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The war of nerves

Oct 25,2018
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Kim Byung-yeon
The author is an economics professor at Seoul National University.

North Korea’s denuclearization process is played on a game board set up by U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The obvious stall of the process and the conflict between Seoul and Washington could be best understood in such a context. It could also help us understand what strategy to take.

The United States has drawn up the game board on denuclearization based on its mighty power and resources. Economic conditions make up the columns and the military pressures the rows. Its goal is to push North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons through economic sanctions and military threats. Its strategy has worked since it succeeded in taking the first step — negotiations — towards denuclearization.

Washington will not change its game plan until it has achieved its final goal of denuclearization. Lifting or easing sanctions as incentives for irreversible denuclearization is not included in its play book. The military option kicks in if the U.S. is not happy with the progress. It has the exclusive option to call it quits. Washington also won’t tolerate any challenge to its set of rules. It believes that if it wavers, the ball will be entirely in Kim’s court and the entire process of denuclearization will be his to dictate.

North Korea does not have a say in changing the rules, but it can makes its own moves. Its strength is its asymmetrical intelligence on nuclear and missile weaponry. Only North Korea’s officials know exactly how many weapons they have, where they are stocked and produced. They want to offer that information in pieces because it loses its maneuvering room if it hands over a list of its entire nuclear arsenals. At the same time, North Korea stopped short of promising a permanent dismantlement of its nuclear and missile stocks, which is pivotal to denuclearization. That sly action could be aimed at receiving tacit approval for its nuclear power status from the world.

It is hard to tell who is winning at this stage. It seems that their very different stances prevent progress. The Moon Jae-in administration is getting restless. It thought that nuclear dismantlement could pick up after historic summits between Trump and Kim. But months have passed with little tangible progress on the denuclearization front. The hard-won momentum could be wasted if temperamental Trump loses interest in North Korea or if he becomes impeached or politically impotent and returns to a hawkish stance again.

But Seoul is playing a highly risky game if it tries to mediate between Washington and Pyongyang through inter-Korean economic cooperation. If the United States thinks South Korea is compromising international sanctions, Washington’s trust of Seoul could be bruised beyond repair. Denuclearization will become more distant if both South and North Korea lose America’s confidence.

The integrity of the international sanctions will be shaken if Seoul goes solo. Beijing and Moscow will openly welcome the move and work to undermine the sanctions. The United States will most likely go all-out to prevent South Korea from derailing. That’s why South Korea’s major banks received direct telephone calls from the Treasury Department. They were warned not to break the U.S.-led rules.

Seoul must explore other ways. The best would be trading the essences. In other words, North Korea must give up its strategic cards and the U.S. its set of rules. Pyongyang must put into writing its commitment to completely dismantle nuclear weapons and inter-continental ballistic missiles. It must either register its entire nuclear inventory or hand over substantial stocks of nuclear weapons. In return, the U.S. must lift most of its economic sanctions or at least remove the ban on the North’s mineral exports or some other key commodity that it trades. The two sides also must draw up a framework for a peace treaty. At the same time, Moon must convince Kim that this is the best possible trade-off.

Plan B also should be readied. Instead of leaving it entirely up to Pyongyang, which is feigning denuclearization by giving up aged facilities, Seoul and Washington should work out an incremental roadmap to make North Korea give up all of its nuclear weapons. As North Korea will only act upon convincing incentives, South Korean experts must use their wisdom to fine-tune the best plan. Through their help, the outline can be meticulous in describing what should be given, returned and in what order. Otherwise, denuclearization could be a wrangling process in every phase.

Drawing a roadmap and making a deal over it, and incremental execution, are the keys to realize denuclearization.

South Korea must demonstrate good sense and expertise between the two stubborn game players. Few would be more eager than South Koreans to see North Koreans go nuclear-free and join the international community. But eagerness alone cannot achieve the goal. A warm heart without a cool head could only burn us and the North Koreans.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 24, Page 31