What Happened in Hamburg?


Force, Sanctions and Negotiations: Signals and Proposals Galore



From a North Korean perspective, the backdrop for the Hamburg G20 summit was the purported July 4 ICBM test. I say “purported” because there is still debate about whether the missile—fired on a lofted trajectory—would have the 3,400 miles (5,500 km) range to cross the ICBM threshold (see David Wright here). There is also the question of whether the North Koreans have the capability to miniaturize a weapon that would survive lift-off, flight turbulence and re-entry. Yet those and other technical features of the launch may be moot if the Secretary of State is saying in a formal statement that it was an ICBM. The political optics of the launch matter as much as the new capabilities, namely a second stage added to a solid-state KN-17, not only boosting its range but creating an altogether new missile.

Stripped of nuance, there are three building blocks to coercive diplomacy: threats or use of force; threats or use of sanctions; and negotiations and related inducements. I review the goings on at the G20 by reviewing “force” and “negotiations” today and turn to the perennial sanctions debate tomorrow. But the headline is simple. I think the United States is negotiating with itself when it dismisses military options. But it remains hard to figure out how force would be used effectively for well-rehearsed reasons. Negotiations are still lurking, and some intriguing proposals have surfaced on how to get there. But they have clearly been pushed off by the test. The default: yet another attempt to increase sanctions, with the coordination problems that are endemic to such efforts (see Hard Target with Marc Noland for details). 

The Use of Force

Going into the summit, the messages coming from the President were all over the map. Trump started wistfully by asking in a Tweet whether Kim Jong Un had anything better to do, whether Japan and Korea were going to put up with this for much longer—as if they could act to stop it—and hoping that China would “put a heavy move” on North Korea to “end this nonsense once and for all.” By the time he got to Poland, the message was a bit tougher, but still ambiguous. While saying he was considering "pretty severe things,” the president specifically eschewed red lines and ultimately punted by saying the US reaction depended on how Kim Jong Un behaves in coming weeks and months. We pretty much know how Kim Jong Un is going to behave in coming weeks and months: as he has been behaving in recent weeks and months, which is effectively taunting both his friends (Russia but particularly China) as well as his adversaries (nearly everyone else, and on the 4th of July to boot).

On the use of force, messages from elsewhere in the administration were again mixed. In an unusual move, Gen. Vincent Brooks, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea and Lee Sun Jin, Chairman of the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued a joint statement that reads in its entirety as follows:

“’Self restraint, which is a choice, is all that separates armistice and war. As this Alliance missile live fire shows, we are able to change our choice when so ordered by our Alliance national leaders,’ said Gen. Brooks. ‘It would be a grave mistake for anyone to believe anything to the contrary.’

‘Despite North Korea’s repeated provocation, the ROK-U.S. Alliance is maintaining patience and self-restraint,’ said Gen. Lee. ‘As the combined live fire demonstrated, we may make resolute decisions any time, if the Alliance Commanders in Chief order. Whoever thinks differently is making a serious misjudgment.’

The ROK-U.S. Alliance remains committed to security and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and throughout the Asia-Pacific region.”

This sounds to me like a threat. But Secretary Mattis was issuing some warnings of his own, and they sounded like they were directed as much at the White House as at the North Koreans. In an interview in May following an earlier missile test, Mattis said that fighting on the Korean Peninsula would be “catastrophic,” citing the North Korean artillery pointed at Seoul. At a recent press conference covered by Stars and Stripes, Mattis used the exact same term as Generals Brooks and Lee—self-restraint—but gave it a very different spin. As in the past, the Secretary was the voice of reason, arguing that the test was expected, did not bring the US-ROK alliance and North Korea any closer to war, and that diplomacy was still the way forward.  

