NCNK Member Digest, Winter 2019-2020

March 12, 2020

The National Committee on North Korea is a non-governmental organization of persons with significant expertise in and diverse perspectives on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Here is a selection of some work authored by NCNK members during the winter of 2019-2020. Read the Fall 2019 digest here.

Implications of North Korea's Nuclear Weapons Program and US Sanctions

Writing for the Washington Times, Joseph DeTrani reflects on the 70th anniversary of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and suggested that North Korea, Iran, and Turkey may spark the next nuclear weapons arms race if more is not done to address the specific nuclear incentives for each country. He argues that failure in negotiations with North Korea and acceptance of a North Korea a nuclear weapon state “will encourage other countries in the region to seek their own nuclear deterrence capabilities.”

In a blog post for the Korean Economic Institute, Andray Abrahamian argued that sanctions against adversaries like North Korea and Iran who view relations with the US as a zero-sum conflict will find coping mechanisms in order to resist surrender and will refocus limited resources to core state institutions, at the expense of ordinary citizens. He predicted that these sanctions will lose effectiveness as sympathetic countries "throw lifelines" to the economies of Iran and North Korea and will only marginalize voices for compromise and dialogue in Pyongyang or Tehran -- against US interests.

Diplomacy with North Korea Moving Forward

On the weekly podcast of the United States Institute of Peace On Peace, Frank Aum stressed that both the United States and North Korea will need to make compromises to craft an interim nuclear deal that will be acceptable to both sides, adding that the makings of a “good enough” interim deal are all there. Along with his colleagues at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Frank Aum also published a report exploring issues, challenges, and prospects associated with the establishment of a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. The report pays close attention to the six countries -- North Korea, South Korea, the United States, China, Japan, and RUssia-- who have substantial interests in such a peace regime and argues understanding these interests helps to identify areas of consensus and divergence during the peacebuilding process. 

On December 27, Victor Cha outlined the prospects of U.S. engagement with North Korea in 2020 as well as several time-sensitive issues facing the United States. He identified the following four decisions: to tighten or loosen sanctions on North Korea; whether to resume joint military drills with South Korea; how to conclude negotiations over the Special Measures Agreement; and how to relieve tension in the trilateral alliance between the United States, South Korea, and Japan.

Writing for the National Interest ahead of the State of the Union address, Jessica Lee argued that President Trump could use the address to demonstrate to North Korea that the United States remains engaged and invested in diplomacy and dialogue as a way forward. Lee proposed three points the president could make in his address to accomplish this: express the value of diplomacy as opposed to coercion when dealing with North Korea; make concessions in exchange for Pyongyang beginning to dismantle nuclear facilities; and compromise with South Korea on the issue of burden-sharing.

In late January, Victor Cha and Dana Kim penned an analysis piece on the new North Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs Ri Son-gwon. They point out that Kim Jong-un’s appointment of former military officer and notable hardliner Ri may be the “first manifestation” of the shift in foreign policy Kim first mentioned at the Korean Workers Party Plenary Meeting in late December and could signal trouble for future negotiations.

COVID-19 and North Korea

Writing for CSIS’s Beyond Parallel, Victor Cha and Marie DuMond noted the “unique threat” COVID-19 poses to North Korea due to the country’s crumbling and markedly insufficient health infrastructure. 

In a February 13 blog post for the Wilson Center, Jean Lee described the strict quarantine measures imposed by the government to prevent the introduction of the virus into North Korea and postulated that these actions are spurred by political motivations just as much as public health concerns. Lee argued that Kim Jong-un and the North Korean government “want to keep prying eyes out” and are using this time to recollect, reflect on, and reevaluate their strategy going forward.

On GSOMIA and Cost-Sharing Negotiations with South Korea

Ongoing challenges in the US-ROK alliance and US-ROK-Japan trilateral alliance have significant implications for Northeast Asia and how countries in the region grapple with the North Korea question. Several NCNK members have written on this subject over the last few months.

A November 22 Washington Post op-ed co-written by Victor Cha described the “unique constellation” of issues currently facing the U.S.-ROK alliance and speculated that the confluence of issues could prompt President Trump to withdraw troops from South Korea, sending shockwaves through the United States’s partnerships with other allies at a time when North Korea's nuclear threat continues to grow unabated.

Writing for the Council on Foreign Relations, Scott Snyder traced the origin of the U.S.-ROK tensions and detailed the implications of such tensions for the region. He argued that a reduction in American forces on the peninsula would leave South Korea vulnerable to potential nuclear extortion or aggression from the North Korea but would at the same time free South Korea from U.S. directives on how it may use its “conventional technological superiority.” Snyder also suggested that Beijing may focus on strengthening its own relations with South Korea to further Chinese goals to “displace the United States as the dominant player” in the region and has incentives to ensure that the US-ROK alliance is focused on North Korea, rathering than against Chinese interests in the region.

In an op-ed for CNN, Duyeon Kim explored what she identifies as the three most critical unresolved issues facing the United States on the Korean Peninsula: U.S. diplomacy efforts with North Korea; the future of the trilateral GSOMIA pact; and the burden-sharing agreement between the United States and South Korea. On the North Korean diplomatic front, Kim observed that Donald Trump was faced with three options: buy time with another flattering letter to Kim Jong Un; hold another summit; or push for the continuation of working-level talks. She concluded that the first two options were inadvisable and while prospects for the third option were not necessarily bright, it was the most likely option of the three to result in something substantive. 

In a December 2019 brief published on the website of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, Jessica Lee called for a re-evaluation of and “paradigm shift” in the current U.S.-ROK bilateral military relationship. Characterizing the current U.S.-ROK relationship as “deeply unequal,” she argued that a more security-independent South Korea would serve the interests of the United States and could help smooth the path to an eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops. She argues that instead of weaking relations with South Korea, we should focus on salvaging diplomatic talks with North Korea and ensure that bilateral US-ROK alliance handling does not impede inter-Korean relations.