The North Korean crisis took an unexpected turn this week when the North and South agreed to hold high-level talks over the Winter Olympics, which will be held in South Korea in February. Some experts believe the talks could be the first step towards a deal over Pyongyang’s nuclear program, despite the war of words between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Others see an effort to divide South Korea and the U.S.
That North and South Korea apparently are prepared to talk is progress. But any negotiations concerning North Korea’s nuclear program should be designed to avoid repeating the same approaches that doomed past negotiations, including the so-called “Six Party Talks”, which collapsed in 2009. Among other things, some believe those negotiations were unsuccessful because their principle focus, which was on Pyongyang’s nuclear program, raised North Korean fears that the international community’s ultimate goal was regime change. This fear continues, and has helped create the current deadlock.
As the possibility for a new round of negotiations emerges, any chance of a long-term solution requires a different approach, one that counterintuitively expands the scope of any deal. This approach should recognize that the North’s nuclear ambitions are part of a much larger problem—the instability created by the current economic and social conditions within North Korea. The United States and its allies should aim not just to block the North’s nuclear program, but to create a plan for the development of North Korea as a stable, prosperous member of the international community.
I have seen firsthand how this strategy of expanding a problem can work. When I was the first resident U.S. Ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations from 2011 to 2013, the U.S. mission to ASEAN expanded the discussions around the South China Sea to include not just Chinese territorial claims, which have fueled rising tensions in the region, but also the sustainability of its fisheries, which are critical to the health and well-being of all of ASEAN’s member states. We argued that if the South China Sea and the region’s other fisheries were not well managed, governments would be forced to spend scarce dollars on food instead of on infrastructure, education and healthcare. This strategy hasn’t solved the deep problems with the South China Sea, but did create more unity among maritime and non-maritime ASEAN countries, laying the groundwork for a future deal.
Past negotiations concerning North Korea did not take such a comprehensive, systemic approach. For example, the Six Party Talks, held from 2003 to 2009 among North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States, focused on North Korea’s nuclear program. Any discussions concerning aid to the impoverished country largely were secondary, focusing only on short term oil and food supplies.
Recently the approach to the crisis appears to have become even more limited. The current approach is “binary” with the two main antagonists, North Korea and the U.S., narrowing the issue to whether the North will have an arsenal of nuclear weapons capable of striking the U.S. This limited definition of the problem ignores North Korea’s internal challenges, including providing nutritious food, education, infrastructure, and quality healthcare for its people. It has resulted in a dangerous stalemate, fueled by reckless statements from Trump and Kim Jong-un.
The deep levels of distrust and enmity on both sides make it impossible to imagine reaching an agreement under the “binary” conditions that currently exist, especially one that excludes most other global stakeholders. An expanded definition focused on development would put North Korea on a path to global engagement and prosperity, creating an alternative to the insular “world of one” it now inhabits. Properly constructed, such a plan could also provide North Korea’s leadership a high degree of security that regime change is not an international goal.
What would such a development plan look like? The details would be the subject of negotiation, but the primary goal would be to increase the productivity of North Korea's people through investments in infrastructure, education, technology, healthcare and nutrition. This would require several things: global participation, reflecting the fact that North Korea is a threat to the world, not just certain individual countries; an institutional architecture to enable participants to fund, design, and implement the plan; engagement of experts on human and economic development to develop an effective plan; and assurances that the parties are prepared to work with North Korea’s leadership. It also would require the international community to begin to phase out sanctions, with the goal of eliminating them in the future.
The capital and expertise necessary for such a development initiative would be substantial, but their cost would be far less than the trillions of dollars that a war would cost, even one fought with conventional weapons. The costs also would be spread over a longer period of time and over more countries than those which would be involved in any conflict. Countries beyond the region would need to participate, both to provide the necessary capital and expertise, and to make the point that just as the crisis is global, so too is its solution.
In exchange for development assistance, North Korea would be required to give up its nuclear arsenal and allow the inspections necessary to ensure it has not stockpiled weapons or the equipment needed to create them. It also would be required not to sell or barter its nuclear capabilities and to implement the plan they develop with the input and assistance of the experts. By doing so, North Korea would focus on the needs and productivity of it people while protecting their basic human rights.
Would North Korea accept such a deal? It is impossible to say, but there are indications its leaders might respond favorably to such an approach. North Korea increasingly is working on establishing a market economy. For example, the Choson Exchange has trained over 1,500 North Koreans in business, finance, law and economic policy since 2010. In addition, the country has an emerging middle class, which increasingly will be invested in a long term solution focused on the betterment of the country and of the North Korean people.
In order to determine if North Korea would be open to this imitative, the international community should deploy diplomats from beyond the region to help build trust between North Korea and the rest of the world, helping convince North Korea’s leadership that regime change is not on the table. The diplomats would work behind-the-scenes to negotiate the terms of the redevelopment plan, gather commitments from countries to provide capital, ease sanctions, and manage the destruction of North Korea’s nuclear program—without seeking to overthrow the current North Korean government.
As Trump and Kim Jong-un continue to trade insults and threats, this approach may sound premature. But the recent opening for discussions between North and South Korea give reason now to explore an initiative to trade disarmament and development. Whether such a trade might be acceptable to all concerned should not be prejudged given the existential risks and massive economic costs associated with war.
During my time in Asia, I realized the importance of creating space in any negotiation, especially those in which the parties have long standing and indelible positions. This development plan could create such space by allowing the parties to “save face” and claim victory. The North Korean leadership could claim that the threat of its nuclear program enabled it to obtain long term development benefits for its people, while the U.S. could claim that it peacefully ended the North’s nuclear program while reaffirming its historic role in assisting countries in developing in the aftermath of conflict. Our leadership has helped avoid a major international war for over 70 years. We would do well to reinforce it now given the current crisis and those to come.
David Carden was the First Resident US Ambassador to ASEAN.