How North Korea can Overcome the Current Impass

Since the Singapore Summit, US officials have consistently suggested that the Sentosa Agreement was all about North Korea agreeing to denuclearize unilaterally and that North Korea has failed to live up its commitments. For the most part, the western media have uncritically parroted the same. But that’s far from reality.

The Sentosa Agreement lists four areas of agreement between DPRK Chairman Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump. Two are most relevant here:

2. The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.

3. Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Clearly, the true reality is that what they agreed to in the Sentosa Agreement was about denuclearization in exchange for a “lasting and stable peace regime,” not just about North Korean denuclearization.

At the post-summit press conference, in fact, President Donald Trump emphasized that the Korean War would “end soon”:

Nearly 70 years ago — think of that; 70 years ago — an extremely bloody conflict ravaged the Korean Peninsula. Countless people died in the conflict, including tens of thousands of brave Americans. Yet, while the armistice was agreed to, the war never ended. To this day, never ended. But now we can all have hope that it will soon end. And it will. It will soon end.

Unfortunately, since then he has not reiterated the need to end the Korean War. US officials have further said peace negotiations are off the table until CVID (Complete, Verifiable, and Irreversible Denuclearization) is achieved. It’s as if the Singapore Summit never took place.

One explanation may be the possibility that the meeting was the result of President Donald Trump’s impulsiveness, a mistake. Defaulting back to CVID indicates that the US has more pressing national interest concerns than making peace with North Korea. What are they?

Specifically, if the Korean War ended, it may threaten the existence of the UN Command, force the closure of many US military bases in the region, force a significant US troop draw-down in South Korea and Japan, and threaten the US alliances with those countries.

Further, a Korean Peace Treaty may be a boon for the Chinese and Russia economies by turning North Korea into a land bridge to South Korea and Japan and giving them with access to warm water ports in North Korea. In the zero-sum world of international realists, one’s advantage is a disadvantage to the other.

Finally, peace in Korea might interfere with the creation of a US-led Indo-Pacific Alliance like NATO or at least a multilateral ABM (anti-ballistic missile) network on the backs of the existing bilateral US alliances for which the North Korean nuclear and ballistic threats have been instrumental. A US-ROK-Japan trilateral ABM pact, for example, was promoted heavily by former President Barak Obama.

For now, North Korea appears to have given up on demanding the end of the Korean War and seems to be demanding at least sanctions relief. But it is a mistake. They should stick with demanding the full implementation of the Sentosa Agreement including declaring the end of the Korean War, declaring a Peace Treaty and achieving full normalization (including the lifting of sanctions), and establishing a robust international Peace Regime for the Korean Peninsula.

In exchange, they should offer a full declaration of nuclear and ballistic inventory, open itself up to IAEA inspections, the suspension of the production of the weapons, and in time, the destruction of their nuclear weapons inventory and infrastructure. South Korea should reciprocate and assist in any way possible.

If the US is not willing or able to move forward, there is nothing to stop North Korea from achieving denuclearization, peace, and security through separate deals with South Korea, China, Russia, and other international partners. Negotiating with South Korea alone may not be sufficient.

In return, there is nothing to prevent the international community from extending peace and security guarantees in exchange for the complete and verified denuclearization (ala CVID) without the US participation.

Sooner or later, the US would have to come around to it, the UNSC sanctions would be lifted, and the Korean War would finally come to an end.