Commentary: A US-North Korea Denuclearization Agreement, if Reached, Must Not Be Left Open to Destruction by Others

North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un with his country’s future, its children, at youth rally (above). Resolution of the decades long face-off between North Korea and the US, South Korea, and Japan may not assure peace Korean Peninsula. North Korea’s northern neighbors might react poorly to a denuclearization agreement. More specifically, the Russian Federation might view the new link between North Korea and the US as a troubling manipulation of Pyongyang, leading to a US encroachment toward its borders. Hypothetically in response, Moscow might create a buffer zone between the Russian Federation and the Korean Peninsula by grabbing North Korean territory. Without deterrent power, Pyongyang may not be able to prevent that. Those engaged in the denuclearization negotiations should give consideration to this possibility as such a scenario could bust everything they might achieve.

What US President Donald Trump wants from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) is the same end product that was at the root of his decision to talk with North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un in 2018: denuclearization, the end of long-range missile development, the continued return of US remains from the Korean War, and dependability. In exchange, Kim would be assured the mitigation of economic pressure, to include draconian sanctions implemented under a maximum pressure campaign, that has had a considerable deleterious effect not only upon North Korea’s economy but its existence. Additionally, Trump has assured that the prospective partnership with the US would be a long-term and a robust path toward economic vitalization, backed by the experience of Trump and the largess of the US. Indeed, the US would be prepared to support the economic transformation of North Korea, supporting not only the growth of its industrial capabilities and capacity, but introduce North Korean firms to new techniques and technologies for efficient and high quality production. Further, the US would encourage new investment in North Korea from other industrialized countries, to include its neighbors, South Korea and Japan, both of whom it currently views as adversaries. What is being presented to North Korea is the choice to be something other than a stranger, or worse, an outcast, to the rest of the world. Even so, throughout 2019, demurs and objections were heard from senior officials of the North Korean Foreign Ministry. Their comments appeared to echo a speech by Kim at the 1st Meeting of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly, on April 12, 2019, during which he indicated a willingness to negotiate “on the condition that [the US] has the right attitude and seeks a solution that we can share.” Kim further stated at the Supreme People’s Assembly that he would “wait patiently until the end of the year for the United States to make a bold decision.” Kim’s words were uttered long before he and Trump met impromptu at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in Panmunjom on June 30, 2019, but they nevertheless seem to have stuck within the North Korean foreign policy apparatus. In Washington, it all rings bells, reminding of the past and raising questions whether Pyongyang’s ways of thinking and doing things are trapped in amber. For the sake of the negotiations and their potential for enhancing global peace and security, one should hope that is not the case.

Resolution of the decades long face-off between North Korea and the US, South Korea, and Japan, however, may not assure peace on Korean Peninsula. North Korea’s neighbors immediately to its north, China and the Russian Federation, may not react well in the wake of a denuclearization agreement. Based on what it has declared to be its strategic interests, the Russian Federation in particular, might view the new link between North Korea and the US as a threat, and that Washington was simply manipulating Pyongyang in order to move closer to the Russian Federation’s borders. Hypothetically, Moscow might decide to create a buffer zone between the Russian Federation and the Korean Peninsula by grabbing North Korea’s sovereign territory to halt any perceived encroachment by the US. Without deterrent power, it is hard to see how Pyongyang on its own could keep the Russian Federation off its land. Under President Vladimir Putin, the Russian Federation has displayed a propensity for maligned behavior. There is still a chance fate will bring a denuclearization agreement as envisioned by Trump, all of North Korea’s neighbors will put down the shutters and accept the new development, and the Russian Federation, in particular, will show restraint. That would be ineffable. Nevertheless, if there is a chance that everything might not land quietly and gracefully, requisite caution must be shown now by the negotiating parties. Trump must be on guard.

This is the ninth in a line of occasional commentaries concerning the Trump-Kim diplomacy on denuclearization published by greatcharlie since August 2017. An enchantment on the matter and support and enthusiasm for the effort has stimulated the preoccupation. Through its commentaries, greatcharlie has sought to put together the arithmetic of what both sides, the US and North Korea, are doing on the matter. In this commentary, greatcharlie emphasizes that realism must be a key ingredient to the diplomatic process on denuclearization. Nothing discussed here should sound extravagant in today’s world. Together the US and North Korea must open the figurative box from which all the essential qualities and ingredients for a longstanding, sustainable peace are released, and at the same time avoid releasing the makings of conflict from another direction. Both sides must really look at the situation diligently, not dismissing unpleasant possibilities, to ensure negotiators do not construct an agreement that may not serve either side’s purposes in the long-run. Through such a reflective approach, greater unity of purpose and action can grow between the negotiating parties, and the viable and sustainable peace sought more likely will be found. Certum est quod certum reddi potest. (It is certain, whatever can be rendered certain.)Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (right). China and the Russian Federation for the moment may reasonably assured that they can cause Kim to shy away from a denuclearization agreement with the US would not pose difficulties. From what has been seen from the surface so far In terms of its economic well-being, Pyongyang has displayed a curious sort of faith in Beijing and Moscow. Despite sanctions, embargoed financial, energy, and other industrial resources mainly come into the country through various schemes set up by Kim’s Chinese and Russian friends. Putin and Xi control North Korea’s links to the outside world to the extent that its people’s very survival already rests in their hands. Kim can allow that to go on, or seek a better path for his country.

