On November 29, North Korea tested the Hwasong-15, their newest long-range missile experts deem capable of striking anywhere in North America. It climbed to a height of 4500 kilometres before diving into the Sea of Japan. The launch followed two rounds of successful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests by North Korea in August and September.
A week later, American and South Korean forces began their annual joint military drills over the Korean Peninsula. The exercises included a record twelve American F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters, warplanes that would be tasked with destroying the North’s nuclear sites in the event of war. Codenamed “Vigilant Ace”, the massive five-day exercise involved over 230 combined aircraft, the allies’ largest show of strength yet.
Somewhere a drumbeat pounds.
Two years since its signing, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran deal, has curbed another nuclear crisis. Today, Iran’s economy is recovering from the cold grip of international sanctions. In return, Washington and her allies are breathing easier as UN inspectors have on-demand access to Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities.
The deal is the result of years of multilateral diplomacy between Iran and six major world powers. In July 2015, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — China, Russia, France, Britain, and the U.S. — alongside Germany, agreed on terms slated to bring reintegration and stability to the Middle East.
As Korea’s nuclear crisis quickly escalates, an imitation deal is the only realistic solution.
This wouldn’t be the first time it’s been tried.
The 1994 Agreed Framework, the original ‘Korea deal’ brokered by the Clinton Administration and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il, arranged for the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in exchange for the suspension of the U.S.’ military exercises in South Korea and aid in the form of heavy oil. The U.S., under President George W. Bush, withdrew from the deal in 2002, causing Pyongyang to restart the nuclear programme which now yields between 20 and 60 nuclear warheads.
Negotiations must reconvene. This time, with the lessons of Iran’s JCPOA and the compromise of Clinton’s Agreed Framework. It will require special dispensation from a North Korea deeply skeptical toward the United Nations and a US administration noncommittal in the face of multilateralism.
Should negotiations resume, Pyongyang has already made its priority clear. For years, North Korean leaders have offered to freeze their nuclear program in return for the U.S. scrapping all joint military exercises south of the DMZ. If international agents are granted inspection authority, this could stop the North from further developing a nuclear payload capable of fitting on a long-range missile — an ability many experts deny the North has.
Still, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has repeatedly rejected this offer, arguing that it would set in stone North Korea’s existing, illegal nuclear capabilities.
To provide the level of assurance that the international community wants, the same UN-led inspections regime tasked with monitoring Iran should have access to North Korean facilities. Like Tehran, Pyongyang would not be required to fully denuclearize.
In turn, the U.S. and South Korea would acquiesce to the North’s demands to scrap their air drills. Additional concessions such as limited sanctions relief and a formal assurance against a preemptive strike may be persuasive enough for Pyongyang to once again open their country to international monitors. Similar to the Iran deal, sanctions must be able to snap-back should Pyongyang fail to comply.
For this, a UN endorsement is required. This implies that the remaining four permanent members of the Security Council must be party to the negotiations. For the U.S. to save face in the eyes of their regional allies, South Korea and Japan also need a seat at the table.
Multilateral diplomacy is the only tenable solution to the standoff. However, that Trump has threatened to terminate the Iran agreement gives Pyongyang all the more reason to believe that America cannot be trusted to keep its end of the deal. The question then becomes whether America has any credibility left to pull off the job.
And louder the drum beats on.
Liam Hunt is a freelance writer and published author on nuclear diplomacy and US foreign relations.