accepting North Korea as a nuclear weapons state. It would also be interpreted widely as the death knell of the global nonproliferation regime (North Korea is the only Non-Proliferation Treaty member to withdraw) and might incentivize other actors to proliferate. Critics would denigrate this as a “damage-control” strategy rather than a denuclearization strategy.

Biden might try this strategy in order to jumpstart negotiations. The strategy might also relieve some of the political pressure for the administration to achieve “something new” with North Korea that does not look like the United States is buying the same horse again (e.g., a freeze at Yongbyon). China and South Korea would accept this approach, but would want to maintain the rhetorical commitment to “denuclearization.” Japan would be ambivalent at best if the strategy suggested a de facto acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear weapons state.

All Lousy Options?

The success of any of these six approaches presumes that North Korea would be responsive to external stimuli and is not driven only by its domestic politics. Likewise, one assumes that all approaches have a baseline of economic sanctions. However, the threshold for relaxing sanctions may be different in each model. It is likely that a Biden administration might combine elements of these different approaches. For example, on the coercive side, the Libya model might work well with comprehensive coercion. And on the engagement side, the “action-for-action” model might be melded with the “arms control” model. Other combinations are imaginable.

There is a need for the Biden administration to contemplate these different models because North Korea is a problem that cannot be ignored. It should consider the following principles as it maps out a strategy. First, Biden should not take an anything-but-Trump approach to policy. Previous administrations have rejected the approach of their predecessors, only later to reinvent the wheel. He should take the best elements of past approaches and discard the worst. For example, Biden might want to embrace elements of the Bush and Trump agreements — for example, the joint communique at the Singapore summit because it contains an explicit commitment by the North Korean leader to denuclearization, or the 2005 Six Party talks joint statement because it explicitly defines denuclearization as the “abandonment of all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.”

Second, Biden should locate a policy that does not result in an increase in the nuclear threat. All the past denuclearization policies have arguably left the United States worse off than before. In this regard, “strategic neglect” or “strategic patience” as practiced by the Obama administration was a disengagement policy that did not offer up any rewards to North Korea, but it also did not contain the development of the weapons programs, as we saw 61 ballistic missile tests in eight years. Trump’s “fire and fury” threats of attacking North Korea did not work either, as this led to 20 ballistic missile tests and one hydrogen bomb test. Trump’s summitry also did not work, leading to 30 ballistic missile tests since the failed summit in Hanoi in 2019. While these tests are attributable to North Korean volition, they also reflect a dismal U.S. policy record of trying the same things over and over again.

Third, Biden ought to pursue a policy toward North Korea that works with, rather than above the heads of, America’s allies. When the desire for success in North Korea policy becomes so extreme, we see what we did during the Trump administration — the United States negotiated away its alliance equities, like joint military exercises, without consulting in advance with South Korea. This type of unilateral approach reduces trust among allies in return for little positive progress in nuclear negotiations with the North. The best policy toward North Korea is one that is thoroughly coordinated with Seoul and Tokyo.

Fourth, Biden hopefully understands that while China is an important player in denuclearization approaches to North Korea, it is not a full partner. China and the United States have a limited overlap in interests and objectives on the peninsula. The United States would like to see a nuclear-free Korean peninsula and its eventual unification in a democratic Korea. China opposes the latter and would accept something less than denuclearization if the status quo promises to be stable. Beijing will never pressure North Korea enough to collapse, even as it will squeeze the North to come back to talks.

New approaches and fresh ideas are required to overcome the entrenched roadblocks and predictable sticking points of the past. And the dilemma exposed by past experiences of negotiations is that those approaches likely to be most effective (in terms of denuclearization) are least likely to get off the ground. The new administration will have to mix and meld from the choices above, and whatever policy they adopt will be necessarily imperfect. The fact that each strategy outlined here has disadvantages equal in weight to its advantages reminds us that the world of North Korea policy remains the land of lousy options, where the policies range only between bad and worse choices.

Victor Cha is the D. S. Song professor of government and vice dean of the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He is also senior adviser and the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He served on the National Security Council staff from 2004 to 2007 and was U.S. deputy head of delegation for the Six Party Talks.

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