A Concern from Outside the Box or from Left Field?

One might conclude that there is an almost inherent connection, a natural affinity, between North Korea, China, and the Russian Federation. The defunct Soviet Union, the original, unholy bastion of Communism, Marxist-Leninism, and Socialism, was the model from which North Korea structured its government. As it is the first and largest Communist government in Asia, there is much that North Korea has mirrored in a cultural sense from China. In support of Kim’s grandfather and hero, Kim Il-sung, the Soviet Union provided not only weapons, equipment and training for North Korean forces during the Korean War, but also provided Soviet soldiers and airmen to engage covertly in combat operations. The Russian Federation, a former Soviet republic, was at the center of the collapsed superpower, and to a degree has taken on from the Soviet Union the image of caretaker for North Korea. Nevertheless, China’s commitment to its North Korean ally during the war was even greater than that of the Soviet Union in terms of blood and treasure. China has really been the country’s steward and economic lifeline.

Alieno more vivendum est mihi. (I must live according to another’s whim.) China and the Russian Federation for the moment may reasonably assured that it would not pose difficulties to cause Kim to shy away from a denuclearization agreement with the US. Indeed, If Kim possesses any doubts that an agreement would not lead to North Korea moving up and away from the status quo, one might assume the two countries can quietly interfere and exert influence on Kim. From what has been seen from the surface so far In terms of its well-being economically, Pyongyang has shown a curious sort of faith in both Beijing and Moscow. Despite sanctions, embargoed financial, energy, and other industrial resources apparently can still slip into the country through various schemes set up by Kim’s Chinese and Russian friends. Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping control North Korea’s links to the outside world to the extent that its people’s very survival pretty much rests in their hands. Kim can allow things to go on as they are and bend to the will of China and the Russian Federation, or seek a far better path for his country. It would reasonable for him to prefer the later. Having ambition is not an offense.

To the extent that officials in China and the Russian Federation feel North Korea is their ball to play with, an agreement that would create firm, lasting ties of friendship between the US and North Korea would likely stick in their throats. If unable to disrupt, divert, and displace Trump’s efforts with Kim before an agreement is signed, one or both may decide to pose a threat to the agreement afterward. China may just desire to make things a bit more difficult for Kim if he moves alongside the US. However, Beijing knows where to draw the line. The Russian Federation might do far more, which is the point of interest here. As alluded to earlier, at some point, Putin might order Russian Federation forces to move into North Korea’s sovereign territory with the objective of creating a buffer zone between the Russian Federation and the Korean Peninsula. The goal would be to set a limit to the likely perceived encroachment by the US. After its nuclear arsenal might potentially be evacuated under the terms of a denuclearization agreement. North Korea would lack the deterrent power to scare away a Russuan Federation move onto its territory, and could become the victim of just that. A conventional response might also be less feasible as the bulk of North Korea’s conventional forces may continue to face south near the DMZ for a while even after a denuclearization agreement is reached. Korean People’s Army forces of sufficient power are not presently deployed north in a manner to fend off an attempted land grab by the Russian Federation.

The prospective area that might be targeted by Putin for capture is the Hamgyöng Bukto (North Hamgyong) Province. It borders the Russian Federation along approximately 29 kilometers of the Tumen River. The province borders China to its northwest and to its east is the Sea of Japan. A rocket launching site is located at Musudan-ri. The Hoeryong concentration camp is also located in the province. It has some value as a line of access by rail to Russia. However, since no customs area exists there, most bilateral trade between North Korea and the Russian Federation moves first through China, raising costs. Ironically, the border with the Russian Federation, having no huge benefit to Pyongyang for years, could become a liability as a point from which hostile forces could seize the province. The Russian Federation Navy could land significant numbers of forces at Chongjin. The capability and capacity of the Russian Federation armed forces to conduct such an operation was well-demonstrated during their Zapad 2017, Vostok 2018, and Tsentr 2019 exercises.Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (above). Observing Washington getting cozy with Pyongyang has doubtlessly stirred a some sense of trepidation in the Kremlin. Putin has already demonstrated how he responds when he feels a country formerly in the Soviet orbit, is being entertained by the West.  Putin does not want any country friendly with US sharing the Russian Federation’s border without creating some type of buffer zone within that country, if it can. It does not seem too far off from a truism to state that Putin has a penchant for placing Russian Federation forces in other countries, even without welcome. Considering the possibility of an extreme reaction, a military incursion by the Russian Federation into North Korea, would not be out of court.

The View from Russia

Observing Washington getting cozy with Pyongyang has doubtlessly stirred a some sense of trepidation in the Kremlin. If Pyongyang turned toward Washington, Putin might feel Moscow had been figuratively stabbed in the back after having provided North Korea with assistance and support for decades. In terms of his personal relationship with Kim, Putin may feel a deep sense of betrayal. Putin has shown how he will respond when he feels a country formerly in the Soviet orbit, is being pulled toward the West.  Putin does not want any country friendly with US either sharing, or even touching the Russian Federation’s border without creating some type of buffer zone within that country, if it can. (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are lucky that NATO got on top of their situation right away!) Kim and the Workers’ Party of Korea would have the North Korean people believe that their country is a fortress from south to north. A robust, whirlwind of an attack by Russian Federation forces by air, land, and sea, would very likely be able to rapidly displace or destroy any North Korean forces much as a whirlwind has the ability to uproot the staunchest oak tree. On the other hand, if Russian Federation forces are able to act with sufficient stealth and surprise, and–as was the case with Crimea–without any “bang and boom”, they may be able to capture North Hamgyong Province without a struggle. As with Crimea, they may be able to “accommodate” Korean People’s Army troops deployed in the province, perhaps even taking them back to the Russian Federation “to ensure their safety.” Mala mens, malus animus! (Bad mind, bad designs!)

