This piece was co-authored with Ryan Neuhard, a Research Associate at the Hudson Institute.
On Tuesday, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun arrived in South Korea for a three-day visit, in the most recent sign that working-level talks with North Korea are about to resume.
Last year’s diplomatic opening with North Korea focused on a possible peace accord to replace the existing 1953 armistice, as well as potential relief from international sanctions. However, since the Hanoi summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Un ended without agreement at the end of February, the North Korean foreign ministry has shifted the conversation to possible security guarantees. During an unusual midnight press conference by Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and Vice Minister Choe Son Hui, Ri stated that “the security guarantee is more important to us [North Korea] as we take denuclearization measures.”
This shift would represent a return to the mindset North Korea reportedly had during the early phases of engagement last year. Back in March 2018, South Korean officials claimed that their North Korean counterparts had confirmed they were prepared to denuclearize if they received a security guarantee, because “there is no reason to possess nuclear weapons if the security of the North Korean regime is guaranteed.” If the North Koreans are genuine, satisfying their requests for security guarantees could be the key to advancing denuclearization.
If the United States agrees to negotiate security guarantees, the U.S. negotiation team should consider keeping three principles in mind. First, do not negotiate with yourselves — find out exactly what North Korea wants in terms of security guarantees and what steps toward denuclearization they will provide in return. Second, be prepared to press ahead with security guarantees that are in the U.S. interest and proportionate to the North Korean offer. Third, if negotiations stall, shift talks toward crisis stability measures.
The Danger of One-Way Negotiation
U.S. negotiators should try to force North Korea to specify which security guarantees they need in exchange for specific steps toward denuclearization. We should not be so presumptuous to assume that we know what security guarantees the North Koreans need, even if those proposals are based on past demands. Only Kim Jong Un knows what guarantees he needs in order to move forward with denuclearization.
The United States should also avoid proposing a menu of security guarantees because it will allow North Korea to pick-and-choose the most appealing guarantees, respond with low-ball offers, and haggle toward an unequal exchange. If the United States proceeds with negotiations in that manner, there is a risk that North Korea could secure the most substantive security guarantees up front, while only providing preliminary steps toward denuclearization.
Even though the United States should avoid providing a menu of security guarantees to North Korea, U.S. negotiators should still consider which guarantees would be in the U.S. interest to offer in exchange for various North Korean commitments. This will ensure that negotiators are prepared to request necessary clarifications and to move forward with any constructive offers.
In Hanoi, Ri claimed that North Korea had offered a partial freeze of fissile material production. Specifically, they offered to dismantle the plutonium and uranium enrichment facilities in “the Yongbyon area” under the supervision of U.S. observers and technical experts. This offer may provide a useful benchmark for the United States’ own offer.
In terms of what guarantees are available, the United States can consider offering “positive” or “negative” assurances to guarantee the security of North Korea and its regime. Positive assurances would include commitments by the United States or others to take specific actions if any state attacked North Korea. Negative assurances would include commitments not to perpetrate attacks against North Korea. Using the partial freeze as a standard, the United States can consider which positive and negative security guarantees would be of comparable value.
Given that the United States is the principal threat to North Korea, there are relatively few positive assurances it can credibly offer. North Korea also already benefits from a positive security assurance from China. China has a mutual defense treaty with North Korea and Chinese President Xi Jinping reaffirmed his commitment to the China-DPRK alliance with his first state visit to North Korea earlier this summer.
Recently, Russia has been championing the value of an unspecified “system of international security guarantees for North Korea.” This raises the prospect for some form of multilateral collective security arrangement that would guarantee North Korea’s security from U.S. or South Korean military action, but it is unclear what that would entail. International security guarantees do not have a great track record, so it could be difficult to assure the credibility of such an arrangement. The 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawing war hardly ended aggression and the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact did not prevent Hitler from invading the Soviet Union two years later.
If North Korea is interested in negative security assurances, the United States has more to offer. The United States could demonstrate its peaceful intent by establishing an American liaison office in Pyongyang, replacing the Korean War armistice with a peace agreement, or signing a formal nonaggression pact. However, commitments of peaceful intent may not be enough for North Korea. As Victor Cha chronicled back in 2009, every U.S. administration for the past 30 years stated that it did not harbor hostile intent toward North Korea and yet they continued to develop their nuclear weapons program.
If that is the case, the United States could provide negative guarantees that impose voluntary constraints on its ability to threaten North Korea and its regime. These actions could include reducing the number of U.S. forces stationed in South Korea and suspending the largest training exercises (which could continue as multiple smaller exercises that could not be misinterpreted as staging for an invasion or decapitations strike). Altering training exercises may be particularly appealing to North Korea, since exercises recently served as Pyongyang’s chief justification for firing short-range missiles (including a new, low-trajectory variant that some fear might strike U.S. air bases in a pre-emptive attack). The relatively modest guarantees described here would not necessarily prevent the United States from threatening North Korea, but they would make it harder to attack on short notice, which would give the regime the security of more advanced warning.
Regardless of which guarantees the United States considers, Washington will need to determine whether the offer is in the U.S. interest. Do the guarantees expose the United States and its allies to too great a risk? Will the North Korean offer actually reduce the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program?
When assessing the risk to U.S. and allied security, the United States should consider the effect on military readiness, but also on U.S.-South Korean political alignment. Maintaining a unified message and the political buy-in of ally South Korea is critical to the success of these negotiations and the endurance of the alliance. Bearing in mind that South Korea has a healthy democracy with many diverse voices, the United States should also ensure it is making an effort to listen to the voices from both sides of aisle in South Korea in advance of these negotiations. Maintaining bipartisan support in South Korea will help ensure that any deal reached in these negotiations has the support and legitimacy necessary to last.
When assessing the North Korean offer, it is important to note that offers like the partial freeze on fissile material production would not reduce the threat posed by North Korea’s existing nuclear arsenal, but they do have some value. For example, a partial freeze would slow the expansion of the arsenal and successful implementation of the deal would build confidence for future agreements.
Many of the security guarantees described above are of a comparable value to a partial freeze. They do not eliminate the threat the U.S. poses to North Korea, but they are a step in that direction, just as a partial freeze is a step toward genuine denuclearization.
Crisis Stability Measures
If the North Koreans demand too much from the United States, it may be worth shifting negotiations toward crisis stability measures. These measures help reduce the risk of misunderstandings and accidental crises. Basic steps can include creating crisis hotlines, exchanging diplomats, or establishing military-to-military dialogues. Advanced steps could involve codes of conduct or expanded buffer zones.
Crisis stability measures should be easier to negotiate, because they do not require either party to make additional concessions. Negotiating these measures would also provide a means to build confidence for future agreements and keep talks moving forward when they might otherwise stall or collapse. If talks do collapse, having stability measures in place will be all that much more important. These mechanisms help ensure that a return to North Korean provocations and U.S. “fire and fury” diplomacy would not lead to accidental escalation to war.
The Next Steps
There is a range of security guarantees that the United States can offer, but the first step should be to clarify what Kim Jong Un has in mind. Once the U.S.-South Korea military exercises (and, presumably, North Korean missile tests) subside on Friday, there will be an opportunity to return to negotiations and press for those details. If North Korea is prepared to offer meaningful steps toward denuclearization, like freezing its fissile material production, then the United States should be prepared to reciprocate with security guarantees. However, those guarantees will need to be selected carefully and in the context of broader U.S. security needs in the region.
If the search for a sustainable détente with a denuclearizing North Korea is to be productive, then it may well be useful to address the threat perceptions of all parties.