North Korea Provides Valuable Opportunity for US-China Relations

Cipher Brief Expert View

Ambassador Joseph DeTrani is former Special envoy for Six Party Talks with North Korea as well as former CIA director of East Asia Operations. He also served as the Associate Director of National Intelligence and Mission Manager for North Korea and the Director of the National Counter Proliferation Center, and as a Special Adviser to the Director of National Intelligence.

OPINION — On September 19, 2005, in a Joint Statement of the Six Party Talks, North Korea committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) safeguards.

After two years of intense negotiations, starting in August 2003, the U.S., China, South Korea, Japan and Russia got North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-il, the father of Kim Jong-un, to agree that “The Six Parties unanimously reaffirmed that the goal of the Six Party talks is the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner.”

As we approach the fifteenth anniversary of this Joint Statement, there may be value in reviewing some of the commitments made to North Korea:  The U.S. has no intention to attack or invade the DPRK with nuclear or conventional weapons; the DPRK and the U.S. undertook to respect each other’s sovereignty, exist peacefully together, and take steps to normalize their relations subject to their respective bilateral policies; the Six Parties undertook to promote economic cooperation in the fields of energy, trade and investment, bilaterally and/or multilaterally; the Six Parties committed to joint efforts for lasting peace and stability in Northeast Asia; the directly related parties will negotiate a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula at an appropriate separate forum; and the Six Parties agreed to take coordinated steps to implement the aforementioned consensus in a phased manner in line with the principle of “commitment for commitment, action for action”.

In April 2009, after North Korea refused to sign a verification protocol permitting nuclear inspectors to visit suspect undeclared nuclear sites, and after being criticized and threatened with sanctions for launching a satellite on April 5, in violation of a United Nations Security Council resolution, North Korea announced that it would cease its involvement with the Six Party Talks process and was no longer bound by any agreement reached at the talks.  Nuclear monitors were expelled, and the IAEA was informed that North Korea would resume its nuclear weapons program. On May 25, 2009, North Korea conducted its second underground nuclear test.

This was the beginning of North Korea’s race to acquire a formidable nuclear and missile arsenal, with its sixth nuclear test, of a claimed thermonuclear weapon, in September 2017 and the launches of two Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (Hwasong -14 and 15) in July and November 2017.

This escalation ceased in 2018 with an April meeting of South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un that produced the Panmunjom Declaration, committing both Koreas to pursue Peace, Prosperity and Reunification.  A Singapore Summit followed in June 2018, between President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un.  This Summit produced a short Joint Statement committing both countries to a new relationship, a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the repatriation of POW/MIA remains from the Korean War.  Unfortunately, a second summit in Hanoi, in February 2019, between President Trump and Chairman Kim failed to reach an agreement.

To date, efforts by the U.S. to get North Korea to return to negotiations have been unsuccessful.  Similarly, South Korea’s efforts to engage North Korea have failed.  During this period, North Korea launched numerous short-range missiles, while continuing to produce fissile material for its nuclear program.

China hosted the Six Party Talks that produced the September 2005 Joint Statement. Indeed, it is China that has the closest relationship with North Korea and the greatest influence on its leadership.  China is North Korea’s principal trading partner and the provider of large quantities of food aid (rice, corn and wheat).  The North exports textiles, fisheries, coal and precious metals to China while importing over 90% of its crude oil and petroleum requirements from China.  Without China, North Korea’s economy would come to an abrupt halt.

The 1961 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance between China and North Korea, signed by Premier Zhou Enlai and Chairman Kim il-sung, Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, renewable every 20 years, is up for renewal in 2021.  I’m confident it will be renewed.  It does, however, provide China with additional leverage with North Korea.

This would be the time for China to use some of this leverage to get North Korea to return to negotiations with the U.S., and South Korea, to pursue implementation of the Singapore Summit Joint Statement and the Panmunjom Declaration, both focused on the complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.  Given the current tension in U.S.- China relations, now would be an opportune time for a China that is committed to North Korea’s complete denuclearization as demonstrated by the work China did hosting and chairing the Six Party Talks, to show the U.S. and others that North Korea is just one of a myriad of global issues that China and the U.S. can collaborate on to achieve a desired outcome, for the common good.

This piece by Cipher Brief Expert Ambassador Joseph DeTrani was first published in the Washington Times   

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