Putin would likely offer some pretense that would “legitimize” the hypothetical incursion. For example, he could conceivably declare that North Hamgyong Province is the territory of the Russian Federation granted by some long-held document signed by Kim Il-sung that was sitting inert in some Russian Federation Foreign Ministry file. Alternatively, Putin might outline how records indicate a monumental, decades old debt is owed to the Russian Federation by North Korea. Alternatively, by entering North Hamgyong, Putin may claim the Russian Federation has taken an in-kind repayment territory of what it calculates should cover the outstanding balance. Then again, Putin might attempt to claim a Russian Federation incursion into the area was executed for humanitarian reasons, shocked by what was being said by former detainees in Moscow about atrocities taking place in the infamous Hoeryong concentration camp. If former detainees are not available, Moscow would find some. Under the second and third scenarios, Putin could leave the door open as to whether the Russian Federation land grab was temporary or permanent.

Long before Trump declared his intent to campaign for the US Presidency, the Russian Federation was concerned with the figurative noose being placed around it by US bilateral relationship building with countries on its borders. That thinking is reflective of the Russian Federation’s defense doctrine as articulated by Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov. Recall that on February 14, 2013 at a conference entitled “Russia’s Military Security in the 21st Century,” Gerasimov provided the first glimpse of Russia’s official assessment of future wars it may face as outlined in the top secret Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation. The clever boots on the Russian Federation General Staff assessed that future conflicts will be “Resource Wars.”  Indeed, they concluded the depletion of energy resources will soon become an ultimate world crisis and overtake regions. Severe shortages of oil, gas and other natural resources would cause prices to steeply rise. Russia’s senior military leaders proffered that outside powers, primarily the US and its allies, may actually invade the Russian Federation from different directions to physically grab its territory and resources. Putin signed the Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation into law on January 29, 2013. That plan, and later variations of it, have guided Russia’s thinking on defense and defense spending since 2016, during which it exceeded 6 percent of Russia’s GDP, and on other national security related and federal law enforcement budgets totaling an additional 3 percent. Further, the 2016 plan has guided the Russian military build-up in the Arctic, the Pacific, the Baltic, in Crimea and on its border with Ukraine. The Russian Federation’s Syria operation is also part of that picture.The prospective area that might be targeted by Putin for capture is the Hamgyöng Bukto (North Hamgyong) Province. Enlarging the map above, one can see the province in the northeast corner of North Korea. It borders the Russian Federation along 18 miles of the Tumen River. The province borders China to its northwest and the Sea of Japan to its east. The border with the Russian Federation could become a key point from which Russian Federation forces could seize the province. The Russian Federation Navy could also land significant numbers of troops at Chongjin. The Russian Federation armed forces’ capability to conduct such an operation was demonstrated by their Zapad 2017, Vostok 2018, and Tsentr 2019 exercises.

Putin Will Take Risks

The hypothetical offered here should have a realistic feel because history has been used as a guide to develop it. Rational inferences are made from what Putin has been saying and doing. For example, with regard to Ukraine, what cannot be forgotten is the text of a lengthy call that Putin had with US President Barack Obama on March 6, 2014, Putin said Ukraine’s government came to power as the result of an “unconstitutional coup” and was “imposing an entirely illegitimate decision onto Crimea and the eastern and southeastern regions of Ukraine. Russia cannot ignore calls for help on this matter and is responding accordingly in full compliance with international law.“ On another occasion, Putin insisted that he was only acting in response to Western behavior toward Russia. When speaking about Ukraine at a conference in Moscow on April 16, 2015, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu explained: “The United States and its allies have crossed all possible lines in their drive to bring Kiev into their orbit. That could not have failed to trigger our reaction.” It does not seem too far off from a truism to state that Putin has a penchant for placing Russian Federation forces in other countries, even without welcome. For that reason, despite the drain on its defense budget, the Russian Federation currently has its troops sitting in the sovereign territory of others, to include: Armenia; Belarus; Georgia; Kazakhstan; Kyrgyzstan; Moldova; Syria; Tajikistan; Vietnam; and, at least a far as Kiev is concerned, Ukraine. Among the countries on that list who have reluctantly accepted the Russian presence or who have very publicly and vigorously demanded that Russia leave their territory are: Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Belarus has grumbled about its Russian “guests”. Thereby, as denuclearization agreement would mean Pyongyang was moving closer to Washington, North Korea could definitely meet the same fate as the countries mentioned. Thus, conceptualizing a possible military incursion into North Korea by the Russian Federation is not out of court.

