James is an MA student at King’s College London studying International Conflict Studies.
Since the unprecedented breakthrough of dialogue between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in early 2018, numerous diplomatic hurdles have challenged the fragile relations between the two nations. Although the Singapore summit held in June, 2018 was steeped in symbolic value, there was a glaring lack of substance within the agreement signed by DPRK Chairman Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump.[i] This issue was echoed with the Hanoi Summit of February, 2019, which was abruptly cut short because the negotiating parties were “unable to bridge the chasm between negotiating stances”[ii]. An unwelcome outcome that was compounded by the breakdown of working-level talks held in Stockholm in October, 2019.[iii]
In attempting to determine why U.S.-DPRK relations have faltered most analysts frequently isolate denuclearization from other elements of Korean security and regional stability. By placing the nuclear negotiations in a separate silo, or atop a hierarchy, it damages the influence other diplomatic approaches can provide. By widening the scope of U.S.-DPRK interaction to improve conventional military confidence building measures (CSBMs) and support the use of multilateral forum, stronger diplomatic ties may be forged. Consequentially the gauge of geopolitical risk on the Korean peninsula can be further minimalized.
A dimension of inter-Korean security that has suffered from this nuclear tunnel-vision is inter-Korean agreements such as the Panmunjom Declaration (Spring, 2018) and Comprehensive Military Agreement, or CMA (September, 2018), and their efforts to implement non-nuclear confidence and security building measures.[iv] The Comprehensive Military Agreement (CMA) in particular outlines actions designed to reduce the potential for military mishaps between ROK/U.S. and DPRK forces.[v] This includes the removal of both ROK and DPRK guard posts and the use of unarmed personnel along the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), a notable step in reducing tension at a past focal point where the risk of accidental engagement was omnipresent.[vi] The CMA also establishment no-fly zones around border areas for drones and conventional aircraft, a reduction in heavy artillery units and the creation of a buffer zone along the Northern Limit Lin (NLL) in the West (Yellow) Sea.[vii]
Despite the potential of the aforementioned CSBMs, the implementation of the CMA and Panmunjom Declaration has faced some stagnation. In a report assessing the status of implementation only 36% of objectives were met by the end of 2018.[viii] While the de-escalation of conventional military threats has been productive, countless violations have been cited (not including the 12 small/mid-range ballistic missile tests carried out by the DPRK), and the implementation process has slowed significantly.[ix][x] Reports have also surfaced that the DPRK is also more enticed by the bilateral nuclear negotiations with the U.S., making the implementation of inter-Korean agreements like the CMA secondary at most.[xi]
Several steps can be taken to revive momentum for the CMA, which include the DPRK allowing greater observational capability by the United Nations Command that has been limited in its ability to enforce the CMA. An objective that may be more obtainable with greater support from the U.S. on CSBM implementation[xii]. Upon inception, the CMA was met with disdain by the U.S. administration, which saw it as offering “too much for too little” in reference to denuclearization.[xiii] This is a fundamental misconception of how the inter-Korean agreements serve a mutually supportive role rather than a nuclear only oriented set of documents that should be adjusted.
Additionally, alterations can be made to the operational structure and deployment of U.S. and South Korean forces to reinforce the effectiveness of the CMA and assist with greater implementation.[xiv] For example this past August saw the resumption of annual (albeit scaled down) ROK/U.S. military drills, which were headed by a South Korean General for the first time, a sign of increased responsibility for the ROK.[xv] Such steps can help place an onus on the inter-Korean security through independent stability, enhancing support for CSBMs and help decentralize negotiations from focusing solely on the DPRK’s WMD program.
In tandem with efforts to supporting conventional military CSBMs, multilateral fora provide enhanced legitimacy to any progress negotiated till now and prevent backsliding towards a return to the tumultuous affairs of 2017.[xvi] Although not always fruitful in past attempts, the utilization of established multilateral organizations, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) could prove valuable. This opportunity is even more poignant since a formal invitation was offered to the DPRK by the South Korean delegation to ASEAN to participate in the Commemorative Summit to be held in Busan, South Korea on November 25-26.[xvii] Not only could the partial integration of North Korea into ASEAN elevate the status of non-nuclear elements to Korean Peninsula security, but provide the ability for U.S. and DPRK officials to meet on the sideline.[xviii] With the U.S. representation at ASEAN events significantly downgraded under the Trump administration (President Obama attended all but one U.S.-ASEAN and East Asia Summit event by contrast), the U.S. may be missing an opportunity to engage with the DPRK at the working level.
Much to the malign of President Trump, there is no silver bullet solution to the problem of Korean denuclearization, as recent developments have reflected. Yet, while the issue’s complexity cannot be understated, the inability to widen the top-tier dialogue to incorporate inter-Korean security measures is eliminating potential pathways to progress. Through engaging with conventional military CSBMs and supplementing bilateral talks with multilateral input, the U.S. can coax the DPRK into upholding agreements like the CMA more rigorously, and broaden the axis of negotiations, helping to prevent regression into greater regional instability.