Once U.S.-South Korean joint exercises conclude next week, USIP’s Frank Aum believes working-level negotiations with North Korea will resume. Despite the lack of progress over the last year, Aum says, “We need to be able to resolve [issues] within the framework of a deal rather than scrapping the deal altogether.”
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Kent Klein: Since the end of July, North Korea has conducted six tests of short-range ballistic missiles or other projectiles. Apparently, they're trying to express their displeasure at the ongoing joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea. So, a for a closer look at that and what's behind that and where this may be headed, we're joined by Frank Aum. He's the senior expert on North Korea at the United States Institute of Peace, and he tweets @usip. Frank, thank you for joining us today.
Frank Aum: Thanks for having me on.
Host: So, this is not unusual behavior for North Korea, is it? I mean, we've seen these missile tests and launches before, right?
Frank Aum: Yes. I mean, this is certainly a pattern of behavior that North Korea has demonstrated for the last at least 30 years. But, the particular situation is interesting because, again, they are refusing to begin the working-level negotiations that Kim Jong Un and President Trump agreed to back on June 30th at Panmunjom. And so, hopefully once the missile-excise period ends, then we can resume negotiations.
Kent Klein: So, it's interesting, what you're saying here is that they're upset about the United States taking part in these exercises, but that Pyongyang is a little afraid of crossing the U.S., and so they can continue these discussions, so they're projecting their anger on South Korea, is that correct?
Frank Aum: Yes. They are certainly expressing their displeasure about the joint military exercises that the U.S. and South Korea conduct together, but they also recognize that they need to maintain good relations with the U.S. in order to proceed with the diplomacy and achieve the gains that they want to regarding better relations with the U.S., as well as sanctions relief. But, at the same time, they need to be able to express their displeasure more vociferously, and they've decided to do that against South Korea, which they believe doesn't have a strong say at the current moment regarding some of the things like sanctions relief. So, they think that they can do that with South Korea.
Kent Klein: Does President Trump's stance toward North Korea really play into this in any significant way?
Frank Aum: It does. President Trump is also very much interested in continuing negotiations. He'd like to achieve a deal, and he'd be able to tout it as a foreign policy victory, and so that's why he has been less critical about North Korea's short-range missile tests. Other members of the Trump administration, including Secretary Pompeo, have said that they prefer North Korean not do that. Trump has been less critical, basically saying that they're not a problem, and this has been problematic because North Korea, these tests, are violations of U.N. Security Council Resolutions.
Kent Klein: President Trump has talked about things like beautiful letters and his recent meeting at Panmunjom, where were the two of them stepped across the line at the line of demarcation into North Korea, something no U.S. president's ever done before. What do you think the long-term effect of all this will be? Do you think that this will, in the end, push things along in a positive direction?
Frank Aum: Well, I think, again, once we move past this current phase of tensions with the missile test and the exercises, we can get back to negotiations. Now, Kim Jong Un wrote Trump a letter a few weeks ago saying as much, suggesting that the negotiations can resume once the exercises, which should be at the end of this week. So, once we get back to negotiations, then the question is how do both sides demonstrate enough flexibility that they address the concerns of each other and can actually reach, whether it's an interim deal or a bigger comprehensive deal.
Kent Klein: We've had any number – well, we've had a couple of summits between Mr. Trump and Kim Jong Un, but do you get the feeling that whatever is accomplished through discussions will be taking place at a lower level.
Frank Aum: That is hopefully what the lesson was from Hanoi, that both sides came to that with high expectations, probably an overestimation of their ability to convince the other of accepting a bigger deal, and so hopefully the lesson learned is that we need to go through the steps of working-level negotiations and make sure that all the details are addressed before we get to another third summit.
Kent Klein: Frank Aum is a senior expert on North Korea with the United States Institute of Peace, and we're discussing, of course, the current situation with North Korea and the tensions, which never really seem to go away.