The Russian Federation is not the only country that has insisted upon placing its troops in another country without welcome in order to shape the situation within it. Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan had a near ravenous desire to carve out a 32 kilometer deep and 480 kilometers wide buffer zone along the entire Turkish border with Syria. Through Operation Peace Spring, Erdogan hoped to establish a safe area in his planned buffer zone for millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey. He also planned in undertaking what he declared to be a counterterrorism operation. Once Turkish forces moved into the autonomous Kurdish territory in Syria, understanding that there would be heavy fighting with the Syrian Kurd People’s Protection Units, militias affiliated with the sworn enemy of the Turkish government, the Kurdistan Workers Party which has been at war with Turkey for decades. Turkey amassed nearly 15,000 Turkish forces along with 14,000 fighters of the Syrian National Army attacked Syria on October 9, 2019. Recall that on December 19  2003, then Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi agreed to voluntarily eliminate his country’s weapons of mass destruction programs, to include its nuclear weapons program which was initiated in 1969 when he took control of Libya’s government. He also agreed to limit Libyan missiles to range no greater than 300 kilometers. US President George Bush stated at the time: “With today’s announcement by its leader, Libya has begun the process of rejoining the community of nations. And Colonel Gaddafi knows the way forward Libya should carry out the commitments announced today.” However, from March 19, 2011 to October 31, 2011, under the mandate of UN Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973, the Obama administration led NATO forces and those other countries under Operation Unified Protector against Gaddafi regime. The multinational force imposed a no-fly zone over Libya and destroyed government forces loyal to Gaddafi in support local fighters that eventually overthrew Gaddafi and killed him on October 20, 2011 alongside a road. (In just mentioning Libya’s elimination of its nuclear weapons, greatcharlie feels it is stepping out on shaky ground. On May 13, 2018, the matter was publicly discussed by the former US National Security Adviser John Bolton while details of the June 12, 2018 Trump and Kim Singapore Summit were still being negotiated by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Indeed, Bolton made the unhelpful suggestion that the “Libya model” of denuclearization could be applied to North Korea, which would require it to eliminate all of its nuclear weapons before it receives economic sanctions relief and other support for it economic vitalization. Much to the dismay of Trump, Bolton’s public suggestion placed the summit in jeopardy somewhat.)

Without reservation, greatcharlie believes that nuclear nonproliferation is the correct direction in which the world should move. Having stated that, and with no intention of being whimsical about the matter, perhaps if Gaddafi had hypothetically retained his nuclear program, even at the aspiring stage it was in when he surrendered it, he would still be alive and in power in Tripoli. In that same vein, one might let oneself go and suggest if Kiev by chance had kept nuclear weapons under its control, Crimea would unlikely have fallen and the Donbass would be less of a mess. Outlining how hypothetically Ukraine could have plausibly retained those weapons would require adding a complicated coda to this section, completely unsuited in size for this commentary. What actually occurred is Ukraine agreed to divest itself of all nuclear weapons and nuclear infrastructure in accord with the Lisbon Protocol In 1992, along with considerable diplomatic effort and political maneuvering, By 1996, Ukraine had returned all of its nuclear warheads to Russia in exchange for economic aid and security assurances, and it became a non-nuclear weapon state party to the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The last strategic nuclear delivery vehicle in Ukraine was eliminated in 2001 under the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. At the time it declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine held the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world, including an estimated 1,800 strategic warheads, 176 long-range ballistic missiles, and 42 strategic bombers.A transit map of North Korea’s North Hamgyong Province (above). In a scenario involving a Russian Federation land grab, Kim might turn toward Beijing to encourage Moscow to withdraw and initiate diplomacy on the matter. However, China would unlikely want to tear itself away from peace over a situation facing North Korea. Indeed, China would likely insist that Pyongyang created the hypothetical situation with Moscow by establishing a relationship with the US. China may not be tied to any strategic alliance with the Russian Federation, but it still has a defense and security partnership of a sort with it. Although that cooperation may not be tied to fixed shared interests, in this hypothetical instance, what is good for the Russian Federation–keeping the US off its border and knocking down the denuclearization agreement–would be good for China, too!

Preparing for the Worst

Kim has always had much to worry about from Putin. It stands out a mile. For that reason, North Korea and its prospective US partner should at least consider the potential of a very aggressive Russian Federation reaction as an important “what if”. The matter merits treatment. Ways to prevent it from happening should be considered, and plans should be developed on how to use means available in response. The lack of right discernment on this hypothetical matter could lead to untold suffering. Unless greatcharlie is extremely mistaken, as far as Pyongyang might be concerned, the most plausible way to cope with the matter, would likely be to maintain some level of deterrent nuclear capability. Washington would hardly want to hear anything of the kind. Nevertheless, North Korea’s nuclear weapons and medium-range nuclear capable missiles alone are military equities it possesses that Moscow may want no part of. Readying those systems for launch could coincide with any discernible build up of Russian Federation forces near or along the northern border. That may have a deterrent effect. If some means to make a Russian incursion impossible or unprofitable is not available, attempting to respond before or after an attack has begun will unlikely amount to much

As has been witnessed, the best available option for the US after the fact in response to the Russian Federation’s incursion into Ukraine has been to train Ukrainian government forces and equip them with a limited set of weapons, mainly anti-tank javelin systems. That effort could only attenuate the considerable tactical advantages that Donetsk and Luhansk secessionist forces possessed as a result of being fully supported by Russia. Indeed, the tank-busting javelins along with tactical training from both US and European military advisers may have enhanced the chances of survival for the Ukraine government forces on the battlefield, but they have not allowed Kiev to successfully defeat or eject Russian and Russian-backed forces from the Donbass. Crimea remains firmly in the Russian Federation’s hands.

