Archive for the ‘North Korea’ Category

Can Trump Come Back from a Blunder on North Korea

March 13, 2018

Richard N. Holwill (Ecuador, 1988-1989; Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, 1990-1993)


The Kim dynasty has long sought to bring legitimacy to the country formally known as Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and informally as North Korea. The long-standing position of the U.S. Government (USG) has been that diplomatic recognition will not be extended to the DPRK until its supreme leader signs a peace treaty with the Republic of Korea (ROK), informally known as South Korea.

A meeting with the president of the United States would grant that legitimacy to the DPRK and make a hero of Kim Jong-Un but without securing a peace treaty or any other concession. Kim will not give up his nuclear weapons based on a single meeting. The path to denuclearization will be long and hard and will require concessions from the United States and security guarantees by the People’s Republic of China.

President Trump’s acceptance of the invitation appears to have been impulsive. The New York Times and Washington Post have each confirmed that Trump did not seek the advice of his National Security Advisor or of his Secretary of Defense before his meeting with the envoys from South Korea who delivered the invitation to meet with the DPRK’s “Supreme Leader.” There are signs that this meeting will not happen, which may well reflect the fact that those in this Administration that have extensive foreign policy experience have now explained the complexity of the issue to the President.

Without regard to the capricious way that this came about, seasoned diplomats would now try a gambit to make the most of the current state of play. If Kim’s appetite for a meeting is now so strong, he might be willing to accept a peace treaty and diplomatic recognition as the price of the meeting. After all, a peace treaty and diplomatic recognition could offer the DPRK a degree of security. At this point, U.S. policy implies a desire to overthrow the Kim Dynasty. With diplomatic recognition, the USG will be expected to forego that goal. Only then can we move forward with negotiations toward denuclearization.

Diplomatic efforts, like a chess game, are best played with the king hanging back. We believe that the President would now be wise to move other pieces on the board before over committing himself.

Note: The author served as Counselor to the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency when an earlier administration considered negotiations with the DPRK.


Korea Options — Bad, Worse and Unthinkable

January 5, 2018

Richard N. Holwill (Ecuador, 1988-1989; Counselor to the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, 1990-1993)


When given a choice among bad options, you would normally look for the least worst. In the case of North Korea — formally the Democratic Republic of Korea or DPRK — the least worst would appear to be negotiations but, even then, the option must be approached with great care.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had said “We are ready to negotiate with the DPRK without preconditions.” Then, President Donald Trump pulled the Secretary back into the fantasy world of this White House saying the DPRK “must earn” the right to negotiate. What the President did not consider was the precondition that DPRK leader Kim Jong-un has imposed on negotiations. Kim wants the United States to acknowledge and accept his Country as a nuclear power before agreeing to talk, something we cannot do.

It would seem logical that China would help calm tensions on the Peninsula, but we cannot expect China to take any steps that are inconsistent with its long-term goal of maximizing its position in East Asia. That goal includes limiting U.S. access to the South and East China Seas.

China also fears having a U.S. ally such as the Republic of Korea (The ROK, also known as South Korea) on its border. For that reason, China will actively oppose any effort to destabilize the DPRK. Human rights reform, a priority for the West, is lower on Beijing’s agenda than keeping a stable client state on its border.

Just as China wants to push the United States out of East Asia, the DPRK hopes to push U.S. forces off the Korean Peninsula. In that their goals are aligned, we should not expect China to take steps contrary to its fundamental interests.

China certainly wants to ensure that the DPRK does not actually start a war and has proposed a “freeze for a freeze,” which is to say that the U.S. and South Korean governments would not conduct military training exercises in exchange for a “freeze” in the development of nuclear arms and missile delivery systems. The Trump Administration dismissed the offer. To most analysts, simply freezing the DPRK’s nuclear program is too modest a goal, particularly if any such agreement does not include a robust verification regime.

This begs the question: What then do we want? Is it possible to seek a denuclearization agreement? And, if so, what must the United States concede to achieve that goal? Let’s assume that a denuclearization agreement is theoretically possible. To be meaningful, it must include a robust verification program backed by United Nations guarantees. More critically, we should expect China to endorse and even guarantee DPRK compliance. Such an agreement must also provide a measure of security to the ROK, which would hinge other guarantees from China.

In an agreement of this type, Kim would very likely demand concessions from the United States that go well beyond a freeze on major training exercises. He would very likely demand the removal of U.S. troops from the ROK to be staged to match the staged dismantling of the DPRK nuclear and missile programs.

Even with these potential concessions, Kim Jong-un may well refuse to give up his nuclear toys. He knows that using the weapons would be suicide, but they do give him and his country a degree of standing that would otherwise be impossible to command. Abandoning the nuclear program would be such a loss of face that Kim probably cannot accept it unless he gains face some other way.