Setting aside the use of force, there was one predictable strategic outcome of the test. A trilateral Japan-Korea-US joint statement reconfirmed the US commitment but also promised more cooperation including “increasing their capabilities to deter and respond to any attack from the DPRK” and “advancing trilateral security cooperation in the face of the threat posed by the DPRK.” This threat is not empty. For some time, Japan has been openly mulling deployment of land-based Aegis systems or even THAAD (see, for example, here). These discussions are likely to gain more traction as the North Koreans continue to land un-notified missile tests in Japan’s EEZ, and will make relations with China more complicated. Which is of course the divide-and-rule tactic that Kim Jong Un has so skillfully mastered.


It has now becoming a habit for South Korean presidents to use a speech in Germany to outline their views on the peninsula; most noteworthy in this regard are Kim Dae Jung’s important Berlin speech in advance of the 2000 summit and Park Geun-hye’s more aggressive Dresden outing (see my analysis here and here). I will analyze the Moon speech later in the week, as it is complex, nuanced and programmatic. But one thing stands out. Despite elaborate assurances, modest first steps and ambitious plans for economic integration, President Moon was surprisingly blunt in putting the nuclear issue front and center. Moon placed substantial emphasis on the need for North Korea to make a strategic choice:

“Now we are left with North Korea to make its decision. Whether it will come out to the forum for dialogue, or whether it will kick away this opportunity of dialogue that has been difficultly made, is only a decision that North Korea can make. But if North Korea does not stop its nuclear provocations, there is no other choice but to further strengthen sanctions and pressure. Peace on the Korean Peninsula and North Korea's security will not be guaranteed.”

Moon angled successfully for a leadership role at his summit with Trump, with a focus on engagement and negotiations. The test did not make the Chinese suspension-for-suspension proposal easier to sell, however. Tillerson was negative in his joint press conference with Mnuchin, arguing that the US was “not interested in talking about how do we have you stop where you are today. Because stopping where they are today is not acceptable to us.”

But there is also the question of what the “suspension” part of the proposal even means. In a very interesting interview Brookings conducted with six of its top Asia hands and non-proliferation hands last month, Robert Einhorn spells out a vision of the freeze that would be more than cheap talk:

“I would do a very demanding freeze, which is no testing of nukes or long-range missiles or space launch vehicles, and no enrichment or reprocessing anywhere in North Korea. That means not only standing down at the known facilities—at the Yongbyon complex—but also North Korea declaring any covert nuclear facilities outside of the known complex. They have to admit the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect. And I would go beyond that. I would borrow from the Iran deal some innovative arrangements so that, if the IAEA seeks an inspection that is blocked by North Korea, it can go to a joint commission and Pyongyang could be outvoted by the others on the joint commission. And then Pyongyang has to go along with the inspection or get sent to the Security Council where sanctions can be re-imposed, and so forth. That’s where Russia and China have to be helpful.”

Good luck with that sentence. I have argued that the real question is how—and whether—“suspension-for-suspension” is linked to the “negotiations” part of the package (See my recent pieces in The National Interest and The Atlantic). To date, we have seen little detail from Beijing, let alone interest from Pyongyang. A proposal from Victor Cha and Jake Sullivan at the Washington Post argues that China has to be pushed to play a more active role. Instead of simply convening the talks, China should be pressed to make the material offers that would buy-off the North Koreans. I can certainly support sharing the bribe payments, but we seem so far from talks at the moment that it is hard to see how telling the Chinese they have to pay up breaks the impasse.

Finally, in the “Now for Something Completely Different” category, a group of foreign policy heavy-hitters consisting of Robert Gallucci, Siegfried Hecker, Richard Lugar, William Perry, Bill Richardson, and George P. Shultz has issued an interesting open letter to the president. The idea is simple: send a high-level envoy to North Korea for no-preconditions talks on talks. I see no reason not to talk to the North Koreans to feel them out. But the wise men’s offer is less generous than the Chinese proposal: that the envoy would be the quid-pro-quo for a North Korean freeze. This presupposes that the North Koreans really want to talk to the US, perhaps out of status concerns. But do they want to talk about their nuclear program? Making the offer would help us find out, but everyone I know increasingly suspects that the answer is “no.”

Next time, more on the coming sanctions drive.

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