After a modest step forward in the Korean Peninsula, how to think about nuclear weapons and sanctions

Normally, I do not begin blog entries by favorably quoting President Trump. But his tweets today, to my mind—including “KOREAN WAR TO END!“—get the big news out of Korea just about right:

There is generally a temptation among strategists, intelligence experts, and diplomats seasoned by many previous disappointments with North Korea to view big news like today’s through a negative prism. And they are right to be very wary. The tone and language of statements emanating from the April 27, 2018 inter-Korean summit evoke memories of similar hopeful moments in the past, like in 1994 and 2007—neither of which endured.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, in their Panmunjom Declaration, talked vaguely about “denuclearization” in way that does little to answer the obvious questions about how it could really happen. North Korea isn’t going to just offer up all of its nuclear weapons and infrastructure at the upcoming summit between Kim and Trump.  North Koreans view the program as a key legacy of Kim’s father and grandfather, and thus a national crown jewel. Kim sees his arsenal as an essential insurance policy against suffering the fate of Saddam Hussein, Moammar Gadhafi, and the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan in 2001—none of which had the bomb, none of which survived war with the United States.

In fact, the most likely interpretation of the headlines out of Korea is that Kim, recognizing that the world’s collective economic sanctions against his regime are starting to bite, is trying to lighten up enforcement of those sanctions. With his 2018 charm offensive, he hopes to weaken the resolve of countries like South Korea, China, and Russia to uphold their earlier obligations. He probably hopes that even without giving up any nuclear capability whatsoever, and while continuing to expand his nuclear arsenal, he can reduce the economic constriction of his country that may have cost it one-third to one-half of its normal trade.

But I am still heartened by today’s news. North Korea has never previously recognized South Korea or its right to exist in the way that a peace treaty would codify. That makes the idea of such an agreement worthy, provided that we do not confuse it with full-fledged détente.

It is much better to see leaders engaged in competitive strategies that employ diplomacy, even cunning diplomacy, than to be where we were last year. In 2017, there really was a substantial risk of war on the peninsula—greater than in decades. The brinkmanship, bluster, and threats in Pyongyang and Washington meant that militaries in multiple countries were on edge, preparing for possible conflict. And once war began, it would have been very hard to know when or how it would end. Since an all-out conflict there could literally have killed millions, this was an extremely inauspicious situation.

Admittedly, these risks are not necessarily gone now. They could resurface after a failed summit between Trump and Kim, or for some other reason. That is why we must not rest on our laurels, but instead prepare diligently for what kind of possible interim deals (or interim steps to a single, final deal on denuclearization) might meet our interests and prove negotiable with North Korea as well.

My Brookings colleague Ryan Hass and I recently outlined some basic principles that could be useful in such an effort. We argued for making a clear distinction between U.N. sanctions, most imposed in recent years, and U.S. sanctions, most of them resulting from the early decades after the Korean War of 1950-53.

Hass and I asserted that the majority of U.S. sanctions imposed on North Korea since the Korean War should stay in place until nuclear disarmament really begins to happen—until North Korea’s arsenal starts to be eliminated. Some of these should stay in place until disarmament is completed, in fact. The relevant sanctions limit trade with, investment in, and aid to North Korea. They involve the United States and American citizens and businesses, as well as international organizations in which the United States participates. These sanctions should not be given up lightly as part of an interim deal that, for example, does no more than verifiably freeze production and testing of nuclear weapons and longer-range missiles. Such steps would be worthy, but not enough to lead to a lifting of U.S. sanctions.

These U.S. sanctions are codified in the following agreements and laws:

– The Export-Import Bank Act of 1945,

– The Bretton Woods Agreements Act of 1945,

– The United Nations Participation Act of 1945,

– The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952,

– The State Department Basic Authorities Act of 1956,

– The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961,

– The Trade Act of 1974,

– The Arms Export Control Act of 1976,

– The National Emergencies Act of 1976,

– The International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977,

– The Export Administration Act of 1979,

– The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000,

– The Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act of 2000,

– The State Department and Foreign Assistance appropriations act for 2016,

– The Defense Department appropriations for 2016, and

– The return of North Korea to the official U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism in 2017.

However, Hass and I argued, U.N. sanctions are a different matter, and provide the international community with more flexibility and negotiating leverage for an interim deal that achieves only some of our objectives. Some of these—starting with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718 of 2006 and continuing through Resolution 2371 of August 5, 2017 (and beyond)—have gradually turned up the pressure on North Korea. They began with a focus on trade in technologies relevant to weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles (e.g., U.N. Security Council Resolution 2087 of January 2013), then were broadened to encompass weaponry in general (such as U.N. Security Council Resolution 2270 of March 2016). Most recently, they have begun to target commercial sources of revenue for the North Korean regime as well as the assets of individuals and companies from North Korea or doing business with North Korea (again, 2270 plus 2371). It is these that hurt the regime most, because they have affected economic engagement with the key countries—China, Russia, South Korea, Vietnam, and others—on which North Korea currently depends.

Some of these sanctions can be eased, suspended, and ultimately lifted if North Korea verifiably ends production of fissile material for nuclear bombs, as well as the production and testing of nuclear warheads and the production and testing of medium-range and long-range missiles. There need not be a complete denuclearization deal up front, for some of this to happen. Ideally, human rights dialogues would be initiated as well, as part of any such deal—to go along with the family reunions that the two Koreas have just agreed to resume—as well as dialogues on limiting conventional weaponry on the peninsula someday.

So the hard work still lies ahead, and there is a long ways to go. But that does not make today’s news unimportant or unhelpful in the pursuit of our larger goals in Korea, provided that Washington and its partners stay vigilant and disciplined.