There is the possibility that preemptive diplomacy, right now, could successfully assuage concerns about a potential Russian Federation military incursion into response to a denuclearization agreement. That would not mean including Moscow in the diplomatic process of denuclearization to prevent it from engaging in malicious behavior. Although there is plenty available from which one can make inferences, Moscow has not as yet said or done anything directly that would indicate an intention to move into North Korea and create a hypothetical buffer zone across their mutual border. In fact, Russia may never do anything of the sort in the end. Still, there is no reason to wait and see on a matter that could potentially keep an agreement from being fully realized. Accordingly, as a reasonable precaution, Washington may want to broach the matter with Moscow, explaining that its concerns stemmed from its past actions.

The US-North Korea relationship might very well grow into something very special. Still, it is unlikely that in a time soon after the signing of a prospective denuclearization agreement that the Communist regime in Pyongyang, with its self-reliant identity, would seek recourse from Trump and the US to find the answer to a hypothetical Russian Federation military incursion into North Hamgyong. On a personal level, Trump undoubtedly would want to see Kim through his troubles. However, if North Korea is unable to fend off a land grab north, it is unclear what exactly the US could do effectively to repair the situation after the fact. Attempting to drive Russia out of North Korea with economic sanctions in response to a hypothetical incursion may not prove fruitful. That tack has not worked most obviously with its incursion into Ukraine. Pointing out what is obvious, a decision by the US to go toe to toe with Russia with thermonuclear weapons over North Korea would be daylight madness. That would hardly be a genuine option. The chance that any US President would alternatively throw US forces into a conventional fight with the Russian Federation over North Korea’s North Hamgyong Province is less than zero.Imagery of the Russian Federation-North Korea border along the Tumen River with an area of detail showing a railroad bridge across the river (above). Conceivably, Putin may find reason to declare North Hamgyong Province is the territory of the Russian Federation as granted by some document signed by Kim Il-sung that was sitting inert in some Russian Federation Foreign Ministry file. Alternatively, Putin might outline how records indicate a decades old debt is owed by North Korea to the Russian Federation. Putin may claim by entering North Hamgyong, Moscow had taken an in-kind repayment in territory of what it calculates should cover the outstanding balance. Then again, Putin might also attempt to claim an incursion into the area was for humanitarian reasons, given the infamous Hoeryong concentration camp is located in the province.

For Kim, a scenario involving a Russian Federation land grab would be a nightmare. It would also likely be the first occasion when Kim would have a palpable sense of separation from Moscow, and plenty of anxiety would come with that. Kim would never consider capitulation to whom would then be an erstwhile ally. However, dazed and confused by an inundation of likely negative reports about the situation in North Hamgyong, Kim may initially run toward what is familiar. Kim might turn toward Beijing and press it to encourage Moscow to withdraw and initiate diplomacy on the matter. Under such a scenario, China certainly would not want to tear itself away from peace over a situation facing North Korea. Indeed, Beijing would likely take the position that Pyongyang created the hypothetical situation with Moscow by establishing a historic, new relationship with the US. Thus, unwilling to knock on Putin’s door on behalf of its close ally, Beijing’s advice to Pyongyang would likely be “Talk to Moscow!” China may not be tied to any strategic alliance with the Russian Federation, but it still has a defense and security partnership of a sort with it. Although that cooperation may not be tied to fixed shared interests, in this hypothetical instance, what is good for the Russian Federation–keeping the US off its border and knocking down the denuclearization agreement–would be good for China, too! Understanding Putin, Beijing would likely have parsed out the whole matter early on, imagining Putin getting his nose out of joint about a denuclearization agreement, and never ruling out a military incursion. China would likely find it quite imaginable under such a hypothetical that Moscow would expect Pyongyang to rush to the negotiation table despite any fighting that may be underway. To prevent an unanticipated response from China, in such a hypothetical scenario, Moscow presumably would quietly inform Beijing of its planned action and intentions just before any prospective military operation began. Beijing would also undoubtedly place the People’s Liberation Army and People’s Liberation Air Force units near North Korea’s North Hamgyong Province on alert just in case Moscow’s operation went beyond its expressed purpose and scope. From those who have proven to be false one can rarely obtain anything true.

Tu si hic sis, aliter sentias. (If you were in my place, you would think differently.) Pyongyang would hardly be concerned with keeping any prospective new US-North Korea relationship intact if the most senior officials there were convinced the denuclearization agreement was the fillip for a Russian Federation attack. Indeed, a possible consequence of a Russian Federation incursion might be that Pyongyang would turn its back on the US. Under tremendous stress and not thinking clearly, Kim may very likely wonder whether Trump had considered the contingency. Moreover, Kim might conclude that Trump may have actually predicted what would issue with Putin following a denuclearization agreement and sought the agreement knowing North Korea would eventually be left open to attack. If that were to become his mindset, potentially, Kim might even begin to behave once again in a belligerent manner toward Trump, and might once again begin using over-the-top language. That would most likely signal the point at which Kim will have made the decision to negotiate with Moscow on terms for the withdrawal of Russian Federation forces from North Korea’s northern province. With a dodgy leader as Kim, anything might be possible in such a situation.

