If Trump can live with Kim, he can rid N. Korea of nukes

Pick one: Regime change or de­nu­cle­ariza­tion, says Eric Li

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - out­look@wash­post.com Eric Li is a ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist and po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist in Shang­hai.

In North Korea, the United States is closer to nu­clear war than at any other time since the Cold War. An air­craft car­rier bat­tle group (after some con­fu­sion) is steam­ing in. Kim Jong Un vows a sixth nu­clear test, which the United States says it will not tol­er­ate. “Di­plo­matic ef­forts,” ac­cord­ing to Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son, “have failed.” Heated words are ex­changed on a near­daily ba­sis be­tween the world’s only su­per­power and its small and im­pov­er­ished, but nu­cle­ar­armed, an­tag­o­nist. If pos­tur­ing tips over into ac­tual vi­o­lence, 1 mil­lion peo­ple could die on the Korean Penin­sula alone — that is, if the con­flict doesn’t go nu­clear. Py­ongyang’s mis­siles are not able to reach the United States, but Ja­pan is well within range.

At the same time, Washington and Py­ongyang may also be closer to peace than at any point in nearly two decades. This is be­cause the United States ap­pears to be shift­ing away from a pol­icy that ex­ac­er­bated the con­flict. Un­der the ad­min­is­tra­tions of Ge­orge W. Bush and Barack Obama, the United States mixed two fun­da­men­tally con­flict­ing aims in its deal­ings with North Korea, writes Fu Ying, who led the Chi­nese del­e­ga­tion in many of the failed mul­ti­lat­eral Korean nu­clear talks, in a re­cent pa­per for the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion. Washington aimed for both de­nu­cle­ariza­tion and regime change. The first goal is strate­gic, and the sec­ond is largely ide­o­log­i­cal. But the threat of regime change is the very rea­son the regime wants a nu­clear de­ter­rent.

There are signs that President

Trump may take Amer­i­can pol­icy beyond this strate­gic-ide­o­log­i­cal schizophre­nia. This past week, Tiller­son said the United States needs to sep­a­rate its val­ues from its poli­cies. For the sake of na­tional and re­gional se­cu­rity, cur­tail­ing Py­ongyang’s weapons pro­gram is clearly the higher pri­or­ity.

Two mis­per­cep­tions have re­sulted in a con­fused pol­icy to­ward North Korea. First is the no­tion that it has been a client state of China since the end of the Korean War, driven by an ide­o­log­i­cal al­liance be­tween the two com­mu­nist coun­tries and China’s need for a buf­fer be­tween it and U.S.-al­lied South Korea. In the Fi­nan­cial Times, for in­stance, James Kynge wrote, “Bei­jing re­mains in­clined to tol­er­ate its ex­as­per­at­ing client state.” But for much of the Cold War, North Korea was a client state of the Soviet Union, not of China. The Sovi­ets pro­vided vir­tu­ally all of the eco­nomic and mil­i­tary aid to North Korea, in­clud­ing its ini­tial nu­clear ca­pa­bil­ity. Dur­ing much of the same pe­riod, China was in a quasi-al­liance with the United States against the Soviet Union.

After the fall of the U.S.S.R., North Korea’s found­ing leader, Kim Il Sung, the grand­fa­ther of Kim Jong Un, went to China in 1991 and met with China’s leader, Deng Xiaop­ing. He en­treated his neigh­bor to take over the lead­er­ship of the com­mu­nist world and as­sume pa­tron­age of his coun­try. Deng re­jected the pleas. His fa­mous words “Tao guang yang hui” (“Keep a low pro­file”), China’s for­eign pol­icy doc­trine for the fol­low­ing decades, were ut­tered for the first time in front of the el­der Kim dur­ing that meet­ing. China, how­ever, did pro­vide — and still does — just enough ma­te­rial sup­port to help a close neigh­bor; Bei­jing dis­likes the idea of in­sta­bil­ity on its north­east­ern bor­der that might re­sult from a state col­lapse. But the no­tion of a client state based on an ide­o­log­i­cal bond is sim­ply wrong. China does have some lever­age, but it does not, as Trump has said, hold the key to con­trol­ling North Korea.

The sec­ond mis­per­cep­tion is that it’s time for ac­tion, be­cause marathon talks over many years failed to per­suade North Korea to give up its nu­clear weapons pro­gram. “Strate­gic pa­tience has ended,” Tiller­son said. This rad­i­cally over­sim­pli­fies the his­tory of ne­go­ti­a­tions, both di­rectly be­tween the United States and North Korea and in­volv­ing neigh­bor­ing coun­tries. Yes, ne­go­ti­a­tions failed. But they very nearly suc­ceeded.

Two multi-year ne­go­ti­a­tion pro­cesses were car­ried out after the Cold War. Un­der the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion, the United States talked with North Korea di­rectly, with­out China’s in­volve­ment, and in 1994 signed the Agreed Frame­work on re­solv­ing the nu­clear is­sue. The Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion en­gaged in sev­eral rounds of three-party talks and six-party talks, hosted by China at the re­quest of the United States. Both ne­go­ti­a­tions were able to keep the nu­clear situation un­der con­trol for sus­tained pe­ri­ods of time and came tan­ta­liz­ingly close to re­solv­ing it. To­ward the end of the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion, the situation had im­proved so much that President Bill Clin­ton se­ri­ously con­sid­ered vis­it­ing North Korea.

