By Travis Lindsay | October 21, 2016
The 2002 ignition of Korea’s second nuclear crisis marked the beginning of one of the United States’ longest running and most vexing foreign policy challenges. Now approaching it’s fifteenth year, U.S. goals and strategies throughout the crisis have remained largely consistent: dismantlement of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program, specifically in the form of CVID - Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible Disarmament. While denuclearization must remain the long term goal of United States’ policy on the Korean peninsula, American policymakers must accept that the current state of play makes near or medium term denuclearization virtually impossible. Instead, they must focus on intermediary goals that will set the stage for eventual credible talks on denuclearization.
First and foremost, the United States must build a bedrock of stability that future nuclear negotiations can rest upon. That stability bedrock cuts along two major dimensions - that of deterring North Korean conventional provocations, and that of reducing the possible flash points for conventional conflicts and skirmishes.
In terms of deterring North Korean conventional provocations, the United States must work with its South Korean alliance partner in formulating and enforcing a strict retaliation schedule. This schedule would dictate military responses to any and all DPRK military provocations, shrinking the margins of uncertainty that the DPRK leadership attempts to exploit and act within when undertaking conventional provocations. The overwhelmingly superior military capabilities of U.S.-ROK forces ensures that the alliance can maintain escalation dominance in the event of any series of altercations, forcing the DPRK leadership to consider both military and domestic political implications of any steps it wishes to take up the escalatory ladder.
While the United States must signal its resolve and increase the costs of potential provocative acts, it must also work to reduce potential North-South friction points that have the potential of destabilizing the peninsula. On the North Korean side, this largely means that the United States must formulate a clear set of concessions it would seek in order to effectively demilitarize the DMZ. This includes requesting reductions of DPRK forward deployed forces at the border; limitations on DPRK artillery positions that hold certain South Korean civilian populations hostage; and overall reductions in the size of the DPRK’s conventional forces.
These are limited concessions that the United States can pursue, that suffer from obvious and intentional commitment problems on the North Korean side. If the DPRK decides to, it could in short order abrogate these concessions and return to the previous forward deployed status quo. This commitment issue is a strength of this concessions agenda, rather than a weakness. Flexible concessions increase the likelihood of North Korean agreement, as the DPRK leadership would rightfully reason that it could reverse course if the allegedly capricious U.S.-ROK alliance were to not hold up its end of the bargain. Further, the alliance could then offer a set of equally flexible incentives that allow both sides to start to build that bedrock of stability on mutual terms.
The most obvious piece of flexible U.S. incentive lies in rethinking the U.S.-ROK military exercises. The exercises are both flexible and scalable in nature, and can be fine-tuned in their size, location, or frequency so that they can be adjusted to the relative size of the DPRK’s concessions. Despite being a high value bargaining chip, the exercises have not been used as a negotiating tool since the early 90s, during the negotiation of the 1994 Agreed Framework.
These are the initial steps the United States must take if it’s to eventually make its way to CVID - an impossible goal given today’s state of play. The United States and its regional allies must begin to lay the foundations for stability if it’s ever going to make its way to denuclearization, and perhaps even peace, on the Korean peninsula.
Travis Lindsay is a regular contributor to JIPS Blog. A 2nd year MIA Candidate at the School of Global Policy and Strategy, Travis' focus is on security issues in Northeast Asia. This summer, Travis interned with the Korea Economic Institute in Washington, DC.