One could imagine under the hypothetical here that Putin might plan to use force only temporarily in order to drive officials in Pyongyang to quickly resolve the matter to the negotiating table. At the table, Putin’s goal would be to thoroughly destroy the denuclearization agreement and have North Korea make amends for its sin by cutting the cord with the US. Perchance as an artifice, Putin may insist upon a multilateral effort to deal with the North Korean nuclear program. That would likely mean putting the matter before the UN Security Council. Note that using military force to drive countries to the negotiating table was also a favored stratagem of the Obama administration. If Moscow and Pyongyang might have an inkling that they could get away with it, to quell international condemnation of the Russian Federation over a hypothetical military incursion, they might offer a story about some mix-up in timing occurred over a movement by Russian Federation troops to North Korea for a planned joint exercise. They would deny any disharmony existed. In that vein, Pyongyang would probably keep the North Korean people in the dark about the hypothetical incursion. Pyongyang would very likely refrain from making any official reports of the embarrassing episode, hoping it could resolve the matter quickly, and make the whole thing go away.

One could imagine further, under the hypothetical put forward here, that Putin, the maestro himself, might calculate an incursion into North Hamgyong would create political confusion and disarray in Pyongyang. Prospective talks with Moscow in such a situation might take place with or without Kim at the helm in Pyongyang. Kim might even have the courage or insanity to throw the Korean People’s Army into fight with Russian Federation forces. Nevertheless, likely being incapable of ejecting the invaders from the sovereign territory of North Korea, Kim would live under a frightful cloud. He would unlikely be absolved of responsibility for the possible crisis. He could possibly be seen within the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea as inciting the Russian Federation’s action with his denuclearization agreement. A scenario can be imagined in which Kim would no longer be considered fit to serve as the North Korean Communist Movement’s figurative lodestar. The Workers’ Party of Korea might decide to replace him. That would be harder to conceal, but if they did so, they would try to present a plausible reason for the change. Surely there are those in Pyongyang with designs on Kim’s spot. (Note that no matter how things fall, war, peace, or a leadership change, both the Russian Federation and China would be beneficiaries of the success of the US in getting North Korea to denuclearize.)Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (above). Unable to do anything to rectify the hypothetical situation proffered here, Pyongyang would hardly be concerned with keeping any prospective new US-North Korea relationship intact if it indeed was the cause for a Russian Federation attack. One could imagine under the hypothetical proffered here that Putin might plan to use of force only temporarily in order to drive officials in Pyongyang to quickly resolve the matter to the negotiating table. At the table, the goal would be to thoroughly destroy the denuclearization agreement with the US. Perhaps as an artifice, Putin may insist upon a multilateral effort to deal with the North Korean nuclear program.

Matters Pyongyang Should Address in the Diplomatic Process on Denuclearization

Abundans cautela non nocet. (Abundant caution does not harm.) Policymakers and negotiators from the US and North Korea can use available time to think through what to do in such a hypothetical North Hamgyong-grab by Russia. It would seem akin to daylight madness to ignore what might very well knock down whatever might be constructed. Pyongyang supposedly understands Moscow. Therefore, it surely understands that Moscow only sees it as a junior partner, not equal to it. If Pyongyang truly intends to move in the direction of the US, it is hard to imagine North Korean officials would not expect some problems from Moscow. It is unknown to greatcharlie whether North Korea has broached the possibility of a military incursion by the Russian Federation at the table with US negotiators or Pompeo. There has not been any news media reporting concerning the matter. If they have not broached such an important issue, the indications and implications may be that Pyongyang was being disingenuous about its interest in denuclearization and North Korea’s economic vitalization. What their real intentions are, might be put into question. On the other hand, it is imaginable that North Korean foreign and national security officials possibly may not be cleared to discuss what may very well be a sensitive matter for Pyongyang: the Russian Federation’s reaction to a denuclearization agreement! It may be a matter, a secret, only for the purview of Kim and members of the Central Committee. The thing about secrets is that outsiders very rarely know what they are. If US negotiators are not willing to broach and fully address this matter with their North Korean counterparts, they may be setting the stage for failure, taking a huge gamble with something extremely important. There would exist an element of superficiality to the negotiations. If the North Koreans clam up in response to their inquiry, US negotiators could respectfully request that their counterparts seek clarification and instructions on the matter from Pyongyang. It may turn out that the matter would need to be broached at the highest level: Trump and Kim.

If ever North Korean negotiators are queried about their country’s concerns over an aggressive Russian Federation reaction to Kim signing a denuclearization agreement with the US, and they are willing to respond, common sense would demand that they completely outline security concerns Pyongyang feels the new situation might create. It would be the best time to explain any concerns that voiding themselves of nuclear weapons to the point in which they would not have any deterrent nuclear power at all would inherently dangerous, having China and the Russian Federation as neighbors. At that point, US negotiators must be able to offer real solutions to mitigate the North Koreans concerns. If North Korean negotiators, once queried, fail to speak forthrightly, and answer “Who is this Putin fellow to whom you keep referring?” or something to that effect, US negotiators would be provided with a real sense of Pyongyang’s genuineness. North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un observes weapons test (above). If Pyongyang truly intends to move in the direction of the US, it is hard to imagine North Korean officials would not expect some problems from Putin. It is unknown to greatcharlie whether North Korea has broached the possibility of a military incursion by the Russian Federation at the table with US negotiators or Pompeo. There has not been any news media reporting concerning the matter. Policymakers and negotiators from the US and North Korea can use available time to think through what to do in such a hypothetical North Hamgyong-grab by Russia. It would be daylight madness to ignore what could knock down whatever might be constructed.

