► Moon’s defense policy and North Korea diplomacy objectives are now clearly in tension as he approaches his last six months in office, while Pyongyang appears intent on expanding its nuclear weapons capabilities.
► A new “freeze for freeze” agreement could meaningfully reduce potential causes of imminent crisis and addresses clear irritants in relations among the parties.
► Such an agreement would be relatively painless for the parties to adopt and could consolidate a new window for diplomacy.
Diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula is stalled again. U.S. offers to meet “anytime, anywhere without precondition” have garnered no North Korean response, nor have appeals by the South Korean government to pick up the threads of the moribund inter-Korean peace process. North Korean leaders remain inwardly focused, and in any case, in the judgment of some analysts, “Pyongyang has no interest in answering the calls for engagement from what it perceives as the lame-duck government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in.” Meanwhile, military exercises resumed, followed by a spate of new missile testing by both Koreas.
Against this dim backdrop, is there any way to forge a new diplomatic path and, if so, what might an initial deal look like? The chances for near-term progress seem low, yet the evolving conditions demand more novel thinking to break the stasis. One formula worth exploring is a trilateral cessation of missile testing and military exercises on the Korean Peninsula, essentially a “freeze for freeze” redux.
A Depressing Trajectory
Washington is seized with the perceived imperative to give teeth to its “compete with China” policies. Part of this vision involves building out the Indo-Pacific strategy with a more inclusive role for South Korea. However, the focus on alliance management is mirrored by a relative deprioritizing of nuclear diplomacy with North Korea. Indeed, the Biden administration’s North Korea policy – advertised as “calibrated” and “practical” – seems aimed more at managing public relations with Seoul and Tokyo than opening a new negotiating window with Pyongyang.
In Seoul, the Moon administration also seems singularly focused on augmenting independent deterrence capabilities with major investments in new air and sea platforms, and missiles of greater range, payload, and accuracy. President Moon may have concluded, probably correctly, that his early-term efforts to forge a new peace construct with North Korea will not bear fruit and he is looking elsewhere to burnish his legacy, including in strengthening South Korea’s defense and deterrence capabilities. In any case, Moon’s defense policy and North Korea diplomacy objectives are now clearly in tension as he approaches his last six months in office.
For its part, Pyongyang appears intent on expanding its nuclear weapons capability and developing new missiles. Until now, North Korean leaders have opted not to cross any major redlines by, for example, conducting long-range missile or nuclear explosive tests. Such an act could seriously escalate tensions or provoke a U.S. or ROK response… or serve as a catalyst for renewed diplomacy.
Preparing for an Opening
North Korean actions and statements, for now, appear to indicate that Kim Jong Un is not ready for new diplomacy. Perhaps, after the failure of the Trump-Kim summitry to reach a deal, Kim doesn’t want to take the political risk of engaging in new talks. In any case, fears of pandemic contagion still seem to surpass other considerations that could drive North Korean military and diplomatic activity, or even vital cross-border trade with China. However, with North Korea, one can’t rule out the possibility of provocation with little warning, forcing the Biden administration to pay greater attention.
In this context, convincing counterparts in Pyongyang that serious diplomacy could address North Korean interests seems a tall order. (By the same token, convincing the Biden administration that a major diplomatic push to contain North Korea’s nuclear growth would be worth the risk and effort could be just as difficult.) Proposals for dialogue alone will not change the status quo, even as North Korea faces dire economic and humanitarian conditions. Some analysts argue that offers of western COVID vaccines might create an opening for new diplomacy, or at least avert a crisis. Vaccine aid could well create an opening, but would not clearly point to next steps toward reducing growing threats from arms racing or future crises.
If events yield a new opening for diplomacy, Washington and Seoul should be prepared to put forward pragmatic proposals that reflect a clear understanding of the evolved security context: North Korea’s growing means of delivering nuclear weapons, South Korea’s augmented conventional missile strike and missile defense capabilities, the United States’ investments in alliance cohesion for the Indo-Pacific, and more sharply divergent U.S. and Chinese interests in the region.
Novel thinking still should be guided by realism, especially about what Washington can credibly offer, and whether China would seek to undermine the initiative. For example, it is unlikely that Washington could reasonably propose conditional sanctions relief in the first instance, even though such an offer might garner attention in Pyongyang. Instead, proposals aimed at lowering the chances of a military crisis could be apt, particularly if they are framed in terms of addressing North Korean concerns about the perceived “hostile policy” of the United States.
Freeze for Freeze Redux
A virtue of the tacit “freeze for freeze” agreement that cooled U.S.-DPRK tensions in 2018 – after the risks of conflict had grown dramatically during 2017 – was that the asymmetry satisfied all parties. North Korea’s cessation of missile and nuclear testing was valued by Seoul and Washington. The pause in ROK-U.S. military exercises was desirable to Pyongyang (and probably Beijing). And on the foundation of this simple quid pro quo, diplomacy proceeded. Yet, the 2018 freeze arrived more by luck than design, with Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump each pledging voluntary moratoriums.
A similar, but better designed, formula is worth trying again as a way to cool the accelerating arms race. To work within the new strategic context, however, it would require more symmetry. Thus, the parties should explore a freeze on military exercises and missile flight testing, drawing precedence from both the 2018 freeze and the September 1999 missile test moratorium.
The details would clearly be subject to negotiation. As a starting point, the freeze could apply to brigade-level and above military exercises (involving over, say, 5,000 personnel). It could also apply to all flight testing of ballistic and cruise missiles (from air, land and sea platforms) of any range, conducted on or adjacent to the Korean Peninsula.
A new “freeze for freeze” agreement like that suggested here would not constitute concrete threat reduction. But it could meaningfully reduce potential causes of imminent crisis and addresses clear irritants in relations among the parties, and arrest North Korea’s qualitative improvement of its nuclear delivery systems. And it would foster better conditions for sustained diplomacy to negotiate deeper and lasting measures, such as a peace regime or comprehensive arms control.
Would it Fly?
Just as with the 2018 “freeze for freeze,” an updated agreement would have a similar incentive structure, but the new symmetry would have potential added benefits. For example, North Korean leaders may welcome a military exercise freeze as a way to redirect military labor to agricultural or other economic activity. And for the United States and South Korea, cessation of military exercises would degrade the readiness of North Korean forces, and potentially even more so than for U.S. and ROK forces. Given the early stage of its missile development (especially of the Hyunmoo 4 series), South Korea may not prefer to cease flight testing, but the reciprocal military exercise restraint would make such a halt more politically palatable. China presumably would not object to this arrangement, even if it wouldn’t support it to the extent it did the 2018 agreement (which Beijing played a role in conceiving).
The main obstacle to a freeze for freeze redux is likely to be an assessment in key capitals that it would merely set up a replay of the 2018 diplomacy, and thus simply lead to a dead end. Given that every past negotiation with North Korea has ended in failure, this would be an understandable assessment. However, passing up a chance at progress because it might fail would be policy malpractice and a recipe for a more dangerous future.
A new freeze for freeze would be relatively painless for the parties to adopt and could consolidate a new window for diplomacy. And with sufficient political will, Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington might build on it to finally end the boom-bust cycle of past efforts to bring peace and stability to the Peninsula.