A New Urgent Realism Is Making Negotiations With North Korea More Likely


Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

Despite yet another recent North Korean long-range missile test and possible links to the recent global cyber attack, the pieces could be coming together to ramp down the escalating tensions in Northeast Asia. That is because an unprecedented urgent realism seems to be settling in among the major players involved — North Korea, South Korea, the United States and China — that may well lead to a convergent approach that can stabilize the fraught situation.

This new sense of realism has been aided by an unusual diplomatic move by China in which one of its top foreign policy experts, Madame Fu Ying, who has been engaged with North Korea since 2003 and is the chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress, recently published a review of the history of the dynamics of the North Korean conflict on the website of the Brookings Institution, a major American think tank with broad influence in Washington’s foreign policy circles.

The WorldPost spoke with Madame Fu this week to discuss her lengthy historical review. By clearly laying out the unrealistic options for action, she makes a compelling case that the only path forward is to revive negotiations with Pyongyang. Based on her direct knowledge of the North Korean regime, she insists that the key to a resolution of the conflict does not rest with more Chinese pressure, as many in the West seem to believe, but on the U.S. offering recognition and security to Pyongyang, which is the only policy shift that will quell its appetite for more weapons.

The key to a resolution rests on the U.S. offering recognition and security to Pyongyang.

Madame Fu’s fundamental point is that increased sanctions or threats of military action without talks is precisely what is driving North Korea to intensify its weapons program. She also argues that, while the domestic situation in North Korea may be distressing, it is not about to collapse in the short term. That is just not in the cards in a state hard-wired for resilience.

Some in the U.S. have been pinning their hope on China increasing sanctions and bringing North Korea to its knees ― or, in other words, simply out-sourcing the problem to China. That won’t work, she points out, because China is not a party to the antagonism and hostility which has caused the security dilemma of North Korea. The country’s deep insecurity comes from its constant fear of the kind of regime change preceded by sanctions that the U.S. and its allies have executed elsewhere, including in Iraq. Believing its conventional military capacity is not enough to deter an attack, North Korea is determined to take the risky path of developing nuclear capability to avoid a similar fate.

While China opposes North Korea’s nuclear capability as undermining the stability of the whole region, it also believes that whatever economic pressures China enforces on North Korea cannot dispel its core security concern. If the U.S. continues to bury its head in the sand and ignore the root cause of the current crisis, it’s hard, Madame Fu emphasizes, to see how the situation can be reversed. 

A military parade in Pyongyang on April 15.ED JONES via Getty Images
A military parade in Pyongyang on April 15.

The recent claim from the U.S. that “all options are on the table” — meaning military action — is equally unrealistic, she says. Both the South, with its American allies, and the North have deployed large conventional forces along the border. Thus any military conflict in the densely populated peninsula would inevitably lead to huge innocent civilian casualties. There is the danger of losing control of the situation.

For all these reasons, Madame Fu argues that the only realistic way forward is to pursue talks with Pyongyang that aim at what she calls a “Pareto-optimal” path that may not meet the optimal benefits every party seeks but would ensure the minimum interest of all parties with minimal cost. In other words, compromise all around.

New talks, she admits, cannot just take off from where the so-called six-party talks (South and North Korea, Japan, the U.S., China and Russia) stalled in 2007. Too much has changed, not least North Korea’s larger arsenal of nukes and missiles. And distrust is too deep among all parties. But as her historical review clearly shows, multilateral talks have always stabilized the situation and prevented it from escalating out of control.

China believes that whatever economic pressures it enforces on North Korea cannot dispel its core security concern.

Indeed, if words matter, all those who want to reduce instead of inflame tensions seem to be coming around to China’s point of view as outlined by Madame Fu. U.S. President Donald Trump has expressed his willingness to meet with Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader. The newly elected president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, has also said since his election last week that he is open to visiting North Korea under the right conditions. A report by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency over the weekend cited a North Korean diplomat also saying, “We’ll have a dialogue if the conditions are there.” 

Moreover, top American officials appear to be sending signals to North Korea that they grasp the fundamental security concern that Madame Fu underscores. Adm. Harry Harris, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, has said the point of military pressure is to bring Kim Jong-un “to his senses, not to his knees.” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has openly said that “our goal is not regime change” in North Korea.

In her Brookings essay, Madame Fu reiterates China’s plan — what she calls a “double suspension.” As a first step, China proposes that North Korea suspend missile and nuclear activities and the U.S. and South Korea suspend large-scale military exercises. This, she argues, may help to bring the parties back to the table. Then, a dual-track approach — denuclearizing the peninsula and establishing a peace mechanism — can be pursued in parallel. Only by addressing the parties’ concerns in a “synchronized and reciprocal” manner, she argues, can lasting peace and stability on the peninsula be achieved.

The point of military pressure is to bring Kim Jong-un ‘to his senses, not to his knees.’Adm. Harry Harris, head of the U.S. Pacific Command

So far, the U.S. and South Korea — albeit before the recent Korean election — have rejected this approach. Yet, even if this particular proposal is not the precise way forward, the structure of a “synchronized and reciprocal” approach must be the starting point. It appears the only logical path to reach Madame Fu’s “Pareto-optimal” solution.

At the Mar-a-Lago meeting between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping last month, both reaffirmed that their goal is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and both agreed to keep close communication and coordination on the issue. The fact that the leaders of China and the U.S. had focused discussions on the issue has brought a measure of hope.

As is often said, finding the way out of a crisis opens up fresh opportunities. Within this new urgent realism over how to deal with North Korea are the seeds of something new: an inclusive security environment for all of Northeast Asia in which the U.S and China may emerge as indispensable partners instead of inevitable rivals.