He might insist on diplomatic recognition of the DPRK and an agreement to respect its sovereignty combined with a termination of economic sanctions. This could come through a treaty resolving the 75-year-old armistice that brought the Korean War as far as a cease fire. Kim would call that a victory but would President Trump, who seems preoccupied with his own “face,” be willing to let Kim claim victory?

This scenario, admittedly a utopian fantasy, effectively guarantees a continuation of the Kim Dynasty in the DPRK. That implies that Kim can continue to impose a system of human rights abuses that can best be described as crimes against humanity. It means that nuclear blackmail will have trumped humanitarian concerns. At the end of the day, we must ask ourselves if we are willing to pay that price. We might even ask ourselves if the status quo is perhaps acceptable.

We must remember, however, that the status quo is not static. Kim’s next move could be to demonstrate the ability to launch a missile with a warhead capable of reentry carrying a nuclear weapon to be tested not in a tunnel but over open waters. Were that to happen, our options would go from bad to exponentially worse.



Gauging the Impact of Economic Sanctions

December 8, 2017

J. William Middendorf II (Netherlands, 1969-1973; Organization of American States, 1981-1985; European Union, 1985-1987)


Dan Negrea

Cross posted from The Washington Times


Carl von Clausewitz thought of military war as a continuation of diplomacy through other means. Economic sanctions are economic war and should be similarly regarded as tactics subordinated to a diplomatic strategy.

Economic sanctions take many forms. The 1961 quarantine of Cuba targeted the whole country, but the 2014 Russia sanctions singled out a few economic sectors, enterprises and individuals. The Iran sanctions of a decade ago used asset freezes, an oil embargo and financial isolation, while the current sanctions against North Korea emphasize trade restrictions. And they can be imposed by single countries or multilaterally.

Sanctions can be designed to discourage behavior, punish actions, cause regime change or weaken a country’s economy. Or simply to advertise displeasure with certain behavior.

In 2014 the United States, Europe and their allies imposed economic sanctions on Russia in response to its occupation of Crimea and aggression against Eastern Ukraine. There was grave concern at the time that Russia planned to occupy even more Ukrainian territory and attack Baltic NATO members Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The sanctions included travel restrictions against Russian officials, transaction bans affecting certain energy firms and banks, and export controls on energy equipment. Russia was also denied access to Western capital markets. The sanctions weakened the Russian economy and depressed the ruble.

Simultaneously, NATO increased its military presence in member countries bordering Russia to discourage Russian military adventurism.

The West was signaling that changing borders by force is unacceptable. Russia was going to pay an economic price for its aggression against non-NATO member Ukraine and a military price if it attacked a NATO member. Russia did not withdraw from Crimea or stop interfering in Eastern Ukraine because of the sanctions. But the combination of sanctions and a firm NATO stance discouraged Russia from further aggression in Ukraine and a move against the Baltics.

Starting in 2006, the U.N. Security Council imposed several rounds of sanctions on Iran for violating nuclear non-proliferation agreements. Iran’s military was enriching uranium for nuclear weapons and building missiles to deliver them, while Iranian officials were making hostile statements against America and its allies. The almost-universal economic sanctions against Iran were the toughest any country had ever faced and virtually every segment of its economy was affected. The energy sector was particularly hard hit by an embargo on oil exports and restrictions on insurance for oil tankers serving the Iran trade. Iran was even cut off from SWIFT, the world’s bank transaction network, and forced to use gold as currency. The Iranian economy was on its knees: Between 2011 and 2014, Iran’s oil exports fell by half and the rial plummeted.

But the Obama administration gave it all away in exchange for the very bad Iran nuclear deal. The agreement limited Iran’s uranium enrichment only until 2025 and it did not restrict research on nuclear weapons or on testing missiles to deliver them. The Iranians were able to push President Obama into this pact because they figured out that he was desperate for a deal, any deal, to avoid military conflict. They even forced him to ignore the Syria genocide and his famous red line to get this deal. One of the authors of this article served in the Reagan administration and saw a different kind of president. Ronald Reagan walked away from the 1986 Reykjavik negotiations when he could not cut a good deal with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The economic sanctions against Iran worked, but their effect was squandered by a flawed strategy.

President Trump’s North Korea goal is crystal-clear: Rogue North Korea will not be allowed to have nuclear weapons with which to blackmail the United States and its allies. The U.S. has enlisted almost the entire world community to impose the harshest economic sanctions on North Korea. But this will not be enough. “The North Koreans will eat grass before giving up their nukes,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin. And he is right.

