The US should revise its strategy of pressuring North Korea to give up all its nuclear weapons before offering any sanctions relief, said a veteran diplomat, in order to avoid repeating diplomatic events that have ended in failure over the past two decades.
“The US needs to take an incremental approach to resolve North Korea’s denuclearization issues. Demanding it to relinquish its entire nuclear arsenal first seems to be another repetition of the history of failure that begun (to be) attempted in the early 1990s,” Cho Byung-jae, who served as chancellor of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs until last year, said in an interview with The Korea Herald on Friday.
Cho Byung-jae, former chancellor of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, poses for a photo before an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
North Korea has faced constant pressure from sanctions and international isolation since its nuclear program came under increasing international scrutiny in the early 1990s. But the regime has survived through a three-generation lineage of leadership.
“It is impetuous to think that the North will surrender its nuclear programs when tough sanctions are imposed,” Cho said.
The second summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi in February -- which ended with no agreement -- could have yielded results if Washington had offered conditions that took into account its security needs, Cho said.
He cited as an example Trump’s decision to end large-scale joint military exercises following his first meeting with Kim in Singapore in June 2018 in exchange for the North’s moratorium on nuclear and missile tests.
“To find a way to resolve the issue, such reciprocal steps should be taken by both sides,” he said.
Pyongyang, for its part, should have laid out a “road map” to reassure Washington of its commitment to work toward complete denuclearization.
“A precondition for a quid-pro-quo process that both sides offer something simultaneously is that the North will eventually denuclearize after certain phases and steps. Without a big picture, no one can be sure if it (complete denuclearization) will be realized,” he said.
Cho, who has 37 years of experience as a diplomat and was a key official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, believes that North Korea’s standing in the world has “considerably improved” since the early 1990s.
“For the past 25 years, the North has achieved serious progress in its nuclear arms while its traditional major power supporter China has enormously increased its position with economic growth. The two factors make it hard (for the US) to reach a nuclear deal,” he said.
For China, a stable North Korea regime could be more important than the country forgoing its nuclear weapons, which means Beijing would help prevent Pyongyang from imploding if needed.
Following the breakdown of talks in Hanoi, Kim has been bolstering ties with Russia and China. The North Korean leader held his first summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin on April 26. They discussed the fate of some 10,000 North Korean laborers working in Russia, who are due to leave the country by year-end under sanctions.
“There are speculations that Russia has changed its mind on the North Korean workers issue (to allow them to stay). This means that its denuclearization issue could be overwhelmed by its geopolitical importance,” Cho said.
Regarding the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea, Cho expressed skepticism over how the tactic is different from restrictions imposed on the regime in the past.
He agrees with the necessity of sanctions to punish North Korea for violating international norms and resolutions of the United Nations Security Council. However, sanctions alone are not likely to work.
“You mustn’t recklessly predict the tolerance of the North to dire economic situations,” he said.
He noted that the regime survived a devastating famine in the mid-1990s, also known as the Arduous March, which killed at least 300,000 to 400,000 people.
According to the Bank of Korea, the North’s economy shrank 3.5 percent in 2017, the sharpest decline in two decades, as international sanctions hit its mining and manufacturing sectors.
The contraction was the biggest since 1997, when the economy plummeted 6.5 percent as it suffered from the famine.
To advance stalled denuclearization talks, South Korea and the US need to take a more comprehensive approach that goes beyond sanctions, and strengthen inter-Korean contact within the framework of sanctions on North Korea.
“South Korea and the US have no choice but to continue seeking dialogue and negotiating with the North,” he said.