Foreign affairs are more like weather news nowadays, the foreign affairs happening today are reported quite accurately with little surprises by multiple parties but predictions of what will happen in the future longer than a few days are anybody’s guess, at best speculative. No matter how many political analysts from any party (country) are writing about the issues involved in the foreign affair, the development of the affair is rarely predictable. The more serious (often more complex) is the affair, the less one can predict its evolvement. The North Korea (NK) nuclear threat is one of those foreign affairs which has become totally unpredictable in its outcome even though the issue was on the world stage over decades. Along with status review and analysis, there are usually plenty of proposals for dealing with the issue, however, in the case of NK nuclear threat, the proposals for solutions have been swinging between hard-line applying maximum military and economic sanction pressure to soft-line exploring diplomatic dialogue leading to the negotiation table, both with the same goal of achieving de-nuclearization on the Korea Peninsula.
Trump as a non-conventional President, perhaps free from U.S. legacy policy, baggage of NK ‘strategies’ from previous administrations and personal indoctrination of classified information on NK, took a bold and fresh approach to tackle the NK issue on his own initiative outside of the State Department and Pentagon guidance. As remarked by Christopher R. Hill in his recent article, The U.S. Needs a New North Korea Strategy, in Foreign Affairs Snapshot, September 5, 2018: “After Singapore’s Failure (meaning Trump’s meeting with Kim in Singapore), It is time to Change Course.” Christopher R. Hill is a Professor of the Practice in Diplomacy at the University of Denver. He is a four-time ambassador, also served as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs from 2005 to 2009, during which he was head of the U.S. delegation to nuclear talks with North Korea. Therefore his statement of “Singapore’s failure” is a weighty conclusion, even though Trump’s Administration may not be so readily admitting failure.
Hill’s conclusion is based on the factual development of a series of events, from mutual angry threats between the U.S. and NK, to NK and SK warming up their relation through dialogue, meeting and 2017 Winter Olympics, then to Trump and Kim’s agreement to a summit in Singapore (a Nobel Peace Prize worthy effort and music to many in Hill’s words) and finally returning to today’s NK rhetoric calling the U.S. deceitful after the bi-lateral negotiation effort yielding no fruitful result. The main thrust of Hill’s essay is calling for multi-lateral negotiation stressing the importance of having SK, Japan and China all participating, especially advising that working with China has far more advantage than working against China. This proposal of changing strategy is nothing new, since China has always understood the essence of multi-lateral negotiation in NK case and pushed all parties including Russia to work together for achieving de-nuclearization in Korea Peninsula.
Citing China unable to endure U.S. leading in solving China’s neighbor NK’s nuclear issue as the reason, Hill claims that the U.S. should engage China in a multilateral negotiation. This is somewhat outdated consideration. China cares about ‘face’ so does the U.S. in the diplomatic world, but the two giants are both mature nations capable of making rational decisions. China not only is the only country that understands NK (and her generations of leaders) better than anyone else but is also far more serious than any country in viewing the NK issue as a long-term regional security problem. Studying the history since Korean War, I would rather conclude that China’s national security view embraces and bears the East Asia regional security in mind simply because she is surrounded by a number of nations including NK, SK, Russia and Japan. On the other hand, the concern of the U.S. with respect to NK nuclear threat is more of her somewhat selfishly defined national security from nuclear attack point of view than from East Asia regional security. The U.S. Defense Secretary, General James Mattis, has put it plainly that the presence of the U.S. military in SK will shorten the time for responding to a NK nuclear attack to seven seconds from 15 minutes by the detection system stationed in Alaska. Defending SK to have a second Korea War is hardly expected.
Ever since the 34th US President, Ike Eisenhower, to 37th President Richard Nixon to 40th President Ronald Reagan, all have believed that a full engagement with China will be beneficial to the U.S. with a view of “a better China is better for the U.S. and better for the world”. Even today in Trump’s Administration, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and other officials in the State Department still hold this view. Many nations in the world in Africa, Europe and South America also believe in this notion. The opposite view of “China Threat” can only be interpreted as a fear that China will become a world dominating power shaking the leadership position of the U.S. and her close military allies. As the third world desires to progress further in economic development and more countries are advancing economically, they look for leadership in economic development not in military strength. Since WW II, the U.S. has been a super power in military and in the size of economy. The rise of China, because of her large hard working population and determination of implementing strategy for economic development, should not surprise anyone for her growth to be the second largest economy in the world. Hill is right that working with China is far better a strategy than working against China in solving the NK nuclear threat. I would extend that conclusion to a broader context concerning other issues, especially in global trade.
As US-NK bilateral negotiation falters, what is the option for the U.S.? Returning to applying maximum pressure both militarily and economically through a UN-wide sanction is not a sure strategy since we came that way. The crux of the matter is that NK wants to have a genuine peace treaty and the U.S. wants to have a real verifiable de-nuclearization in NK. The past tentative agreements broke down were basically because one side or the other violated the agreement. So the issue is how can we ensure a negotiated agreement will hold. Here multi-lateral participation and a multiparty agreement can offer more accountability to participants than a bi-lateral agreement. If all six parties, the U.S., China, NK, SK, Russia and Japan, can really hash out a plan and timetable for military withdrawal and de-nuclearization truly with regional security in mind under an umbrella of regional peace treaty, a genuine nuclear free and peaceful Korea Peninsula may eventually be realized. A recent letter from Kim to Trump suggested a second summit and implied that NK desired to complete de-nuclerization within Trump’s term by 2020 and the absence of ballistic missiles at the NK 70th national anniversary parade are good gestures from NK for moving forward, however, for achieving real progress, a serious multilateral negotiation at the highest level will likely be more fruitful than a bilateral summit.