PIIE Blog | North Korea: Witness to Transformation
The Peterson Institute for International Economics is a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan
research institution devoted to the study of international economic policy. More › ›
Subscribe to North Korea: Witness to Transformation Search
North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Diplomatic Update: Trustpolitik, ASEAN Diplomacy and the Six Party Talks

by | August 20th, 2014 | 07:00 am

While I was traveling in Northeast China last week, there were a few diplomatic developments that warrant brief comment, starting with President Park’s bid to re-open a channel to the North and the outcome of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meetings in Burma. In addition, “strategic patience” has been taking a beating both in hearings on the Hill and in a noteworthy piece from Robert Einhorn at the National Interest.

Trustpolitik Update

President Park is trying to reopen the North-South channel that has been closed since the NDC proposal of January and the talks of February, which led to a round of family reunions. The brief South Korean proposal makes reference to family reunions, but supporting statements by Minister of Unification Ryoo Khil-jae suggested that no issues would be excluded from discussion. The two that are of greatest interest to the North Koreans are re-starting the Mt. Kumgang tours and lifting the May 24 sanctions imposed in the wake of the sinking of the Cheonan.

The Park administration does not appear eager to go down either of these paths, but that could change. In a near-simultaneous announcement, it put some additional chips on the table by announcing an aid package of $13.3 million. The funding would go through multilateral channels: $7 million to the World Food Program for the WFP’s underfunded effort —the first South Korean funding to the WFP since 2007—and another $6.3 million to the World Health Organization for medicines, clinics and training. The funding would come out of the Inter-Korean Cooperation Fund (IKCF), which remains flush given the lack of North-South activity. Humanitarian assistance has clearly become the leading edge of the stalled Trustpolitik effort; in July the administration tapped the IKCF for about $3 million to support South Korean NGOs.

But the Ministry of Unification has also submitted a more ambitious action plan to the National Assembly that outlines a range of possible South Korean investments in infrastructure were relations to improve. In her Liberation Day speech, President Park also outlined a series of infrastructure, environmental, and cultural initiatives of varied ambition, including some short-run, low-cost measures (inviting the North to attend the 12th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity to be held in Pyeongchang in October), others more long-run and requiring an improvement in relations (large-scale infrastructure such as rail links).

As of this writing, the North Koreans had not responded to the proposal for talks, which was issued in time to hold reunions around Cheosok if the North Koreans respond positively. But they did issue a terse rebuff to the Liberation Day proposals, saying that they sidestepped the fundamental questions on the peninsula. That is quite true, but also misses the point of Trustpolitik and North Korea’s lack of credibility. If they can’t do family reunions, how can anyone believe they will negotiate in good faith on nuclear weapons?

ASEAN Diplomacy

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong’s attendance at the ARF was sandwiched in-between visits to Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia and Singapore as well. The Diplomat ran a useful pre-trip summarizing North Korea’s relations with the region. The visit was of particular interest not only because of Ri’s formal status but because of the fact that he served as one of Kim Jong Un’s minders while he attended school in Switzerland; he is believed to have a direct link to The Young General.

The 21st ARF—attended by the 10 ASEAN hosts and 17th other countries–was scheduled amidst a raft of other ASEAN meetings including most significantly the Fourth East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (EAS FMM-4). Most of the action at the ARF centered on the ongoing South China Sea disputes. The Chairman’s Statement of the 4th EAS FMM was released a full four days after the meetings wrapped up, reflecting hard bargaining among the parties. It had a short, compromise section on North Korea (reproduced below) that called for a resumption of the Six Party Talks, but that also strongly emphasized denuclearization and North Korean obligations under existing UNSC resolutions.

Indonesia has maintained a surprising interest in North Korea; the Foreign Minister visited in the fall of last year and Indonesia has consistently made the case for engagement. Ri’s trip to Jakarta was the most interesting stop. In addition to making a courtesy call on president elect Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, Ri carried a “concrete proposal” to Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa with respect to the Six Party Talks. The proposal has not been made public but The Diplomat quotes the Foreign Minister as saying it addresses “the issue of nuclear proliferation, the issue of ballistic missile launches, [and] the issue of military exercises.” (More of his commentary on the proposal here)

Given that it is highly doubtful that Indonesia would play more than a go-between role in any Six Party Talks diplomacy, the question is “what are the North Koreans doing?” It could be that they are tabling a proposal that China—with whom relations are clearly strained—would view as too weak, such as making a revival of talks contingent on canceling joint US-ROK exercises. Alternatively, Pyongyang could simply be currying favor with Jakarta as it seeks to diversify trade and investment ties; Indonesia has repeatedly expressed an interest in North Korea’s reform efforts.

