In 2018, the situation on the Korean Peninsula once again came into the spotlight. However, this time, the reasons for the increased attention are less disturbing than last year—when North Korea and the United States exchanged belligerent statements while seemingly preparing for a full-on conflict.
For a while, the prospects of resolving the Korean issue once and for all looked as bright as ever. During and following the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, inter-Korean relations warmed up sufficiently to warrant a summit; in March, Pyongyang moved to mend its ties with China; then news broke that a meeting between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump had been in the works for some time, and although the American leader seemingly cancelled it in late May, it still might happen.
The apparent ultimate goal of all these diplomatic efforts is to sign a peace treaty and thus formally end the 1950-1953 Korean War. For a while now, this has been North Korea’s “Plan B” for engaging the U.S. should Washington “strategically” ignore its nuclear activities. Pyongyang brought it up many times since the Six-Party Talks had halted, e.g., in 2010 and 2015, deeming the topic more discussible than the nuclear issue. Incorporation of the peace treaty idea into the Panmunjom Declaration, adopted in April 2018 at the inter-Korean meeting, foreshadows Pyongyang’s agenda for the possible (let us not lose all hope) U.S.-North Korea summit.
For the historic meeting, North Korea even promised to bring its nuclear program to the table. Kim Jong-un has mentioned denuclearization many times during his talks with South Korean and Chinese leaders. The country shut down its nuclear test site as a sign of goodwill, a move very reminiscent of the 2008 demolition of the Yongbyong reactor’s cooling tower.
Leaving aside the prospects of rapid progress on the long-suffered nuclear issue, let us analyze the format that is thought to deliver decisive results when all else has failed: direct top-level dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang. This is not the first time that the U.S. and North Korea have tried to solve the nuclear problem bilaterally. An obvious past example is the ill-fated Agreed Framework that Bill Clinton signed in 1994. According to the document, Pyongyang exchanged its military nuclear program for light-water reactors, oil supplies, and normalization of U.S.-North Korean relations. Many of the promises remained on paper, and later, in the early 2000s, George W. Bush finally dismantled the agreement.
A more low-profile precedent was the 2012 Leap Day Agreement, Barack Obama’s attempt to approach North Korea’s then new leader Kim Jong-un. The idea was to freeze Pyongyang’s military activities in exchange for American aid. Unfortunately, the deal held for barely more than a month and did not survive North Korea’s first rocket launch, which many Russian analysts saw as a test of Washington’s will to continue dialogue rather than a provocation.
Incidentally, North Korea’s recent critical answer to American statements that led to Donald Trump’s indefinite postponement of the summit seems to be a similar step, a test of commitment (and a markedly mild one, given Pyongyang’s usual repertoire). President Moon Jae-in seems to understand North Korean political language well, and South Korean diplomacy seems to be doing “damage control” behind the scenes, working with both Washington and Pyongyang. In May, the two Korean leaders met once again in Panmunjom, this time without any prior announcements.
Any diplomacy is preferable to pressure, sanctions, and threats, and direct U.S.-North Korea top-level contacts can contribute much to peace and security in North East Asia. However, the current situation is an excellent illustration of why exclusive bilateralism is structurally flawed. The rest of the region cannot do much but merely look on as the two opponents decide everyone’s destiny. Moreover, any small disturbance easily breaks fragile harmony: Pyongyang and Washington mistrust each other and share a long history of mutual disappointments. Even if two leaders eventually meet and reach an agreement, without support from other regional actors, it can easily fall apart.
The solution to the Korean issue as a whole and its nuclear aspect in particular should be a multilateral one. The 2003-2008 Six-Party Talks overall were a successful endeavor—although they have fallen out of favor with analysts due to the decade-long inactivity. Yet, in this case, “inactivity” does not equal “failure:” the six-party process did not hit any major roadblock; it faded out slowly. It was not its flaws that brought about the mechanism’s end, but rather coinciding unfortunate circumstances—an important factor being then-new U.S. President Barack Obama’s reluctance to deal with the nuclear issue.
A strong argument in favor of multilateralism is the situation surrounding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program. Even though Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal, the format lives on, supported by remaining members, including Iran itself. Multilateral structures are much more resilient, and this resilience is needed in North East Asia’s case given North Korea’s sometimes erratic foreign policy choices and radical change of priorities that often follow power shifts in Seoul and Washington.
Admittedly, the Panmunjom Declarations does offer a new multilateral format: four-party consultations between the two Koreas, the U.S., and China to work out a peace treaty to end the Korean War. Signing such a document is a long overdue task, and the “nominees” for the project are obvious: the parties directly involved in the war (although the U.S. led the United Nations’ forces, China was represented by volunteers, and South Korea did not sign the 1953 armistice).
However, the legal situation is more complicated here: in fact, currently the UN, under whose banner the U.S.-led forces fought, is at war with one of its members, North Korea. Russian experts have previously voiced the idea that it should be the United Nations that gathers a peace conference on Korea (for instance, former Russian Ambassador to South Korea Gleb Ivashentsov proposed this back in 2016). This large-scale project might not only serve the purpose of promoting peace and security on the peninsula and in the broader region, but also help restore UN’s international relevance.
If we want a long-lasting and robust solution to the Korean issue, it should be multilateral and inclusive. Be it a new incarnation of the Six-Party Talks, or a new UN-sponsored mechanism, the ideal resolution framework should solve three principal tasks. First, it should provide all of the region’s states with means to influence their own and common security rather than rely on the outcome of U.S.-North Korea interactions. Second, it should allow talks to start and continue without prerequisites and dangerous “tests of will.” Third, it should aim at resolving the underlying cause of the nuclear crises: the parties’ concerns about their security in a tumultuous international environment. The path towards the ideal solution will be neither easy nor short. Mutual trust could help reach the goal; let us hope the decision-makers have the patience to cultivate it.
“Two heads are better than one,” goes the saying, but maybe six heads are even better?