Diplomacy is vital to avoiding a military conflict with North Korea

Diplomacy is vital to avoiding a military conflict with North Korea
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This month, President Trump suggested that diplomacy won’t be successful in solving the nuclear crisis with North Korea. He may very well be right. There may be no negotiated solution. However, the costs of not trying are too high to not exhaust diplomacy. The goal behind international sanctions, one aspect of diplomacy, has always been how to create an environment conducive to talks.

Thanks to the new round of United Nations sanctions and the actions taken by the Trump administration during the U.N. General Assembly, the United States and the international community have the ability to cut off large portions of North Korea’s international economic activity. But sanctions take time to work, and the war of words between Kim Jong Un and President Trump, along with vague suggestions of action, risk escalating the crisis before sanctions have had a real opportunity to change North Korea’s calculus.

The best way forward would be for the United States, with the full support of the United Nations Security Council, to propose a 90-day pause with North Korea where both sides would refrain from actions that escalate the current crisis. The pause would not come into effect until North Korea formally accepted the proposal at the United Nations.

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A pause would have advantages for all sides while avoiding the pitfalls of the freeze proposal supported by China and Russia. That proposal, put forward by China, would call on the United States and South Korea to halt military exercises in exchange for a moratorium on North Korean nuclear and missile tests, placing North Korea’s illegal actions on the same footing as the United States’ and South Korea’s right to self-defense. In addition, the costs of a violation would be low for North Korea, while verifying that it is not continuing to develop its programs in secret would be difficult.

 

In contrast, the pause would be designed to avoid the downsides of a freeze while providing the space to explore whether a diplomatic solution is possible. Under the pause, the United States would agree to refrain from imposing any new sanctions on North Korea for the next 90 days, including any new designations under the recently expanded Executive Order. In return, North Korea would agree to refrain from any additional nuclear or missile tests. These would be proportional steps by each side, rather than the unequal steps in the freeze.

During the pause, representatives from all of the parties to the Six Party Talks would meet to see if there is any basis for returning to full talks based on the September 2005 joint statement. The goal would not be to conclude the prior agreement, but to see if there was a diplomatic path forward that would address the issues important to each of the parties.

The advantage of the pause is that there is no risk of leaving North Korea’s nuclear program in place in the medium or the long-term, which could become permanent under a freeze. Instead, because of the short nature of the pause, both the United States and North Korea should assume that each side is advancing its interests should the exploratory talks not succeed. If the talks were successful, the United States could propose a time-limited negotiation where sanctions remained in force to ensure that North Korea was not merely stalling for time. If they fail, Treasury should be prepared to sanction new companies, something a senior administration official recently acknowledged that they are not ready to do.

The advantage for the United States would be that the pause would provide time to identify more of North Korea’s financial networks while U.N. sanctions continue to place pressure on the regime in Pyongyang. Additionally, the reduction in tensions that might follow a pause, absent a North Korean escalation, could at a minimum help to avoid a kinetic action by the United States that would put more than 300,000 Americans in South Korea and Japan, along with our allies, in harm’s way.

For North Korea, the pause could provide a face-saving means to avoid a conflict it would most likely lose. Having already conducted two ICBM tests, a 90-day pause would be unlikely to have significant impact on its weapons development in any material sense.

One of the main challenges of securing a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear issue has been finding an appropriate means for having talks. As long as North Korea persists in testing missiles on an average of a little less than one every three weeks, there will continue to be little political space for the international community to engage the Pyongyang regime in dialogue. However, a pause might help to create the necessary political space while avoiding a North Korean test of a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean, an action that could very well lead to a military response by the United States.

Former Congressman Donald Manzullo is a previous chairman of the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is now president of the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). Troy Stangarone previously worked for a Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is now the senior director at KEI. The group is a not-for-profit, non-lobbying, educational organization, which is registered as a foreign agent of the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, a public policy research institute funded by the government of the Republic of Korea.