Old is Gold: The U.S. should return to the past spirit of negotiation with the DPRK

Beijing Review | 作者: Shi Yongming | 时间: 2019-03-14 | 责编: Wang Jiapei
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The second summit between the top leaders of the United States and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) in Viet Nam's capital Hanoi on February 27-28, an apparently positive move for the Korean Peninsula situation, was the cynosure of all eyes but failed to meet the high expectations, ending without any agreement. The media, agog to see progress, neglected the reality that the summit was convened under immature conditions. That's why it was virtually doomed to end with no results. What the two countries should do now is to draw lessons from the experience and figure out how to deal with the issue in the future.

Departure from first summit

Some say the first summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and DPRK leader Kim Jong Un was more symbolic than substantial. Yet the joint statement reached at the first meeting in Singapore on June 12, 2018 confirmed the core tenet that the U.S. would ensure peace in exchange of the DPRK agreeing to denuclearize. It offered the most vital political basis to solve the nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula and marked a historic shift. In the past, the U.S. had been demanding the DPRK's complete denuclearization as a precondition for negotiations.

However, after the summit, the U.S. began to deviate from its basic spirit. It not only dragged its feet on signing a peace treaty with the DPRK that would have led to a formal accord with the Republic of Korea (ROK), replacing the truce that ended the 1950-53 Korean war, but also refused to fulfill its promise to ease sanctions against the DPRK. Instead, it once again asked the DPRK to completely abandon nuclear weapons as a precondition to lifting sanctions, which drove the situation back to square one.

Against this background, the main purpose of the DPRK's request for a second summit was to reaffirm the political basis for the negotiations.

However, ahead of the second summit, Trump once again announced that the U.S. would help the DPRK develop its economy only if it abandoned nuclear weapons. One reason for choosing Viet Nam as the venue of the summit was to draw attention to the Southeast Asian country's model of development. The focus of the negotiations as well as media attention was diverted to the economy. The basic spirit of the first summit—peace as a tradeoff for denuclearization—changed into denuclearization for lifting sanctions. This inevitably led to the fruitlessness of the summit.

However, though the second summit ended without any agreement, the situation on the Korean Peninsula will not deteriorate in the short term. That is because the first summit set the tone of reconciliation and neither the U.S. nor the DPRK would like to take the blame for destroying the upward momentum.

Moreover, Trump, facing multiple challenges from the opposition at home as he seeks re-election, is eager to win some credit. With the DPRK agreeing not to conduct nuclear weapon and continental ballistic missile tests, the relatively peaceful situation on the peninsula is in his favor, compared with the tensions during his predecessor Barack Obama's presidency.

For the DPRK, its main challenge currently comes from its economy. Developing the economy will remain the main theme of its politics. Therefore, seeking to resolve problems through dialogue will remain its basic policy.

Three changes needed

As both the U.S. and the DPRK plan to address problems through dialogue, they need to change their obsolete way of thinking and behavioral pattern, especially in three areas.

They need to change their understanding of each other as well as each other's strategic direction. There has been serious hostility and distrust between the U.S. and the DPRK due to the historical feud and complex politics and ideologies. Eliminating hostility is not easy. One wise thing Trump has done is not to express hostility against the DPRK because there were no results at the Viet Nam summit. Instead, he braved domestic criticism and adopted a realistic and feasible approach to some specific issues, which is conducive to the development of bilateral ties.

A deeper rift between the U.S. and the DPRK lies in their different strategic considerations about the peninsula's future. The U.S. international theory and national policy are both based on its own interests. However, while some interests are legitimate, others aren't. Many Americans might feel upset if the U.S. is criticized as an imperialist country. However, since the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, the core political objective of all U.S. administrations has been to guarantee the dominance of the country.

The U.S. would like to keep its troops stationed on the Korean Peninsula to maintain control over the situation as well as its hegemony. But that would ultimately lead the peninsula issue into a deadlock. It is difficult to make the U.S. realize that the world today does not welcome hegemony.

The two countries should also jettison their system baggage. While the U.S. criticizes the DPRK's social system, it is its two-party system that has been thwarting bilateral efforts to resolve problems through dialogue. In the two-party system, party interests are often put higher than national interests, leading to incumbent presidents scrapping the treaties signed by their predecessors. Only when the U.S. is expanding its interests do the two parties reach an agreement. Once there is a contraction or compromise, it is inevitably opposed by the opposition and eventually amended. This is an important reason why the DPRK nuclear issue is difficult to resolve.

Also, the two countries need to change the way of negotiation. An important reason there was no agreement is that the negotiation had no clear goals. What did the second summit aim to achieve? Reconfirm the basic spirit of the joint statement of the first summit, or set a phased goal as the basic spirit is clear? The lack of clear goals made the negotiation hard to go forward. Actually, the U.S. and the DPRK have no mature negotiation framework by far.

The failure of the six-party talks involving the DPRK, the U.S., the ROK, China, Japan and Russia, is also partly attributable to the lack of a clear negotiation goals. However, the six-party talks have left some valuable lessons. One of them is that the negotiations should be divided into different sections and conducted step by step. For example, the talks can be divided into a political module focusing on the goals, an economic module to discuss compensations and aid measures, a military module on disarmament on the peninsula and a technical module to realize denuclearization step by step. All these parts, when wrapped up, will coalesce into the big negotiation.

Compared with traditional negotiation patterns in which the weak always faces pressure from the strong, module negotiation can bring more fairness and justice. It can not only produce a package agreement in the end, but also establish trust between two sides during the negotiation.

China's role 

China is an important stakeholder in the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue, whether it attends the negotiations or not. In the past three decades, China has played the role of a guide, a guardian of fairness and justice, and a mediator during deadlocks.

China advocates establishing a community with a shared future for humanity because there is only one direction for international relations in the future, and that is win-win cooperation.

The past cannot be changed but the future lies in the choices we make. The world is undergoing profound changes unseen in a millennium. From the perspective of the progress of human civilization, the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue is not hard to solve. The hard part is people's mental block.


The author is an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review and an expert on international studies.


Source: Beijing Review, March 10, 2019.