North Korea and America: What Should Britain Do?

In the months since part one of this article was published, a good deal has changed – at least on the surface – in the relationship between the US and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Tensions, in the main, have eased. The 12 June summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un has begun. The talks are a historic moment, marking the first time a sitting US president has met with a DPRK leader. This article briefly summarises Trump and Kim’s aims for the negotiations, before analysing Britain’s options in the situation.

This article was written by Ashley Ryan. Ashley, an undergraduate in the War Studies BA programme at King’s College London, founded the Shield blog. A mature student, she is transitioning her career into the defence field. Her research interests include military history, defence and security.

In the months since part one of this article was published, a good deal has changed – at least on the surface – in the relationship between the US and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Tensions, in the main, have eased. The 12 June summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un has begun. The talks are a historic moment, marking the first time a sitting US president has met with a DPRK leader. This article briefly summarises Trump and Kim’s aims for the negotiations, before analysing Britain’s options in the situation.

Ultimately, Trump and his advisers want to obtain ‘complete, verifiable, irreversible disarmament’ from the DPRK. President Trump has hinted that he will offer Kim Jong-un ‘unprecedented security guarantees’ in order to achieve the denuclearisation of the DPRK, according to Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State. While the DPRK is unlikely to fully denuclearise, even talks that limit or reduce their nuclear arsenal remain worthwhile. It is likely that American officials are aware of this, but are using complete disarmament as  a starting point in their negotiations. Given tomorrow’s talks will only last a few hours, however, Pompeo has confirmed that the US would regard the summit as successful if Trump and Kim agree that the talks should be continued beyond 12 June.

Kim’s interests centre on the security of the DPRK and his leadership. He is unlikely to denuclearise in the way that America hopes for. Kim understands the idea of denuclearisation quite differently to Trump, regarding it as the ‘removal of the threat [that nuclear weapons pose to America]’ rather than a situation where the DPRK completely relinquishes its nuclear capability. Beyond retaining nuclear status, Kim’s aims include gaining relief from sanctions, and improving the DPRK’s economy. Kim would also like to obtain international investment.

The Korean War drew to a close in 1953 with only an armistice and has never formally ended. Kim has stated that a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War must be negotiated before denuclearisation can be discussed. Yet a peace treaty would work to the DPRK’s advantage, as it would ‘put pressure on the United States to withdraw its military presence from South Korea’. By contrast, American officials have stated that a peace treaty cannot be discussed until the DPRK has denuclearised.

It is clear there are no easy answers, but even the fact that the summit is occurring represents progress and a chance for the international community to engage positively with the DPRK. This article next suggests several measures that Britain can take to improve its national security, focusing on diplomacy and negotiation before considering more practical measures.

The British government’s first priority should be to ensure open communication between the DPRK and the international community. As we saw from the rapid deterioration of US-DPRK relations in 2017, international relations can be fragile. The Moscow-Washington hotline served the world well in the Cold War, and it would be sensible to establish a similar protocol between (at minimum) London, Washington and Pyongyang.

Similarly, Britain should aim to keep the DPRK in dialogue with the international community. It is very possible that future talks may be called off, as indeed this summit was temporarily, either as a power play or because relations have broken down owing to the contentious issues being discussed. Negotiations could also break down because America has historically and culturally seen talks as ‘a means to an end’. That is, the US would prefer to walk away from the table than seemingly waste their time talking at length without achieving a resolution.

There is some merit in the American position, but Beijing also have a good point about negotiation: ‘the end result is less important than the dialogue itself. The very act of engaging in talks helps relieve the immediate tensions … and reduces the chances of an accident or miscalculation that could lead to conflict’.

Britain doesn’t need to choose between the American and Chinese perspectives on the value of negotiation. The advantage of being on the periphery of the US-DPRK summit is that it gives Britain relative freedom to act. It is crucial that the UK take advantage of the DPRK’s current engagement with the international community by opening up lines of diplomatic communication in addition to a hotline. Whether or not this seeming détente will last is another question (commentators have differing views on the sincerity of the DPRK’s intentions), but it is best to err on the side of caution. If negotiations between America and the DPRK do break down, such lines of communication would ensure Britain is well-placed to act as an intermediary between the US and the DPRK. Ultimately, Britain could aim to re-start the negotiations, but the UK’s most important role in this situation would be de-escalation and preventing any dangerous misunderstandings that might otherwise raise the risk of conflict breaking out.

The British government must remain cognisant that the need to save face makes it culturally impossible for Kim to be seen to back down. The UK should therefore aim to set up private talks between the US, the DPRK and any other relevant parties to discuss denuclearisation, the peace treaty, the lifting of sanctions on the DPRK, and the other thorny issues requiring resolution. Public talks place significant pressure on a country’s leader – both to achieve their mandate, and not to be seen to give in to another state. Agreements made in private – even if the agreement is something of a compromise and concessions have been made – can be presented as the leader’s own proactive decision. This will be of particular importance to Kim but could help all parties come to an agreement more swiftly.

In order to build relations with the DPRK over the medium term, at least one low-stakes method of ongoing engagement is required. Britain could consider steps as small as offering an educational exchange for students from the DPRK or coordinating projects to improve the health of North Korean citizens. As mentioned above, Kim is seeking foreign investment; Britain could consider reaching out financially if nothing else. The main thing is for Britain to work with the DPRK over a period of several years on a small joint project that is mutually beneficial. Such continued engagement will build trust and cultural understanding at the governmental level, but also between individual citizens learning more about each other’s ways of life. These are unquantifiable benefits, certainly, but that does not make them less valuable.

The above measures will improve Britain’s security by ensuring that the US is not left to unilaterally negotiate with the DPRK. Given Trump’s notoriously ‘erratic … [and] impulsive’ track record of behaviour, and the equally ‘unpredictable’ nature of the dictator Kim, even one ill-advised comment risks the implosion of the negotiations. We have only to look as far back as the summer and autumn of 2017 to see the associated risks of conflict breaking out if this were to occur. Over the medium term, by arranging private talks and engaging in joint projects, the UK would be offering the DPRK a face-saving way to explain increasing economic interaction with the international community. Of course, Britain should not forget that the DPRK commits horrendous human rights abuses, nor that the country has chemical and biological weapons in addition to its nuclear arsenal. In the long term, perhaps the UK can help to address these issues. In the short term, however, even the act of setting up a hotline could help maintain global stability and thereby improve the UK’s national security.

 

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