How to break the impasse with North Korea

During an employee town hall in Wisconsin, House Speaker Paul Ryan said North Korea is his number one foreign policy concern.

Recent tensions with North Korea remind the world that the nuclear issue will continue to impede regional stability until a lasting resolution is reached.

It is easy to adopt a defeatist view of the matter. Certainly the efforts of the international community to convince North Korea to forsake nuclear weapons have met with little success over the past several decades, as a string of once-promising efforts-from the Agreed Framework and the establishment of the Korean Peninsula Economic Development Organization (KEDO) to the Six-Party Talks-have failed. And yet, we must not fall into the trap of believing that a negotiated settlement with North Korea on denuclearisation is impossible.

Indeed, the alternatives to a negotiated settlement are too risky to condone.

Accepting North Korea as a nuclear power would only make matters worse. It would undermine the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT)-perhaps fatally-and could drive other Asian nations to seek nuclear capabilities as well, especially if they doubt the credibility of the US nuclear umbrella.

A fully nuclear North Korea may also be emboldened if it believes that it will not be punished for acts of aggression. The killing of Kim Jong Un's half-brother, using the lethal VX nerve agent in a Kuala Lumpur airport in February 2017, provides a taste of what might be to come. There are also concerns regarding North Korea's history of proliferation and the slim but real possibility that Kim Jong Un might actually use nuclear weapons in a crisis scenario. As long as the North Korean nuclear question remains unresolved, the risk of a miscalculation leading to conflict will hang over the region.

A pre-emptive strike has been raised as an option to take out North Korea's nuclear capabilities, including underground facilities, but that is an unreliable strategy and would risk triggering a devastating war. Similarly, attempting to force a collapse of the Kim Jong Un regime would undoubtedly incur a high and bloody toll.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reacts with scientists and technicians of the DPRK Academy of Defence Science. PHOTO: REUTERS

Six-party talks remains the best option

Given the risks, a comprehensive resolution- something along the lines of the September 2005 agreement produced by the now stalled Six-Party Talks-still remains the best path forward to resolve the issue.

But before entering into credible negotiations with North Korea, the groundwork must first be laid, intensifying international cooperation and coordination both at the trilateral level-between the United States, South Korea, and Japan-and with China.

Together, these partiesmust produce a convincing combination of sticks and carrots that convey to North Korea a clear message: that it cannot survive with its nuclear weapons, but that without them, it can.

The launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) by North Korea on Tuesday (July 4) has again sent tensions soaring on the Korean peninsula.

The primary objective of North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile development programmes is to acquire a deterrence capability vis-à-vis the United States and South Korea.

Given the overwhelming asymmetry of conventional military capabilities in favor of the United States and its Asia-Pacific allies and partners, North Korea perceives nuclear weapons as the only way to guarantee its survival.

As such, the current conventional wisdom among most North Korea experts is that, as long as the country is ruled by the Kim family, it will never give up its nuclear weapons, especially now that they are so close to an operational nuclear inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability.

This defeatist conclusion, however, risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Convince North Korea it will survive without nukes

The only way to prevent this from occurring is for the international community to lay out a simple calculus for North Korea in no uncertain terms: if it maintains its nuclear weapons it will not be allowed to survive, but without them, it will.

This approach requires some key ingredients that have been missing from past initiatives: cooperation with China to effectively pressure North Korea; a strong assurance to North Korea that it will survive denuclearisation both as a nation and an economy; and strong contingency planning.

While the continued existence of North Korea-even a denuclearized North Korea- may seem politically unpalatable, it is the "lesser evil" among the available options, and is preferable to the cementing of North Korea's nuclear status or the violent devastation that would surely accompany regime change and collapse scenarios.

The application of economic sanctions has made North Korea one of the most isolated countries in the world. After each of its nuclear tests, the UN Security Council has responded with renewed resolutions while other countries have imposed unilateral sanctions on top of this. Unfortunately, North Korea has demonstrated its unyielding resolve and an uncanny ability to find ways to evade the current sanctions regime. So what can be done to make economic "sticks" work this time?

It has been fashionable to blame China for failing to support and implement tough sanctions in the UN Security Council. However, the aim of sanctions should be to enable credible negotiations, not to induce regime collapse. China, just like the rest of the international community, is frustrated with North Korea's development of a nuclear weapons programme.

