by Marius Grinius
October 10, 2017
Recently, U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson met with his Chinese counterpart in Beijing. Any discussions with China on North Korea — which included Tillerson’s intriguing references to direct U.S.-North Korea lines of communication — were quickly sabotaged by President Donald Trump’s tweet that Tillerson was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.”
Ever-tightening UN sanctions, approved by both China and the U.S. but full of loopholes, appear to have had little or no effect on North Korea’s relentless race to place a viable nuclear warhead atop a missile capable of reaching the continental U.S. The personal insults traded between President Trump and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un have reached unprecedented heights, even as the possibility of military miscalculation looms larger.
It should be clear to all concerned by now that North Korea will not reverse course and give up its nuclear and missile capability. Both are deemed vital to the survival of the Kim Jong-un regime.
Perhaps it’s time for everyone to accept the new reality — a North Korea armed with a viable nuclear arsenal — and start planning ahead, instead of just crafting more heated expressions of concern and drafting more ineffectual sanctions.
There are a number of steps that should be taken now to cope with this new reality. First and foremost, Beijing must finally admit that North Korea is a strategic liability for China and that it is not in the interest of China’s global leadership ambitions to continue to protect this failing rogue state.
Once China takes this first critical step, there should be an honest conversation between China and the U.S. (which eventually would involve South Korea, Japan and Russia, followed by the UN) about what a united Korea that would be acceptable to all concerned would look like — except perhaps to Kim Jong-un.
The conversation would have to include highly sensitive issues like the future of U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula, security assurances for Korea and Japan by China, the U.S. and Russia, China’s acceptance of a vibrant Korean democracy on its borders, the exile of Kim Jong-un and his growing family (think Idi Amin or Baby Doc).
It should address amnesty for the senior North Korean military and political elite (unless they are accused of crimes against humanity in connection to North Korea’s Stalinist system of internal prisons), the disposal of North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles (with commensurate awards and future employment for the North Korean scientists involved in those programs), as well as a ‘Marshall Plan’ for northern Korea that would include humanitarian, economic and social/legal assistance.
This will be a tough conversation. But it has to happen.
In the interim, a number of parallel steps should be undertaken. First and foremost, Trump’s advisers must find the courage to speak truth to power and get Trump to cease his unhelpful rhetoric. His ambassador to the UN should do the same.
The flow of outside information into North Korea should turn into a deluge. Memory sticks are so easy to smuggle in these days. Any and all firewalls can be breached. Because North Korea gets hysterical over every annual joint South Korean-U.S. military exercise, North Korean (and perhaps Chinese) military observers should be invited to these exercises, much like NATO and Warsaw Pact observers were once invited to each other’s military exercises during the Cold War.
Military vigilance should be maintained — but potentially provocative acts that smack of 19th century gunboat diplomacy should be curtailed. That includes shows of military might, be they naval armadas or B-1 bombers near North Korea’s borders.
The last, divided relic of the Cold War should morph into a unified Korea. Otherwise, the new reality will fester and become even more unpredictable and dangerous. The road forward will not be easy, but it has to start with a realistic assessment of the situation — and an honest geopolitical conversation.
Marius Grinius is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. He is the former Canadian ambassador to Vietnam, to North and South Korea and to the United Nations and the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva.