Photo credit: U.S. Department of Defense
Breaking the Deadlock: Jumpstarting Talks Between the United States and North Korea

The United States and North Korea stand once again at the precipice of a renewed military escalation. Frustrated by the Trump administration’s negotiation tactics, Kim Jong Un has threatened the United States with a “Christmas gift.” Any escalation between Washington and Pyongyang can spiral into a devastating war between two nuclear-armed countries. In response to this threat, President Trump has hinted at the use of military force against North Korea, stating that “If we have to [use our military], we will do it.” By imposing unrealistic demands, arbitrary timelines, and openly antagonizing one another, leaders in Washington and Pyongyang are returning to the same playbook of hostility and aggression — except now there is a real possibility for an escalation in the next eight days.

We are at this point primarily because the Trump administration refused to be specific about what it was willing to offer Kim. To address this problem, the Trump administration should provide a proposal with three specific elements to compel Pyongyang to cancel its “Christmas gift” and return to the negotiating table. Contrary to conventional thinking in Washington, issuing more threats will not compel Pyongyang to recommit itself to diplomacy. Rather, what is needed is clarity regarding the positive inducements Washington is willing to offer. North Korea needs to know what we are asking them to say yes to.

Specifically, the U.S. should offer partial sanctions relief, declare the end of the Korean War, and offer to open a liaison office in Pyongyang in exchange for concrete steps by North Korea to suspend all weapons-related nuclear activities over a period of 12 months.

Urgent Need for Concrete Action

An escalation of tension between Washington and Pyongyang could trigger a nuclear war that would kill millions, unleashing generations of environmental and horrific health issues at a scale unseen since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

Even without using nuclear weapons, an estimated 250,000 people would die in Seoul alone from a mix of conventional artillery and chemical weapons unleashed by North Korea. The 28,500 Americans who are stationed in South Korea and 50,000 in Japan would immediately be at the frontlines of any military conflict.

North Korea also possesses nuclear weapons that can now reach the mainland United States, potentially placing 300 million Americans’ lives at risk. In 2018, the U.N. Command, Combined Forces Command, and the U.S. Forces Korea confirmed that Pyongyang has successfully developed an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that can reach the entire continental United States as well as a thermonuclear device miniaturized to fit onto an ICBM, elevating North Korea from a regional challenge to a direct threat to the U.S..

Despite these costs, there are some in Washington who advocate for more escalation. For instance, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies called for a campaign of “maximum pressure 2.0” against North Korea in a recent report, which is the same strategy that led us to the current stalemate. If what we seek is a different outcome, why repeat the same mistakes?

A 12-Month Deal

A short-term deal is urgently needed to jumpstart diplomacy between Washington and Pyongyang. Fortunately, the willingness to make a deal is already there. For example, Kim Jong Un has publicly agreed to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” and pledged “permanent dismantlement” of nuclear facilities in Yongbyon in exchange for “United States tak[ing] corresponding measures.” North Korea and the United States also agreed to build a “peace regime” by formally ending the Korean War and discussed exchanging liaison offices to open channels of communication. 

But North Korea has since stepped away from these commitments because of a lack of clarity on what exactly the United States is offering in exchange for its cooperation on denuclearization.

Below are three concrete steps that the United States can offer North Korea in exchange for suspending all weapons-related nuclear activities for 12 months:

1. Partial sanctions relief 

North Korea is one of the most sanctioned countries in the world. There are nearly a dozen U.N. Security Council resolutions preventing the country from buying arms, natural gas, coal, minerals, textiles, seafood, and certain luxury goods. In addition, the U.S. has a set of unilateral sanctions and executive orders against North Korea as well. During the first year of his presidency, Trump imposed financial sanctions on North Korea and added sanctions targeting its “construction, energy, financial services, fishing, information technology, manufacturing, medical, mining, textiles, and transportation industries.” 

To jumpstart diplomacy, the United States should put on hold sanctions against non-military goods for a 12-month period, with automatic snap-back measure if North Korea does not hold its end of the bargain. The U.S. financial sanctions against North Korea have had severe consequences for humanitarian activities with North Korea, cutting off access to capital for international aid organizations. A suspension of sanctions on items that do not directly contribute to the nuclear or missile program would help ordinary North Koreans while retaining pressure that prohibits illicit activities by the North Korean government.

2. Declare an end of the Korean War

North Korea and the United States have technically been at war with each other since 1950. Though the fighting ended in 1953 -— after some five million soldiers and civilians were killed — the two countries never reached a formal peace agreement. They only signed a Military Armistice Agreement to “insure a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved.” 

The absence of a formal end to the war has fueled North Korea’s insecurities and desire for a nuclear deterrence against the United States. To chart a new path toward peace, President Trump should state that the United States is no longer engaged in a war with North Korea and that it is willing to take steps to formalize a peaceful bilateral relationship. Ending the war would address Pyongyang’s perennial insecurities against external threats that has driven it to embrace weapons of mass destruction in the first place. It would also show that the United States is serious about transforming bilateral relations.

Insisting that no such declaration can be made until Pyongyang fully denuclearized and ends its chemical and biological programs has proven futile and counter-productive. Washington cannot expect to achieve its end-goal at the outset of a diplomatic process. 

This step already enjoys support among members of Congress, thanks to years of grassroots advocacy by constituents, nuclear experts, veterans, and advocacy groups who have called for a nonmilitary solution to North Korea’s nuclear threat. H.Res.152, which currently has more than 40 cosponsors, expresses congressional support for a statement from President Trump to end the Korean War and calls on the President to create a roadmap for achieving permanent peace in the Korean Peninsula. 

3. Open liaison offices in Washington and Pyongyang. 

Last June, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the U.S. “ wants to achieve a fundamentally different strategic relationship with our two countries.” Indeed, the Korean War framework that has defined U.S.-North Korea relationship for nearly 70 years is obsolete and restricts the ability of both countries to build trust. Absence of state-to-state relations handicaps Washington and Pyongyang’s ability to identify common interests and potential areas of cooperation. People-to-people exchanges at the governmental and nongovernmental levels would increase room for mutual understanding, remove cultural barriers, and overcome geographic distance.

Liaison offices provide a mechanism by which more frequent interactions and discussions can take place, which increases the prospects for progress. As noted North Korea expert Suzanne DiMaggio stated, “We need vigorous diplomacy to test [Kim Jong Un’s] intentions, shape an outcome toward a less contentious relationship and make progress toward disarmament and denuclearization.” 

In exchange for these steps, North Korea should begin dismantling some of its nuclear facilities in Yongbyon within the next 12 months. It should also come forward with proposals to “establish new U.S.–DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity” as agreed to at the Singapore Summit.

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Two years ago, a mistakenly-sent emergency alert about an incoming ballistic missile attack to Hawaii received national media attention and captured the public’s imagination about the horrors of a potential war with North Korea. It is no wonder that Americans support diplomacy, not war. Last summer, a poll commissioned by RealClearPolitics and the Charles Koch Institute showed that 70 percent of Americans supported President Trump’s diplomacy with North Korea. 

Less than ten days after the Singapore Summit in June 2018, President Trump announced that North Korea has begun “total denuclearization” without providing any detail on what that actually means in practice. Maximum ambiguity has brought the United States to the path of minimal gain. What we need now is maximum clarity backed by concrete actions.

By laying out in specific terms what the United States is willing to offer, President Trump and Chairman Kim can defy the 70 years of inertia and begin in earnest the process of achieving peace.

UPDATE: Watch Jessica Lee discuss these issues here

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