There were sev­eral rea­sons they even­tu­ally all failed, among them lack of trust and de­layed im­ple­men­ta­tions by both sides. But the most de­ci­sive rea­son, as Fu ar­gued in her es­say, was Amer­ica’s con­flict­ing goals of de­nu­cle­ariza­tion and regime change. For­mer de­fense sec­re­tary Wil­liam Perry said on a num­ber of oc­ca­sions that the North Kore­ans could not be de­vel­op­ing nu­clear weapons to use them, be­cause that would be sui­cide. So they must have cre­ated

them to en­sure their own sur­vival against a U.S. at­tack. Yet ever since Bush’s “axis of evil” speech in 2002, Washington has been un­will­ing to forgo its ide­o­log­i­cal aim of regime change to real­ize de­nu­cle­ariza­tion.

This con­flict in U.S. aims was at the heart of the fail­ure of the six-party talks and the tit-for­tat es­ca­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. In fact, in the face of the ex­is­ten­tial threat posed by a su­per­power (just this week, the regime ac­cused the CIA of a “bio­chem­i­cal plot” to kill Kim), North Korea has come to be­lieve that nu­clear weapons are its only pro­tec­tion. The fate of Moam­mar Gaddafi, who had given up Libya’s nu­clear weapons pro­gram in ex­change for the lift­ing of Amer­i­can-led eco­nomic sanc­tions, is not lost on the North: Obama sided with Arab Spring in­sur­gents after Gaddafi’s vi­o­lent crack­down on them, and the Libyan leader died on a desert high­way, try­ing to es­cape the rebels.

Amer­ica’s con­flict­ing goals have also com­pli­cated Bei­jing’s po­si­tion. Nu­clear weapons in North Korea are against China’s na­tional se­cu­rity in­ter­ests, for ob­vi­ous rea­sons. But the col­lapse of the North Korean state as a re­sult of regime change forced upon it from the out­side would be equally cat­a­strophic in China’s eyes. A refugee in­flux would wreak havoc in its north­east­ern prov­inces, de­press­ing la­bor prices and qual­ity of life. And Korean re­uni­fi­ca­tion on U.S. and South Korean terms could re­sult in Amer­i­can troops on its bor­der, a situation Bei­jing would find in­tol­er­a­ble in the long term.

So for China, de­nu­cle­ariza­tion can­not be ob­tained by means of regime change. This po­si­tion is based solely on se­cu­rity in­ter­ests and has noth­ing to do with a client state or ide­ol­ogy. The United States has over the years leaned on China to ex­er­cise its lever­age on North Korea. But pre­vi­ous ne­go­ti­a­tions ended in fail­ure be­cause what the North needs to give up its nu­clear weapons — se­cu­rity — Bei­jing can­not give. Only Washington can give it.

To­day, Trump seems to be free­ing the United States from the neo­con­ser­va­tive and lib­eral-in­ter­ven­tion­ist poli­cies of the past. For the first time in 16 years, the Amer­i­can side has come out and said rather un­equiv­o­cally that the fore­most pri­or­ity is dis­ar­ma­ment. “We do not seek regime change, we do not seek a col­lapse of the regime, we do not seek an ac­cel­er­ated re­uni­fi­ca­tion of the penin­sula,” Tiller­son told NPR. “We seek a de­nu­cle­arized Korean Penin­sula.” Now, the United States and China have a shared ob­jec­tive with­out sub­stan­tive con­tra­dic­tions. Trump has even said that he would be “hon­ored” to meet with Kim Jong Un un­der the right cir­cum­stances. This may be the cru­cial dif­fer­ence that could breathe new life into the pos­si­bil­ity of a ne­go­ti­ated set­tle­ment.

In the end, the deal can only be that North Korea gives up its nu­clear pro­grams in ex­change for as­sur­ances that it will not be at­tacked. Nu­mer­ous un­cer­tain­ties and risks would re­main. How would we ver­ify de­nu­cle­ariza­tion? How could Py­ongyang trust that Washington would honor a com­mit­ment not to pur­sue regime change later, as it did in Libya? Would China be will­ing to step in and fill the gap be­tween the two par­ties’ promises? Be­cause of the long-run­ning hos­til­i­ties and ab­sence of trust, provo­ca­tions such as mis­sile tests or even nu­clear tests can set this goal back.

But the United States and China fi­nally have a clear path — pres­sur­ing North Korea from their re­spec­tive di­rec­tions to first halt its nu­clear pro­gram and then ne­go­ti­ate its roll­back in ex­change for the sur­vival of the state. And the un­prece­dent­edly close work­ing re­la­tion­ship be­tween pres­i­dents Trump and Xi Jin­ping on the Korean nu­clear is­sue (one bi­lat­eral sum­mit and two tele­phone calls in the same month) can help keep it mov­ing for­ward. With Trump’s new ap­proach, choos­ing one goal over the other, the United States may fi­nally get what it wants.

What North Korea needs to give up its nu­clear weapons — se­cu­rity — Bei­jing can­not give. Only Washington can give it.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been ratch­et­ing up ten­sions with the United States.

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