Suggestions

Quoniam id fieri quod visit non potest, velis id quod possit. (As that which you wish cannot be effected, you should wish for that which may be obtained.) A desire by Kim to retain the ability to deter any sudden, rogue moves by China or Russia, would be the most plausible reason he could offer for retaining his existing nuclear arsenal. If maintaining a portion of its nuclear arsenal as a deterrent becomes a sticking point, one option may be to allow a phased reduction of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal that will eventually result in its complete elimination. (The immediate elimination of North Korea’s long-range missile program must remain a US stipulation.) At the same time, an alternate means for North Korea to secure its northern border could be phased in place. A demonstration of unity might include an offer to have US, South Korean, and Japanese forces of sufficient size and capability to participate in a type of “peace force” that would accompany Korean People’s Army on patrols North Korea’s northern border. While the international troops may not serve as a deterrent to a Russian Federation incursion, they would make a swift, stealthy move far more difficult. Alternatively, Washington could reach an agreement with Pyongyang, under which it would share intelligence on any developments in the Russian Federation that may indicate some ominous military and naval deployments were under way. That alternative would most likely be far more palatable to the North Koreans. While that would be happening, some US and South Korean in phases and at a deliberate pace, could move away from the DMZ, much as Russian Federation forces withdrew from Germany after reunification. US forces could be reallocated to other points in South Korea from which they could continue to reassure allies of the US commitment to their defense and continue to effectively preserve Northeast Asian peace and security.

As aforementioned, nuclear nonproliferation is the correct way for the world to go. Another option that may be very off-putting to US officials would be to allow North Korea to retain a portion of its nuclear arsenal after a phased reduction to serve as a deterrent. That deterrent power must be specified publicly to ensure that the small number of weapons retained would have a deterrent effect. In Washington, there would likely be a political backlash over walking back from the initial demand for the total elimination of all nuclear weapons in North Korea. To ameliorate concerns about that in a practical way, some additional specific steps that could be taken. If the North Koreans could put their suspicions and distrust aside, on-site joint US, North Korean, South Korean, and Japanese inspection teams could be deployed where the nuclear deterrent would be kept in North Korea. As part of the larger denuclearization agreement, military liaison offices could be created in North Korea, South Korea, and Japan for military officers of all countries involved in maintaining peace and security on the Korea Peninsula which would facilitate the deployment of those inspection teams. The prospective North Korean military liaison officers would also have the right to make escorted visits to one another’s bases in the region. An open skies arrangement with regard to flyovers by aerial reconnaissance and surveillance satellites of all sides should be agreed to in additional to physical inspections by prospective military liaison officers. As suggested in the first option, it could also be proposed that US, South Korean, and Japanese forces of sufficient size and capability  serve as a type of “peace force” to patrol the North Korea’s northern border in cooperation with the Korean People’s Army. As an alternative here too, Washington could reach an agreement with Pyongyang, under which it would share intelligence on any developments in the Russian Federation that may indicate some odd, threatening military and naval deployments were under way. With high expectations about their inventiveness, negotiators could certainly devise additional steps to create a more secure situation.

A third option might be for the US to provide Pyongyang with an assessment of the likelihood that the Russian Federation might seek to establish a buffer zone on North Korean territory in reaction to a denuclearization agreement. In following, the suggestion might also be made to Pyongyang that in conjunction with eliminating nuclear weapons from its arsenal, military equities once organized to defend against an attack from the south should be moved north. It was stated in a publicly available portion of 1995 US Defense Intelligence Agency report published by the Federation of American Scientists that North Korea has deployed over 10,000 artillery systems (mostly multiple rocket launchers and self-propelled artillery systems) near the DMZ.  They most likely have many more deployed now. Once those forces begin moving north, they could be kept in cantonments, while fighting positions could be constructed where they could be immediately deployed in an emergency on the northern border. Of course, under this hypothetical scenario, Moscow may declare the redeployment of Korean People’s Army forces as threatening. In response, North Korea could make clear diplomatically that the redeployment is part of comprehensive change in its national defense strategy. It might appear impolitic but it would be truthful for Pyongyang to declare the redeployment as necessary given the Moscow’s pattern of creating buffer zones in its neighbors’ sovereign territory to provide a theoretical bulwark against US and European encroachment toward its border. Moscow may also decide to deploy its own forces near or on the northern border under such a scenario. However, if the North Koreans bring sufficient power to bear, the threat of a possible Russian Federation attack aimed at grabbing territory should be stemmed. While that is happening, some US and South Korean forces could be redeployed to other points in South Korea from which they could continue to preserve Northeast Asian peace and security vis-a-vis China and Russia, who would ostensibly remain as regional adversaries. With Tokyo’s consent, there could potentially be some redeployments to Japan. The DMZ, North Korea-South Korea relations, and the whole unification issue would left to bilateral talks between the two countries. The US could play a supporting role, if asked. Pyongyang may view the proposed assessment and suggestion to redeploy its forces as a manipulation, a ploy to have it drop its defenses south and open the door to a joint US and South Korean invasion. It would be the task of US negotiators to convince their North Korean counterparts by words and deeds that such is not the case.US, South Korean, and North Korean troops handling a US soldier’s remains from the Korean War (above). If maintaining a portion of its nuclear arsenal as a deterrent becomes a sticking point, one option may be to allow a phased reduction weapons that will eventually result in its complete elimination. In tandem with that, an alternate means for North Korea to secure its northern border could be put in place. A demonstration of support and unity might include an offer to have US, South Korean, and Japanese forces of sufficient size and capability to participate in a type of “peace force” that would accompany the Korean People’s Army on patrols of North Korea’s northern border. While the international troops may not be a deterrent to an incursion, they would make a swift, stealthy move far more difficult.