Einhorn on Engagement

We close with a note on American policy. Strategic patience has not been getting a lot of sympathy. In hearings before the Asia and the Pacific Subcommittee of House Foreign Affairs, both Republicans (Chairman Steve Chabot (OH), Doug Collins (R-GA) and Democrats (Gerry Connolly VA) voiced concern about the lack of progress; human rights envoy Bob King (testimony here .pdf) and special representative Glyn Davies (testimony here .pdf) offered articulate defenses.

But perhaps the most interesting piece to emerge over the last several weeks on the issue comes from Robert Einhorn at the National Interest. Einhorn’s analysis is very nuanced; he is far from convinced that a new approach will work. But he argues that the current approach is “dead in the water” and that exploratory bilateral talks could sound out where the North Koreans actually are.

He envisions a process in which the North Koreans would not commit to any actions in advance, but would commit to show good faith shortly—indeed, almost immediately—after talks resume. In effect, Einhorn simply wants to push preconditions from the pre-talks phase into the talks themselves.

The measures in question are those on which the US secured agreement during the leap-year deal of 2012, namely:

  • A freeze on nuclear activities at its Yongbyon nuclear complex, including uranium-enrichment, the new “experimental” light water reactor, and the five-megawatt reactor that has generated North Korea’s stock of plutonium to date
  • A return of IAEA inspectors to monitor the freeze.
  • A moratorium on nuclear tests and on flight testing of long-range missiles, with greater clarity on the fact that the freeze includes what the North Koreans call “space launch vehicles.”

Einhorn is well aware of the fact that Yongbyon is only part of the North Korean nuclear program, so he adds in another important set of steps that would need to be taken immediately: that “the North Koreans acknowledge that they possess nuclear facilities outside Yongbyon, identify the numbers and kinds of facilities and their operating status, and commit to addressing those facilities in the negotiations within a reasonable period of time.”

Einhorn acknowledges that the North Koreans will want something in return, noting that food aid had been the effective quid pro quo of the leap year deal. However, he has little to say about what the US would be willing to give in return, only that it would be the subject of discussion. This is a non-trivial omission. There are good reasons not to provide humanitarian assistance to this end, so the quid pro quo would presumably have to come in some other form, such as suspension of exercises. However, since the next round of exercises will now take place in 2015, they are probably not a currency in which the North Koreans would want to trade. Would the US have to actually put resources on the table to get the North Korean steps? Would it need to moderate defense cooperation with the South or Japan? Given that it has been hard to figure out what the US would offer in return, Einhorn turns in the end to the approach which has been a staple of US policy since the Perry report: that if the North does not respond, the US will ramp up pressure.

Einhorn is no doubt aware that the US has communicated with the North Koreans on these issues, including directly. The central problem, however, is not the modality of talks—pre-talks, bilateral, multilateral–or even how concessions are timed, although the latter is particularly important. The central problem is that the North Koreans have stated time and time again that they have no interest in denuclearization. In some ways, the concrete steps that everyone is looking for are less important than an unambiguous statement—from Kim Jong Un himself—that the country is willing to consider complete denuclearization, such as a recommitment to the September 2005 joint statement. In the absence of such a fundamental change in direction, it is not clear what the talks would really be about.

From “Chairman’s Statement of 4th East Asia Summit (EAS) Foreign Ministers’ Meeting,” 10 August 2014, Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar

34. The Ministers followed with concern the recent developments on the Korean Peninsula and underlined the importance of peace, stability and security in the region. The Ministers registered deep concern over North Korea’s recent ballistic missile launches. They highlighted the importance of trust building activities on the Korean Peninsula and the need to fully comply with all relevant United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions and commitments under the 19 September 2005 Joint Statement of the Six-Party Talks. The Ministers called for the creating of necessary conditions for the early resumption of Six-Party Talks, which would pave the way for the complete and verifiable denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner.