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Is John Bolton Playing Right into North Korea’s Hands? How a Hard Line Against Pyongyang Could Alienate Allies and Undermine the U.S. Led International Front

May 02nd - 2018

North Korea’s pledge on April 21st to cease all missile and nuclear testing, the culmination of decades of development, was a major signal of Pyongyang’s willingness to begin negotiations with the international community regarding the lifting of sanctions and normalisation of relations. The announcement came just days after a highly productive summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping, and Marshal Kim went on to make historic trip to South Korea, the first for any North Korean leader, and made a highly symbolic crossing of the inter-Korean border at Panmunjom hand in hand with South Korean President Moon Jae In. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has put forward the hardest line of any head of state regarding his demands for North Korean disarmament, has also indicated his willingness to meet Kim Jong Un, while the Marshal is also set to meet with U.S. President Trump in May - possibly also at Panmunjom.

With the North Korean state adhering to a Byungjin Policy since May 2016, which prioritises the development of a viable deterrent in parallel with economic development, the conclusion of the country’s missile program and an end to testing is likely to predicate renewed efforts towards economic growth. Much like the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the deployment of nuclear arms is set to facilitate significant reductions to conventional defence expenditure, and though the country’s economy has continued to grow it has notably made significant cuts to its conventional defence budget as its nuclear program has developed. North Korea has indicated a willingness to abandon its nuclear arsenal, though given that the importance of these weapons is already enshrined in the country’s constitution and has repeatedly been reemphasised by the country’s leadership, Pyongyang’s actual willingness to denuclearise remains uncertain.

It remains possible that North Korea’s pledge to abandon its nuclear arms under the right conditions could well be a token statement to reduce international pressure, accompanied by a complete halt in nuclear and missile testing which have widely been deemed provocative. Indeed, testing weapons is far more provocative and condemnable than simply possessing them. Israel, whose nuclear program has escaped comparable international criticism to North Korea, remains a key example of this. A number of reports indicate that China has already begun to alleviate economic pressure on its neighbour, while South Korea and Russia could well be poised to follow suite. The United States however, alongside Japan, could by pressing a particularly hard line in their demands on Pyongyang end up compromising their own interests and stalling negations with the country where other parties are more willing to compromise. President Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton has stated that sanctions relief will only be considered after North Korea’s complete and irreversible denuclearisation is verified - with the additional demand that Pyongyang be stripped of its entire ballistic missile arsenal. Japan’s Prime Minister Abe has issued similar demands, effectively a nonstarter for Pyongyang which expects a number of concessions including security guarantees should denuclearise - and which notably has never indicated any willingness to surrender its ballistic missiles.

As the JCPOA deal with Iran has demonstrated, a country’s willingness to denuclearise cannot be confused with its readiness to disarm entirely and allow inspections of its military facilities by its potential adversaries. Indeed the only state which has done so, Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, saw its government targeted by Western airstrikes within a decade which led to its collapse in 2011, setting a precedent from which Pyongyang has according to high ranking U.S. sources (see interview with National Intelligence Director Daniel R. Coats) drawn a great many lessons. Bolton and Abe’s demands, and Bolton specifically advocating a ”˜Libya model’ for North Korean disarmament, indicates that a complete impasse between Washington and Pyongyang could well be inevitable. Creating such an impasse however could well play directly into Pyongyang’s hands, and ultimately undermine the United States’ position internationally regarding negotiations with the country. Not only could an extremely hard line drawn by the U.S. stall negotiations indefinitely, but they are likely by doing so to alienate much of the international community - including China, South Korea and Russia which seek a swift end to both sanctions and provocative weapons testing on reasonable terms an a restoration of open economic ties with the north. By placing arbitrary demands on North Korea, which ultimately amount to a violation of its sovereignty and an undermining of its right to retain a conventional weapons arsenal for its defence, Washington could well lose much support for its negotiating position which could in turn lead other parties to reach their own accommodations with Pyongyang and reduce sanctions themselves. Having already halted testing and a declared its intention to denuclearise under the right conditions, North Korea could effectively place the onus on the seemingly unreasonable United States for preventing this denuclearisation through its excessive demands.

Should this highly plausible scenario occur, North Korea’s three neighbours could well take it into their own hands to further alleviate sanctions, as China already has to some extent, rather than allow an indefinite stalling due to the American position and Washington’s additional demands pertaining to Pyongyang’s conventional capabilities - which are not concerns of any of the three powers or of the international community. Without support from Russia or China, two permanent UN Security Council Members, a continued sanctions campaign waged through the UNSC would no longer be feasible. The United States’ hard line could thus serve to isolate it and ultimately allow North Korea both to retain its existing deterrence capabilities while improving its economic situation by normalising relations with much of the international community – including its neighbours.

The goal of Pyongyang’s new diplomatic offensive appears primarily to be an improvement in relations and in economic ties with its three neighbors and a reduction in economic pressure from the international community overall. The United States is far from the only country which can provide Pyongyang with the export markets and the investment it seeks, indeed after 70 years of sanctions long predating the nuclear program it is highly unlikely to do so no matter how thoroughly North Korea disarms, and adopting an overly hard stance against the country in negotiations could well play right into its hands as a result. 

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