But America is going beyond sanctions. Through skilled diplomacy it is further isolating North Korea from the world, even from China, its vital ally. And, critically important, the U.S. has left the military option on the table. No one can predict the outcome of this conflict, but the U.S. is getting the odds in its favor.

Reluctantly, America and its allies must sometimes use coercion to safeguard world peace. Sanctions can crush an economy, but by themselves they will not force a dictator to change course — dictators don’t care if their people become grass eaters. To be effective, sanctions must be melded with the threat of hard power and skilled diplomacy into a comprehensive strategy.

One more thing: In their opposition to dictators, America and its allies must remain confident in the superiority of our Western democratic principles. The West and the dictators are separated by a line of principle, to borrow a recently coined term, and we are on the right side of the line.

America’s Hostage Negotiation Strategy is Broken

June 26, 2017

Bill Richardson (Governor of New Mexico, 2003-2011; Secretary of Energy, 1998-2000; U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, 1997-1998; U.S. Congressman from New Mexico, 1982-1996)

Cross posted from The Washington Post.


Otto Warmbier was laid to rest June 22 by his loving family in their town outside of Cincinnati, nine days after he was brought home in a coma after 17 months of imprisonment in North Korea. The North Korean government described him as a prisoner of war, so by their own definition, his death is their absolute responsibility, pursuant to the Geneva Conventions. That the North Korean government kept him in an unresponsive state without proper medical assistance constitutes a crime in terms of international law and flouts common decency.

The blame is theirs. The lesson for us is that America’s hostage negotiation strategy is broken.

I’ve helped rescue hostages from around the world and from North Korea, specifically. In 1994, I negotiated the return of downed Army helicopter pilot from North Korea and the remains of his co-pilot. In 1996, I helped bring American Evan Hunziker back from North Korea. I, and the team at my center, worked for 15 months to try to gain Otto’s release, including a visit to Pyongyang in September.

To bring these cases to a resolution, we often work on three parallel tracks: identifying opportunities to create leverage; engaging directly with captors to ascertain what it might take to secure hostages’ release; and working with the families of those taken hostage, who often find themselves in need of guidance. Working on all three tracks remains viable, but Otto’s case shows that it’s time for a paradigm shift.

First, we have to recognize that time is no longer neutral. In past instances, all that mattered was working toward an outcome, no matter how long it might take. But urgency must be the new norm if we’re to have a chance at curtailing the physical and mental abuse that prisoners can face, particularly when dealing with unpredictable actor. In the year-plus since Otto was detained, Kim Jong Un contravened a litany of humanitarian norms regarding treatment of hostages. The regime still hasn’t provided a believable explanation for Otto’s coma, and why they failed to disclose his condition to the family or diplomatic proxies in the country.

But timing is only part of the problem. Previous hostage negotiations have had success largely because outside actors have been effective in pressuring their client states. Maybe North Korea doesn’t have an incentive to appease America, but China, which works with both countries and fears the collapse of the North Korean state, does. Otto’s case, though, underscores the reality that the final stages of negotiations between sovereign states often need to be undertaken by the parties themselves — here, the governments of the United States and North Korea.

Yet despite the clear need for governments to resolve these cases bilaterally, the U.S. has no clear policy on how to handle instances in which Americans are held as collateral by foreign governments. It’s not that the U.S. hasn’t tried to improve its overall approach. In the final years of his administration, President Barack Obama made a concerted effort to rethink how the government treats hostage cases, primarily in circumstances where Americans are held by terrorist organizations. The creation of the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell was a step in the right direction. It’s meant to encourage agencies and departments to share relevant information among all participating actors in securing the release of prisoners held by terrorist groups, and exists to provide channels to keep families informed on the progress of their relatives’ cases.

But that’s not enough. Families who have engaged with the HRFC have expressed frustration at the lack of information-sharing — something the HRFC was ultimately supposed to fix. Other families who have hired private external negotiators have been stymied by strict rules regarding the sharing of information with outside parties working to create the conditions necessary for a deal to be reached.

Yet we know coordinated private diplomacy is often critical. Unconstrained by traditional diplomatic choreography, private diplomacy leverages preexisting personal relations and trust that can lead to the sharing of information and creative flexibility, something with which government struggles. To try to bring Otto home, for example, representatives from my center met more than 20 times with North Korean officials. The information gathered was critical. Coordinating and sharing these efforts between government and private diplomacy can unleash a set of tools largely ignored, and in some cases eschewed, to date. For example, a small gesture of recognition — a note delivered privately — from the United States indicating that it would see Otto’s release as a humanitarian gesture, could have helped bring him home earlier: private diplomacy working hand-in-hand with government.

