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The cost of inadequate ambition

July 30,2018
Stephan Haggard
The author is the Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California in San Diego. He is the author with Marcus Noland of the Witness to Transformation blog.

In one formulation of Zeno’s paradoxes, an archer shoots an arrow at a target. The arrow must first travel half of the distance to the target, then half of that distance and then half of that distance yet again. No matter how short the distance becomes, it would appear that the arrow should never reach its target.

Of course, it does ultimately land. But there is a crucial lesson here for the currently stalled negotiations between the United States and North Korea: slicing them into finer and finer details over technical questions about denuclearization runs the risk of stalling. Just as there are risks of being overly ambitious, there are similar risks of setting our sights too low.

At the end of last month, I had the pleasure of attending the Jeju Forum. One recurrent theme was how the U.S.-North negotiations would fit in with the efforts of South Korean President Moon Jae-in to push the North-South process along. At this juncture, it appears that a nudge from Seoul in the direction of a wider agenda is sorely needed.

Let’s start by lowering expectations. It is quite possible — indeed plausible — that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s favored outcome is to maintain his nuclear and missile arsenal while simultaneously securing recognition and sanctions relief. Why wouldn’t that be the best of all possible worlds?

But if we are to move toward a nuclear settlement, it is unlikely to occur within the context of a nuclear agreement alone. The reasons are simple and were spelled out with acumen in Jeju by Phil Zelikow, an adviser to both Democratic and Republican governments. Any nuclear-only negotiation will involve the United States making demands on North Korea while offering them little of interest in return.

This strategy could only be expected to work if you believed in the fantasy that sanctions will magically generate unilateral North Korean concessions. The United States did double down on the maximum-pressure strategy this week, outlining ongoing sanctions risk for the international community. However, most understand that sanctions only work if there are credible prospects of lifting them.

In an important response to the last round of U.S.-North negotiations, Pyongyang provided crucial information on why the negotiations have stalled. Amid the florid language of “gangster-like demands” was a simple point: the United States had not come to the table willing to talk in earnest about the modalities for getting to a peace regime, nor even the more modest objective of issuing a symbolic statement acknowledging the reality that the Korean War is in fact over.

Again, we need to be clear-eyed. North Korea’s whining could itself be yet another ploy to squeeze concessions out of Washington and Seoul. But it could also be a legitimate signal that progress requires the two sides to get more rather than less ambitious.

I personally have doubts about President Moon’s proposed declaration of peace. Agreeing to such a statement — even if symbolic — while North Korea keeps its nuclear weapons intact would be a politically difficult thing to ask of any U.S. president, Democrat or Republican. But if smartly crafted as aspirational and contingent — as the Panmunjon Declaration was — it might play some small role in moving forward.

Yet such a step is not a substitute for a full spectrum of negotiations that puts many things on the table at once. In his remarks, Zelikow noted no fewer than six baskets of issues that could structure discussions. These include North-South relations, economic issues, humanitarian and cultural questions and a range of different security puzzles, from conventional forces on the peninsula to a wider regional architecture.

Yet the most important point is that the agenda should not be restricted by either side. If the North Koreans want to raise sanctions relief, fine. But the United States and South Korea should be raising similarly tough issues, such as North Korean deployments on the peninsula and the future of the regime’s military-industrial complex.

How would such negotiations actually proceed? The North Koreans have again argued for their “words for words, actions for actions” process, which gradually broke down in 2008. But we could imagine such a step-by-step process with more significant and ambitious steps rather than the small-bore, symbolic actions such as blowing up a cooling tower that could quickly be rebuilt. These would include things like generating a meaningful declaration of North Korean capabilities, with outside inspectors verifying it, or destroying certain real capabilities.

In return, the United States and South Korea would have to think about serious concessions: real steps toward normalizing relations, such as opening liaison offices, or significant relaxation of constraints on the movement of people, humanitarian assistance and perhaps even trade and investment.

It is important to underscore that no sane person thought that such negotiations would be easy, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s team might well be moving in this direction. Press reporting in the United States, though, suggests that President Donald Trump is upset at the slow pace of progress. The looming question: Does this impatience push him back toward the “fire and fury” posturing we saw last fall, or toward a coordinated effort with Seoul that takes some calculated risks?