Time for a grand bargain in Northeast Asia

By Walter C. Clemens Jr. | October 24, 2011

Nuclear disarmament has taken center stage in most reports on the resumption of talks between North Korean and US diplomats in Geneva, but the nuclear issue may not be resolved unless other conflicts are addressed. Each side has its own goals in the negotiations: Washington wants arms control and security. Pyongyang has a wider agenda that includes not only economic assistance but also military and political security. A grand bargain could enhance each side’s objectives and help Northeast Asia become a zone of peace rather than a crucible for conflict.

Prospects for another bargain like those reached in 1994 (the “Agreed Framework”) and in 2005 (the “Joint Statement”) are mixed. The North withdrew from six-party talks on its nuclear programs in 2009. Since then, it has tested a second nuclear device and a long-range rocket in contravention of UN resolutions. The South maintains that in 2010 the North torpedoed a South Korean ship and shelled one of its islands. On occasion the North has offered to restart six-party talks — without pre-conditions — but has refused to apologize for its actions in 2010, as demanded by the South. The government in Seoul, however, has recently dropped its demands for an apology, and the North has again stated its commitment to the 2005 accord, which sets out obligations for all six parties.

Assessing economics, politics. The biggest question about the North’s willingness to bargain is whether economic desperation will soften Pyongyang’s quest for a nuclear deterrent or stiffen its determination to keep its nuclear weapons program no matter what carrots or sticks outsiders proffer. UN observers report that the North is again threatened by famine and that one-third of North Korean children under the age of five are chronically malnourished. Still, Pyongyang did not respond to South Korean offers of food aid after flooding in August, leading Seoul to withdraw its offer in early October.

Besides its need for economic assistance and technological modernization, however, the North has long demonstrated a strong desire for recognition by and direct ties with the United States. It prefers bilateral meetings to the six-party forum, where it faces not one but five actors trying to change its behavior. Though the Obama administration has maintained a stiff posture toward North Korea, its nuclear strategy now creates an opening for substantive negotiations with the North. The United States has declared that it will not use nuclear arms against any country that maintains its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) — omitting Washington’s previous proviso that such a country not be allied with a nuclear weapons power. Thus, if Pyongyang agrees to return to the NPT, the North could conceivably keep ties with China and still benefit from a “negative security guarantee” from the United States.

Designing a solution. So what are the main ingredients of a grand bargain, given today’s conditions? For starters, any accommodation that approaches a comprehensive solution to the Korean situation must accept the reality of two Korean states. So long as Pyongyang and Seoul see themselves in a win-or-lose struggle for pride and power, neither can contemplate a closer union, or even a confederation.

Readers of Western media would hardly know it, but for years the North has called for a peace treaty to replace the 1953 armistice ending the Korean War. Washington and Seoul have balked, saying the priority is nuclear arms control. But failure to conclude a peace treaty leaves the door open to renewed hostilities. Hardliners strut and shout across the stage. Each player finds cause to distrust the others. The North asserts that the South’s maneuvers with US forces are provocative. The South argues that its citizens and property have been attacked. All parties need to cool their self-righteousness; one event that would take fingers off triggers would be the formal signing of the treaty that ends the war.

Peace in Korea will also require major changes in the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the West (Yellow) Sea. Yes, the 1953 armistice agreement gave South Korea five islands close to the North Korean coast, but the NLL was established by the United Nations after the armistice. The North has challenged the NLL in many ways in recent decades. Western legal scholars agree that the line seems to contradict international law, because it does not follow out into the sea the north-south, demilitarized partition on land. Instead, the line curves northward not far from North Korea’s coast, depriving the country of easy access to valuable fishing grounds and making ship transit into and out of North Korean ports more onerous.

Provided that Washington stands by South Korea, the odds of a grand bargain with North Korea would be enhanced if the United States officially recognized its long-time adversary. Diplomatic recognition does not imply approval. Despite East Germany’s repressive regime, the United States and West Germany recognized the German Democratic Republic in 1973. Seventeen years later, the two Germanys became one. A similar long-term outcome is thinkable on the Korean peninsula.

Pyongyang’s leaders want security for themselves and for North Korea. But if the North’s arsenal expands, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan may take countermeasures that cascade from China to India to Pakistan. Meanwhile, North Koreans’ living standards continue to deteriorate. More North Koreans are fleeing. Despite the regime’s slogan of self-reliance, the North needs access to the world’s stocks of knowledge and opportunity, not to mention energy and food aid.

North Korea now has a small nuclear arsenal that Pyongyang will not eliminate except for substantial rewards. The price seemed right in 1994 when Pyongyang halted plutonium production in exchange for US promises of heavy fuel oil and two light water reactors. This Agreed Framework endured for eight years until the Bush administration broke off negotiations and positioned North Korea on an “axis of evil.”

Sometimes things get better in the wake of brinksmanship and conflict. Stepping back from the Cuban missile crisis, in 1963 John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev set up a hotline, restricted nuclear testing, and increased trade. The players in Northeast Asia should recall the US-Soviet model and shift from confrontation to détente by steps small and large.

A grand bargain that stabilized the Koreas would involve agreement on many contested points, but conditions are favorable for bridging longstanding differences. Here is an outline for resolving conflicts in Northeast Asia:

● Diplomatic relations should be established between the United States and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and between the Republic of Korea and the North.

● A peace treaty ending the Korean War should be signed by Washington (for the UN), Seoul, Pyongyang, and Beijing.

● Area countries should reaffirm that all of Korea is a nuclear-free zone; the International Atomic Energy Agency should verify dismantlement of nuclear weapons; and all parties should renew their commitments to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

● The United States should agree to supply fuel oil and electric power facilities to the North equal to those pledged in the 1994 Agreed Framework. All parties should agree to build a pipeline that brings Siberian oil and gas to both Koreas on terms advantageous to each country — an idea approved by the North’s Kim Jong-il and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last summer.

● North Korea should permit direct foreign investment and business operations and reaffirm the property rights of all enterprises the South establishes in the North.

● All parties (including Japan and Russia) should agree to share their resources and know-how with the North and to facilitate its participation in international trade and banking organizations.

● The North and South should agree to reduce all branches of their armed forces by 50 percent in stages from 2011 to 2015.

● The UN and the US and its partners should end all sanctions against the North.

● Both Koreas should agree to a demilitarized zone in the waters near their border, in which neither bases nor maneuvers are permitted. The South would retain the five islands it was awarded in 1953, but fishermen from the North and South could operate in the West Sea up to the waters under Chinese jurisdiction.

Besides these formal commitments, the parties need to find ways to mutually cut back on hostile propaganda; to step up family exchanges between North and South; and to create a joint facility to process and distribute fish from the West Sea.

Each country concerned with Northeast Asia will challenge aspects of the proposed grand bargain. On reflection, each should perceive that it will benefit from the package and that no better deal is available. Can the six parties negotiate a grand bargain? Yes, they can, should, and must. An accord would help stabilize the Korean peninsula as a political transition takes place in the North. It would help demonstrate that the Obama administration can succeed not only in collective action against dictators but in multilateral negotiations to promote peace and cooperation.

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