Tensions are rising on the Korean Peninsula as many believe North Korea is planning to conduct the seventh nuclear weapons test in the country’s history and the first since 2017. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has warned of an “unprecedented joint response” and called on China — North Korea’s closest ally — to dissuade Pyongyang from going through with the test.

Soldiers stand guard outside of meeting rooms that straddle the border between North and South Korea in Panmunjom along the Demilitarized Zone, April 19, 2017. (Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times)
Soldiers stand guard outside of meeting rooms that straddle the border between North and South Korea in Panmunjom along the Demilitarized Zone, April 19, 2017. (Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times)

Amid this troubling geopolitical environment, USIP’s Frank Aum discussed the prospects for peace on the Korean Peninsula with Yonsei University’s Dr. Moon Chung-in, who has advised three South Korean presidents on North Korea policy and was one of the architects of the “sunshine” engagement policy in the 1990s. Drawing from his extensive experience engaging with North Korea, Moon examines why past efforts in the region have fallen short and how U.S. and South Korean leaders can rethink their approach toward North Korea to focus on incremental denuclearization. 

Aum: You have been involved in many of South Korea’s direct engagement efforts with North Korea over the last three decades. What are the main lessons from these experiences, especially in terms of what the United States, North Korea and South Korea can do to improve relations and reduce tensions? Are the current governments learning from these lessons?

Dr. Moon: The first lesson is that all three nations have chronically committed the mistakes of overestimation, underestimation and sometimes omission. As former Defense Secretary William Perry said after the Perry Process, South Korea and the United States need to see North Korea “as it is, not as we might wish it to be.” 

For example, today North Korea is a full-fledged nuclear weapons state. Yet, the United States, South Korea and Japan regard North Korea’s complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization as the non-negotiable goal of talks. This approach seems unrealistic and detached from objective reality.

The second lesson is the importance of strategic empathy. In dealing with North Korea, some sort of inter-subjective understanding of North Korea is needed. North Koreans have been constantly complaining about a double standard on self-defense and provocations from Seoul and Washington. 

Many in Seoul and Washington view North Korea’s military exercises — and specifically their missile tests — as offensive and provocative, whereas they view their own forward deployment of strategic assets and any increases in the frequency and intensity of joint military exercises and training as justified for defensive purposes. 

Another example is North Korea’s longstanding call for the end of the “hostile” U.S. policy that threatens North Korea’s own survival and hampers its people’s right to development. However, the U.S. position is that it does not have any hostile intent toward North Korea. Lack of strategic empathy and unilateralism have been the primary sources of policy failure on North Korea — a dear cost of demonizing North Korea. 

The third lesson is the virtue of incrementalism. Originally, North Korea favored a big deal, such as denuclearization in exchange for the removal of the hostile U.S. policy and normalization. At the 2019 Hanoi summit, however, Kim Jong Un proposed what seemed to be an incremental deal: The complete and permanent dismantlement of all nuclear facilities in Yongbyon in exchange for lifting the five U.N. Security Council resolutions since 2016 that related to sanctions of the civilian economy. The Trump administration rejected this proposal at the time, missing a golden opportunity to facilitate trust-building through smaller successes that could eventually lead to a bigger deal. South Korea’s Moon Jae-in government also committed similar mistakes, pledging too many promises to the North in pursuit of wholesale progress.  They were not delivered, which only deepened Pyongyang’s distrust.  

The fourth lesson is the limitations of the crime and punishment approach. Some in U.S. and South Korean governments have said that North Korea has committed crimes by violating U.N. Security Council resolutions and therefore should be punished. Meanwhile, Pyongyang argues that it has not committed any crime and that punishment is unfair. Unless the difference is resolved, no progress can be expected. 

In addition, we should learn from famed American psychologist B.F. Skinner’s technique of positive reinforcement. During the Trump administration, North Korea’s good behavior was not properly rewarded. On the contrary, it was punished with 25 additional sanction designations between August 2018 and March 2020. Strategies of coercion and negative reinforcement have been proven to be ineffective and even counterproductive. 

Finally, all parties concerned, especially the United States and South Korea, should make every effort to avoid further politicization of the North Korean nuclear issue.

Aum: Some people argue for a peace-first approach to denuclearization with North Korea. But in 1996, a decade before North Korea’s first nuclear test, the United States offered peace talks, but the process fizzled out. Why didn’t the peace-centered approach work back then, and how might this type of approach be tailored to fit the current environment? 

Dr. Moon: When the U.S. government withdrew its tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea and decided to suspend the Team Spirit exercise in 1991, North Korea showed a radically different approach by adopting the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the Basic Agreement on Non-aggression, Reconciliation, and Exchange and Cooperation, and a nuclear safeguards agreement

But when then-U.S. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney resumed the Team Spirit exercises in 1993, the North abrogated the Basic Agreement and threatened to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, triggering the first nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula. It was averted by former President Jimmy Carter’s visit to Pyongyang in June 1994 and the signing of the Geneva Agreed Framework in October 1994.