Kent Klein: Pyongyang , what you've been saying, is also objecting to South Korea taking possession of some U.S. F-35 stealth fighters, which it believes can be used in covert decapitation operations to take out the regime. Is that really a driving fear among the Kim Jong Un regime, that the either the U.S. or South Korea or both are planning to him?
Frank Aum: Well, it's unclear whether North Korea actually believes that that would happen, but they've expressed before, certainly when the U.S. and South Korea has publicized decapitation exercises as part of the joint military exercise, and this is earlier in instances where there were high levels of tension on the peninsula, and so that is concerning to North Korea, and they certainly need to respond to that messaging of potential decapitation exercises. And so, South Korea's taking possession of these stealth fighters. It's, I think, two or four this year and then 40 in the next few years. That is something that North Korea has needed to respond to, and they've certainly done that with demonstrations of, not only short-range missile tests, but multiple launch rocket systems that can evade or penetrate the gaps of South Korea's missile defense system.
Kent Klein: Is there any way of alleviating that fear on their part?
Frank Aum: Yeah, so, I think there's certainly confidence-building measures that we can take, certainly to tone down the messaging on some of these very provocative things like a decapitation exercises, but I think, overall, better relations between North Korea and the U.S. and North Korean and South Korea is the biggest step that we can take to alleviate their fears.
Kent Klein: President Trump at one point echoed some of Kim Jong Un's statements, or at least the North Korean government's statements, criticizing the U.S. and South Korean joint military exercises or saying they weren't really necessary. Where is that going to leave us?
Frank Aum: So, those certainly weren't helpful statements from the president. He's also criticized them as being provocative and expensive. Those are basically the same – that's the same language that North Korea uses. At the same time, and there is – I think President Trump is trying to thread the needle here by expressing the need to move forward with diplomacy but recognizing that these exercises are provocative from North Korea's perspective. And so, I don't think he said it the right way, but I think he's trying to move to a point where we can move forward with diplomacy.
Kent Klein: Now, you've been studying this whole situation for many years and been a keen observer of it, of course. In your view, where does the whole situation stand right now, the tensions with North Korea that we're always talking about, as compared to where they've been in past years? Are things more dangerous now, less dangerous, about the same? What do you think?
Frank Aum: I think the current period represents one of the best opportunities for diplomacy that we've had, probably the best opportunity we've had since the late 1990s or 2000 when we were very close to reaching a comprehensive deal with North Korea. But, that being said, I think the Trump administration's policy of maximum-pressure engagement is the right approach. I think the implementation hasn't been as good as it could be, but again, it's not too late. And, again, if we get to the point of working-level negotiation that demonstrates flexibility on both sides, we can reach, I think, reaching a deal that is perhaps an interim deal and doesn't satisfy both sides completely, but it will help us reduce the military tensions on the peninsula and address both denuclearization and some of the things that North Korea wants. And, that will put us in a pretty good position going into next year.
Kent Klein: Now, the U.S. and some of the allies in the six-party talks that we used to have with North Korea had reached some agreements in the past, and then North Korea tended to a renege on those agreements. Is there a way to prevent that from happening again if they are so successful as to reach another agreement?
Frank Aum: Yeah, that's a good point. So, I think different people can have varying opinions about who was at fault for the Agreed Framework collapsing. I mean, in that situation, it was the U.S. pulling out of the Agreed Framework because they thought North Korea was violating the spirit of that agreement by enriching uranium. And, then the six-party talks, it was basically North Korea that pulled out after the end of the Bush administration, and they decided that they don't want to go down that path with the new Obama administration. I think, what the biggest lesson learned is that it's not really a noncompliance with an agreement or insincerity with a deal. It's more about making sure that if these issues arise, we need to be able to resolve them within the framework of a deal, rather than scrapping the deal altogether.
Kent Klein: Interesting. All right, we'll see how it goes. Frank Aum, thank you so much for your time.
Frank Aum: Thank you.
Kent Klein: Frank Aum is a senior expert on North Korea with the United States Institute of Peace, and we'll, of course, keep an eye on the ongoing efforts to calm tensions on the Korean peninsula. By the way, the U.S. Institute of Peace tweet is @usip.