Yet for all the shortcomings of U.S. hostage policy, President Trump has yielded one clear success with the release of Aya Hijazi, who was held by the Egyptian government until shortly after the president’s White House meeting with Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. Trump deserves credit here, but his administration can’t rely on this sort of leader-to-leader diplomacy as a primary approach, as it would incentivize governments to take Americans captive, not to mention forcing the president to shift focus from important geostrategic issues.

To secure the release of the other three U.S. citizens being held in North Korea, Joshua Holt in Venezuela, Siamak Namazi in Iran and Austin Tice in Syria, to name a few, the administration must first treat these cases with urgency rather than patience, and second, convene a contact group, including private diplomacy actors across the political and private spectrums, to identify case-by-case strategies and levers. Personal relations are assets and they do not exclusively lie inside one administration.

Time to Negotiate with North Korea

June 23, 2017

Thomas Graham, Jr. (Special Representative of the President for Arms Control, Nonproliferation and Disarmament, 1994-1997)

Cross posted from the June 23, 2017 edition of U.S. News and World Report


The great Cold Warrior and international negotiator Ambassador Paul Nitze once said to me “Whenever I enter one of these negotiations (U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms negotiations) I try to imagine the narrow strip where both sides can stand comfortably. Then I try to steer U.S. policy toward that place.” That is a good construct for important and sensitive negotiation with an adversary. And it could work with North Korea as well. Whatever one thinks of North Korea, with their horrible record of human rights and disregard for human life, they do have interests, which they acknowledge, and they will negotiate if approached correctly and very carefully.

North Korea, officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is a dangerous state with a long track record of being willing to sell anything to anyone for its own benefit, and a history of state terrorism against South Korea. As such, it poses a double danger. First, the DPRK could sell nuclear weapons to Iran or to terrorist organizations, or it could transfer bomb production technology as it did to Syria during 2005-2007. Second, a nuclear-armed North Korea, with ballistic missiles currently capable of reaching targets throughout Northeast Asia and likely capable of reaching the United States within a few years, is a grave threat to South Korea, Japan and America.

However, Pyongyang’s policy over the years has also included a certain realpolitik and willingness to negotiate. The North Korean regime, which has few allies in the international sphere and grapples with crippling domestic problems, is above all interested in survival, economic benefits and a diplomatic relationship with the United States. Military action against North Korea is not an attractive option; the huge North Korean artillery and rocket forces amassed along the Korean Demilitarized Zone pose a serious threat to Seoul that is less than twenty miles away; and in recent years, uncertainty has developed about what the DPRK might do with its nuclear weapons. Diplomacy is the only practical option.

Some say that the North Koreans are irrational but the track record does not necessarily bear this out. The United States utterly crushed North Korea during the Korean War but 64 years have passed since the end of that conflict, and the Kim family remains in control. The North Koreans have a weak hand and they have played it with skill. Their objectives have always been clear: survival, economic benefits and a relationship with the United States. In the past, to the extent the U.S. was prepared to pay this price, agreement with the DPRK was possible. Playing on this the Clinton administration made real progress: the DPRK nuclear program was essentially shut down – not eliminated but shut down – and an agreement ending their ballistic missile program was close.

For its own purposes, the Bush administration decided to abandon all the Clinton progress, adopt a confrontational position toward North Korea and include North Korea in the president’s axis of evil speech in early 2002. Later that year, just before North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, a U.S. delegation was in Pyongyang. There, among others, the U.S. delegation met with First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Kang Sok-ju who accused the United States of singling out North Korea for nuclear attack and, among other memorable statements, said “We are part of the axis of evil, and you are gentlemen. That is our relationship. We cannot discuss matters like gentlemen. If we disarm ourselves because of U.S. pressure, then we will become like Yugoslavia or Afghanistan’s Taliban to be beaten to death.”

The hardline was back. Over the next 15 years arms limitation was largely abandoned. North Korea conducted five nuclear weapon tests and many ballistic missile tests. The DPRK has become a direct threat to the United States. And the new ruler of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, had raised the stakes. Arguably, negotiation is still possible but now in addition to survival, economic benefits and a relationship with the United States, the DPRK wants to be recognized as a nuclear weapon state, something the United States cannot and should not do.

However, if catastrophe at least at some level is to be avoided, negotiations have to be attempted. The North Koreans likely will be open to making an agreement that they perceive to be in their interest. The trick will be to find the terms of such an agreement that would also be in the interest of the United States. The alternatives are not attractive. Leon Sigal, a long-time, non-government expert on North Korea has suggested an approach of seeking a temporary suspension of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program while both sides discuss reciprocal steps that the U.S. could consider in order to address North Korea’s security concerns. There may be interest in this in North Korea. This could be a place to start.