After reaching a denuclearization agreement, North Korea should no longer think solely about directing its military equities at the US, South Korea, and Japan. Pyongyang must be assured and understand that their military equities would be directed at North Korea. As explained here, the sizable and capable armed forces of China and the Russian Federation would still pose threats to their security, and possibly North Korean security. Training exercises and testing of weapons for self-defense is a right and even necessity that should not simply be stripped from any country in the region. One must also consider practical issues, for example, the metal of armored and mechanized weapons tends to fatigue when sitting idle. However, the agreement might support a move away from extempore tests and exercises and toward greater transparency among military forces. Countries in the region could agree to engage in limited exercises and testing during scheduled dates and times determined via discussions among senior military and diplomatic officials. Critical to maintaining peace and security following a prospective agreement would be the construction of some means for the US, South Korea, Japan, and North Korea to monitor developments, tests, deployments, and other activities as partners to ensure peace.

To create firm channels of communication that will strengthen confidence and dissipate distrust, there must be regular interactions between non-military government officials working on North Korea’s economic vitalization. Interactions should move from likely being stolid and officious to more personable yet still professional. Advisory teams from all governments could interact very closely to guarantee internationals in North Korea are well-informed of the laws under which they must operate, and informed of culturally expected behavior by guests in North Korea. This will help eliminate mysteries about the country which was mostly closed to outsiders, and allow visiting officials and businessmen proceed with their work with confidence and walk with an assured step. The influx of well-trained and acculturated business people, experts on North Korea, will hopefully facilitate that. Success might be measured empirically by the number of congenial linkages created between US and North Korean firms. Eventually, US firms might receive contracts to provide supplies and perform services.US President Donald Trump (left) and Chairman Kim Jong-un (right) at the DMZ. The entire diplomatic process on denuclearization might seem much as a rabbit hole to Kim, given the many facets and angles that he needs to keep track of and consider as they evolve, One might have expected Kim at some point might have thrown his hands up over the whole denuclearization matter because it was all too rich for his blood. Again, Trump must be given credit for providing strength, confidence, and friendship, and assuring Kim that he will standby him before and after any denuclearization agreement is reached. Further, he assured Kim that he will go as far as he can to buttress the economic vitalization of North Korea. The situation is challenging, but it has a handle.

The Way Forward

It is burdensome to hold on a hope that has not yet been fulfilled. Impatience, however, can poison diplomacy, and is rarely viewed as sensible by those in foreign services worldwide who instead extol statesmanship and sangfroid. To that extent, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US negotiators have responded to maximalist North Korean demands and cavilling with anodyne statements. In seeking to create a sustainable peace in Northeast Asia, Trump has demonstrated once again that he is willing to take on situations that are not easy. While negotiations appear to still be moving through the confidence building stage between negotiating parties, defusing old animus, the fact that everything has actually reached this point must be credited to Trump. With the many facets and angles that Kim needs to keep track of and consider as they evolve, the entire denuclearization process might seem much as a rabbit hole to him. One might have expected Kim at some point might have thrown his hands up over the whole denuclearization matter because it was all too rich for his blood. Again, Trump must be given credit for providing strength, confidence, and friendship, and assuring Kim that he will standby him before and after any denuclearization agreement is reached. Further, he assured Kim that he will go as far as he can to buttress the economic vitalization of North Korea. The situation is challenging, but it has a handle.

What has been presented here are aspects of a hypothetical scenario in which a denuclearization agreement could ironically open another door to a conflict on Korean Peninsula. In that struggle, North Korea would not be pitted against the US, South Korea, and Japan. Rather, North Korea might find itself struggling against its longtime companion, the Russian Federation. Policymakers and negotiators on both sides must consider the situation on the Korean Peninsula both as it is now and how it might appear after an agreement is reached. Likely threats to a prospective denuclearization agreement must be sorted out with a similar level of interest as sanctions relief is for one party and the drawdown of the nuclear arsenal and long-range missiles is for the other. While impatience may poison for diplomacy, superficiality is its bane. Policymakers and negotiation teams may need to take a new, diligent look across all aspects of the situation, paying as close attention as possible to potential unpleasant developments that may arise once an agreement is reached. If a denuclearization agreement that is genuinely viable and sustainable cannot be found due to new wrinkles, perhaps an agreement somewhat short of what was originally sought, could be considered. In the extreme, the undesirable and regrettable decision to stop seeking an agreement altogether may need to be made. The collapse of the process would not at all be a blot on Trump’s escutcheon. However, the curtain has not fallen yet. Hopefully, both sides can come up with a smart solution for this important issue. Omnia prius experiri, quam armis, sapientem decet. (It becomes a wise man to try all methods before having recourse to arms.)

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