A Complicated Story: Why the United States Needs A North Korea Roadmap
As JRR Tolkien once said, “If you’re going to have a complicated story you must work to a map.” Few stories are as complicated as the story of Korean peninsula politics. All the more reason to have a plan. A former Korea Desk Officer at the US Department of State and current associate at West Wing Writers, Mintaro Oba lays out the rationale and historical precedence to a US roadmap for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula. As the Trump administration prepares for a possible summit with Kim Jong-un, Oba sees the time as now. — Steven Denney, Senior Editor
A Complicated Story: Why the United States Needs A North Korea Roadmap
by Mintaro Oba
A former senior US official once told me that North Korean actions are like a Taco Bell menu — there are only a few preset items that North Korea chooses from over and over again. Nuclear tests. Missile launches. Conditional engagement.
While North Korea’s actions may seem surprising and unpredictable, informed observers of North Korea recognize that North Korea’s playbook — its Taco Bell menu of options — has long been consistent. The common threads in North Korea’s playbook are alternating between carrots and sticks for maximum effect — and always taking the initiative. For years, North Korea has defined exactly when and how it will raise tensions or conduct charm offensives — and it is the United States that has been forced to react on North Korea’s terms.
As President Trump and his administration prepare for a possible summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, they need to understand that North Korea is going to come prepared to take the initiative — perhaps with some proposal for talks under North Korea’s conditions. An ill-prepared president, eager for a win and put into a reactive position, is not a recipe for success. If we want to make the most out of the tactical opportunity afforded by a Trump-Kim Jong-un summit, the United States needs to come to the table with its own initiative, designed to gauge North Korea’s reaction and define the narrative of the summit on our own terms.
The best approach? Propose a roadmap for North Korea, laying out specific steps ultimately ending in peace, denuclearization, and normalization.
The Advantages of Political Roadmaps | The United States has used roadmaps as a diplomatic strategy before — most prominently in 2003 when it debuted a roadmap for Middle East peace. That roadmap emerged as a suggestion from the Jordanian foreign minister to turn President George W. Bush’s Middle East peace vision into something actionable — but it was also embraced by the State Department as a way to retake the initiative in the bureaucratic debate from the White House and get more control of the process.
But, as former Ambassador James Larocco recounts, there was a more strategic reason for the roadmap as well. “Wherever I served in the region, when there was a peace process, the temperature went down in our relationships, allowing us more time and latitude in pursuing our other strategic interests, regional or bilateral,” he told the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, “this is exactly what happened from 2002-2004, and The Roadmap, as it was called, took pressure off everyone from our soldiers in Afghanistan to our diplomats in Rabat as our priorities shifted to the wards in the east.”
These benefits of the Middle East peace process are among the ones we could also see from a North Korea roadmap process. An ongoing diplomatic process would increase the relevance of the career experts at the State Department. It would provide a means for turning vision into results. And it would cool tensions in the Korean Peninsula, giving us more strategic flexibility in the region overall.
But proposing a roadmap for North Korea also has benefits unique to this particular situation, as well.
Managing Expectations, Limiting Room for Failure | For one thing, it would help manage expectations for the summit and limit the room for failure. Many commentators have expressed concerns that Donald Trump is not equipped to handle the substantive problems of the North Korea situation effectively, that he’ll be easily outmaneuvered by Kim Jong Un, and that there is a high cost to failure. “Everyone should be aware that this dramatic act of diplomacy by these two unusual leaders, who love flair and drama, may also take us closer to war,” Center for Strategic and International Studies Korea Chair Victor Cha warned in The New York Times. “[F]ailed negotiations at the summit level leave all parties with no other recourse for diplomacy.”
That’s why it’s critical that we frame this summit not as a high-stakes negotiation, but as the beginning of a more substantive process. Proposing a roadmap would help us do that, signifying that we consider the summit the beginning of a process and highlighting that our intentions are to follow the summit with more diplomacy rather than “fire and fury.”
The most important benefit of proposing a roadmap, of course, is forcing North Korea to respond on our terms. The key characteristic of North Korean charm offensives — such as proposing a peace treaty — is that these initiatives are done publicly, and framed in a way that allows North Korea to benefit whether the United States accepts or rejects the proposal. If the United States accepts, North Korea gets to engage on terms it set. If the United States rejects the proposal, the United States looks like the obstacle to peace while deepening the divide between the United States and other partners — like China — who see the North Korean proposal as reasonable.
It’s time for us to flip this playbook on its head. The United States should design a roadmap that the international community will see as a bold and courageous step founded on reasonable terms — and propose it publicly right before the summit, making North Korea’s acceptance of the roadmap a test of its good faith. We benefit whatever the result.
On the Road to Leverage | A roadmap would also help address one big challenge for our North Korea policy: deriving real leverage over North Korea from our pressure campaign. “Maximum pressure” — begun in the Obama administration and continued on the same trajectory under Trump — has become an end in itself. “While some may say the pressure game is working,” the US-Korea Institute’s Jenny Town tells Vox, “the question is: working toward what?”
A roadmap directs that pressure toward achieving concrete benchmarks. Imagine that the roadmap starts with talks at the US Special Representative for North Korea Policy level and moves on to talks with progressively more senior officials once certain benchmarks are achieved. With each new phase on the roadmap, there are certain incentives, including lifting some degree of pressure. But going backwards on commitments returns the roadmap to the relevant earlier phase and snaps back the pressure.
Thus, a roadmap allows us to mobilize both carrots and sticks systematically and strategically. With a roadmap, there would finally be defined target objectives for pressure, making it easier to justify tightening pressure to China and other international partners for the purposes of getting North Korea to the next phase on the roadmap or imposing costs for going back on its commitments. And by creating a defined way for both engagement and pressure to work together, a roadmap could help smooth over damaging battles between different camps on North Korea policy within the US government, as well as any gaps between the United States and South Korea.
Critics will point out that there are many ways for a North Korea roadmap to fall apart. After all, the Middle East peace roadmap didn’t go very far. But this one is worth trying — if only for the fact that any peace process, no matter how long it lasts, yields the strategic and tactical benefits discussed above. And if North Korea rejects the roadmap or stops early in the process, that will simply give us a stronger rationale for increasing pressure.
Whatever the result of the Trump-Kim Jong Un summit — or if it even happens — nothing will change the fact that the road toward peace and denuclearization is long and complicated. Let’s start with a map.