The answer is South Korea.
With North Korea pursuing its nuclear weapons as a matter of survival and the United States proclaiming it won’t allow the North to have nukes and missiles, an armed conflict seems inevitable.
Military action, though, carries too high a risk. Sitting 6,700 miles away, Washington might conceive of war as a viable option, and North Korea will not shy away from one, considering its belligerent attitude of “come what may.”
But what about the South? As the 50 million South Koreans living under a modern-day “Sword of Damocles,” our voices should be the first to be heard. Without listening to our urgency and distress, how can the United States call itself an ally to the South Korean people?
This means diplomacy is the only answer, but that also means Washington will not be able to get everything it wants. Complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization is not realistic at this point.
This is not Sept. 19, 2005, when Kim Jong-il agreed to end the country’s weapons program in return for security, economic and energy support. This is January 2018, and Kim Jong-un’s North Korea is a self-proclaimed nuclear state. Today’s Kim could not agree to complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization even if he wanted to.
Being successful in diplomacy means America needs to prioritize and focus on its most vital strategic interest: keeping North Korea from expanding its nuclear capability.
North Korea might have succeeded in testing atom bombs and intercontinental ballistic missiles, but it still has to go through several gates to be fully operational. The window of opportunity is fast closing. Economic sanctions and international isolation will not deter the North from completing its weapons. We need to stop the threat now.
First, this would involve North Korea immediately freezing further development of nuclear weapons.
Second, North Korea would have to agree to stop further production of fissile material, including plutonium and highly-enriched uranium, and invite international monitors to check the agreement.
Third, a freeze also means heading off any possibility of proliferation to third-party states and, more importantly, non-state actors hostile to the United States.
North Korea has repeatedly affirmed it does not seek to proliferate outside its borders, but international monitors should proactively check North Korea’s proliferation activities.
A freeze means North Korea also gets what it wants, but not everything. North Korea will primarily demand the cessation of what it calls America’s “hostile policy” toward the North.
The exact nature of its demands won’t become clear until negotiations begin, but they could involve some type of diplomatic device to allay North Korea’s fear of an invasion or regime change by the United States. It could take the form of a mutual nonaggression pact or other preliminary steps to establish a formal communication channel, if not full normalization.
It could also mean a halt or reduction of joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea. North Korea could also demand an end to economic sanctions and even request economic aid as a part of any deal.
As we have learned from previous negotiations, any deal with North Korea will involve painful wrangling over the sequencing of actions that represent a combination of concessions and demands from both sides. But it is possible if we aim to manage the situation instead of trying to resolve it in one fell swoop. Don’t let perfect become the enemy of good. Let’s start with good enough.
Diplomacy will have its detractors. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates famously said he was tired of buying the same horse twice. North Korea — if it doesn’t cheat on a deal outright — will try to stretch the limits of its compliance.
But having a deal in place and trying to hold North Korea accountable is much easier than not having any mechanism in place to curb its behavior. A deal, even a flawed one, is a better starting point.
Even if a deal doesn’t bear fruit quickly, it’s useful to keep in mind that time is on the United States’s side. Just look at the key players involved. We have a sole superpower in the United States, a rising great power in China, a former superpower in Russia, the third-largest economy in Japan, and a vigorous democracy and 11th-largest economy in South Korea. Let’s take a step back and allow the overwhelming imbalance to work in our favor.
Can we not afford to wait out the current regime in North Korea? Nothing lasts forever. Even North Korea is undergoing change, and it will change more and faster. Eventually, complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization, and full normalization, can happen with a changed North Korea, or even a unified Korea.
Give the Korean people a chance to keep our Miracle on the Han going strong. That will truly speak to the long-term strategic interests of the United States in East Asia.
This is the last of a four-part series of Venerable Pomnyun Sunim’s views on North Korea.
*The author is a Buddhist monk engaged in humanitarian and human rights work in North Korea. He is also founder and chairman of the Peace Foundation, a national security policy think tank based in Seoul. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Venerable Pomnyun Sunim