Just before President Clinton’s visit to South Korea in April 1996, the North intensified its military provocation along the Demilitarized Zone. In an attempt to de-escalate tensions, Clinton and then-South Korean President Kim Young-Sam agreed to push for the Four-Party Talks between the United States, North Korea, South Korea and China.

The Four Party Talks, which lasted from 1997 to 1999, were not successful due to insurmountable differences between the North and the United States and South Korea. The North’s wish list included: a DPRK-U.S. peace accord (that excluded South Korea) and diplomatic normalization, withdrawal of American forces from South Korea, suspension of ROK-U.S. war games and non-deployment of strategic weapons to South Korea.

Meanwhile, Seoul wanted to have a North-South bilateral peace accord witnessed by the United States and China. The United States was interested in maintaining the status quo by preventing North Korea’s military provocations, reducing military tension and resisting North Korea’s attempt to nullify the armistice agreement. The 1996 Clinton-Kim peace initiative failed simply because it did not address North Korea’s fundamental grievances (i.e., the end of the hostile U.S. policy). The Perry Process revived some momentum for dialogue and diplomacy, which led to the inter-Korean summit in June 2000, but the Bush administration’s hardline policy precipitated the second nuclear crisis in 2002.

The implications for the current diplomatic stalemate are straightforward. Seoul and Washington need to address North Korea’s core demands, namely removal of the hostile policy in return for commensurate denuclearization of North Korea. Examples of what North Korea would consider as the end of the hostile policy includes suspension of joint military exercises and training, non-deployment of strategic weapons, the adoption of an end of war declaration, transformation of the armistice agreement into a peace accord, U.S.-North Korea diplomatic normalization and the removal of sanctions. Of course, these measures must be linked to North Korea’s incremental denuclearization.

Aum: The topic of human rights has been largely separated from security talks with North Korea, with some believing that it could complicate and delay progress on denuclearization. Is there an effective way to broach this topic in a way that satisfies rights advocates but also doesn’t cause Pyongyang to shun talks in the first place?

Dr. Moon: I do not see any such magic solution. For North Korea, the human rights issue is an existential matter that is directly related to regime security. To them, outright demands on human rights are tantamount to posing direct threats to regime security, which is equated with national security. North Korea’s suryong (supreme leader) system is based on a theory of social organism that equates suryong with the party, the state, the people and the military. Thus, any official critique of North Korean human rights would surely block or derail negotiations on nuclear issues.

Thus, it will be very difficult to satisfy human rights advocates in the United States and South Korea. Even more so because those advocates rely heavily on megaphone diplomacy (i.e., naming and shaming tactics) and sometimes — in the case of some South Korean organizations run by North Korean defectors — focus on securing financial support from home and abroad. I think the best approach would be to separate security/nuclear negotiations from human rights issues, build trust with North Korean officials and persuade them to make concessions on human rights voluntarily. In that way, Kim Jong Un would be allowed to save face. This type of quiet diplomacy worked after the June 2000 Pyongyang summit.

Ultimately, human rights conditions in North Korea will never improve without the rise of markets and civil society that is closely related to opening and reforms. Ironically, the flexible utilization of sanctions seems to be the best way to improve human rights in North Korea. In my view, human rights cannot be imposed from the outside. North Koreans should strive to improve their rights by themselves. 
Aum: Most experts agree that North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons, even in the long-term. Yet, it is very unlikely that the United States will “accept” North Korea as a nuclear weapon country. Given this dilemma, is there a way that the two countries can peacefully co-exist?

Dr. Moon: Given my personal experience in Pyongyang in September 2018, Kim Jong Un and North Korean elites were willing to give up nuclear weapons if the terms were right. However, the North enacted the Nuclear Forces Law on September 8, 2022, which made its possession of nuclear weapons formal and legal.  

Deterrence and crisis stability are useful, but amount to a paradoxical solution to the North Korean nuclear problem since they are predicated on a perpetual security dilemma. The best approach is to restore diplomacy and resolve the conflict peacefully. We all know this is not easy. But a profound change in our way of thinking about North Korea can open a new horizon. Of course, we cannot recognize North Korea as a nuclear weapons state formally, but we need to acknowledge its nuclear weapons capabilities and negotiate with the North on the basis of such an understanding. 

In this regard, genuine realism is desperately needed. Even if we do not recognize North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state, we should consider its nuclear weapons capabilities in our engagement with them. This means we cannot set “complete, verifiable irreversible denuclearization” as a non-negotiable goal at the outset of any dialogue. 

We should keep in mind that our demand for irreversibility has caused Kim Jong Un to state that North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons is irrevocable. Full denuclearization should still remain the ultimate goal. But a more realistic approach should be sought in which cooperative threat reduction, as well as some form of nuclear-arms control talks, lead to freeze, roll back, and dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities in exchange for the removal of the U.S. hostile policy, a reduction of sanctions and a provision of comprehensive energy support including peaceful use of nuclear power.

Dr. Moon Chung-in is professor emeritus at Yonsei University in South Korea. He is the chairman of Sejong Institute. He previously served as the special advisor for unification, diplomacy and national security affairs for President Moon Jae-in (2017-2021) He is also vice chairman of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (APLN) and editor-in-chief of Global Asia, a quarterly journal in English.

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