A nuclear North Korea undermines its own privileged position as a recognized nuclear power under the NPT. The current regional instability also risks undermining the stable economic growth that the Chinese Communist Party needs to maintain its domestic political legitimacy as it heads towards the 19th National Party Congress this autumn.

While China has backed some tougher sanctions, including a recent curbing of coal imports from North Korea, it has been hesitant to apply the type of crippling pressure that is needed. This hesitancy stems from its own legitimate concerns.

First, China fears an inflow of North Korean refugees. This fear is magnified given that 40 per cent of the residents of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, which straddles China's border with North Korea, are ethnic Koreans.

Second, China worries that regime collapse would result in a unified Korea that would align with the United States and Japan, removing its buffer zone and raising the possibility of US military troops stationed along the Chinese border.

Third, there is also the risk that a sudden collapse would bring devastation and violent conflict-a scenario that would seriously impact not just China but also South Korea, Japan, and the region more broadly. Additionally, there is the risk in a collapse scenario that nuclear weapons and technologies may end up in the hands of other countries or even terrorists.

In order to create conditions that would let China join in applying more substantial and effective sanctions on North Korea-such as cutting off hard currency and energy supplies (especially oil)-the United States, South Korea, and Japan must work together to reassure China. This reassurance should be founded on a common recognition that the North Korean threat has evolved to a new stage. It should involve discussions to work out a mutually acceptable agreement on buffer zones-for example, an agreement that the United States would not station military troops above the 38th parallel in a unified Korea-in exchange for Chinese cooperation on hard currency and energy sanctions.

Prepare for worst-case scenario

And at the same time, China will also need to be part of concrete contingency planning discussions in order to prepare for a worst-case scenario on the peninsula, including the question of how to deal with refugee flows. With such diplomatic reassurances, it should be possible to shift China's strategic calculus to the point where it no longer sees tough currency and energy sanctions as riskier than the maintenance of the current, unstable status quo.

Once the groundwork has been laid through cooperation with China, the door for credible denuclearisation negotiations may open. The objective then must be to demonstrate to North Korea that if it refuses to give up its nuclear programme, the sanctions will continue and it will not be able to survive. But at the same time, positive incentives are required as well.

Those "carrots" should include diplomatic and economic reassurances regarding North Korea and the Kim Jong Un regime's post-denuclearisation survival.

On the diplomatic front, the current ceasefire under the Korean War armistice agreement should be converted into a permanent peace treaty, the US and Japan should normalise their diplomatic relations with North Korea, and the Six-Party Talks countries should pledge not to intervene in North Korean domestic politics against the Kim regime.

Assurances on economic survival will need to include international economic and energy assistance to North Korea. The framework for this comprehensive resolution has already been agreed upon under the terms of the September 2005 agreement in the Six-Party Talks. But only through the use of enhanced sticks and carrots can the international community realistically bring North Korea back to the table and move forward to implement this agreement.

The use of harsher sanctions to demonstrate to North Korea that it cannot survive if it maintains its nuclear weapons is an inherently risky strategy.

Those risks are outweighed by the prospect of a full-fledged nuclear North Korea, but we must prepare for the possibility that North Korea may react aggressively to hard-hitting sanctions or that the regime might miscalculate how far it can push back until a collapse scenario is triggered. Multilateral contingency planning to prepare for a worst-case scenario on the peninsula must be bolstered and expanded.

Contingency planning must move beyond the trilateral US-Japan-South Korea realm and also be coordinated with China. This is necessary not only to reassure China and enable it to join in applying more effective sanctions, as mentioned above. It is also critical in order to ensure that North Korea's nuclear weapons can be secured as quickly and efficiently as possible in a collapse scenario to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands.

Such contingency planning also has the added value of demonstrating to North Korea the seriousness of the international community's resolve that it must denuclearise.

Given the risks that preemptive strikes, regime change, and collapse scenarios would entail-namely, massive bloodshed and instability in the region as a whole-denuclearisation through a negotiated settlement is the only option.

Without a resolution, a cloud of instability will continue to hang over the region indefinitely. The time to act is now, before North Korea perfects its missile technology and nuclear warhead miniaturisation capabilities, or else the chance may be lost.

Hitoshi Tanaka is a senior fellow at JCIE and chairman of the Institute for International Strategy at the Japan Research Institute, Ltd. He previously served as Japan's deputy minister for foreign affairs. This is an excerpt of the piece which first appeared on the JCIE website.