The ICAS Lectures


Last Resort Diplomacy: Play the Oil Cutoff Card

Larry A. Niksch

ICAS Spring Symposium

May 19, 2017 Friday 1:30 pm - 4:30 pm
Allison Auditorium
The Heritage Foundation
224 Massachusetts Avenue NE
Washington DC 20002

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

Biographic sketch & Links: Larry A. Niksch

Last Resort Diplomacy: Play the Oil Cutoff Card

Larry A. Niksch1
Remarks at the Institute for Corian-American Studies Seminar, May 19, 2017

The Institute for Corean-American Studies asked me to speak today because I have written since early 2016 three published papers proposing that the United States propose a resolution in the United Nations Security Council mandating that all U.N. member states cease shipments of oil to North Korea and refrain from assisting any other state that attempts to supply North Korea with oil. As the title of my presentation states, this would be a diplomatic initiative of last resort—a last resort or final opportunity to prevent North Korea from developing and deploying a comprehensive nuclear-missile arsenal that would give it the capability to attack South Korea, Japan, and the United States. North Korea already has that capability to strike South Korea and Japan with Nodong missiles and up to 40 nuclear warheads designed for the Nodongs. North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, has proclaimed the next goal to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and nuclear warhead for that missile that could reach U.S. territory, including the continental United States. Most experts believe that North Korea is two to four years from developing an ICBM. Kim Jong-un is close to achieving the supreme strategic objective that Kim Il-sung, his grandfather, created and his father, Kim Jong-il, advanced.

Why an Oil Cutoff Card?

After nearly 25 years of diplomacy aimed at preventing North Korea from achieving this supreme strategic objective, time simply is running out. But, why should the United States play an oil cutoff diplomatic card? I offer several assumptions, known and probable, that support proposing an oil cutoff. The first is that after ten years, existing sanctions have failed. A consensus exists that sanctions, indeed, have failed. A second assumption is that because North Korea is close to achieving a complete nuclear-missile attack capability, any new sanctions will have to inflict extreme pain on the North Korean elite and military to force the regime to reconsider its supreme strategic objective for its nuclear-missile program. In short, the closer North Korea gets to its supreme strategic objective, the more pain it will have to feel before it would consider giving up this objective.

A third assumption is that North Korea will have to conduct two or three more nuclear tests in order to develop a nuclear warhead for an ICBM. It also likely will have to conduct at least one test of a pure ICBM that would demonstrate a capability to reach the United States. That no doubt would bring the issue of stronger sanctions before the U.N. Security Council.

But, a fourth assumption is that if North Korea achieves a comprehensive nuclear-missile attack capability, the international sanctions regime will erode and likely collapse. Several governments, probably beginning with China and Russia, will decide that they must adopt new policies toward North Korea and make their own individual deals with the Pyongyang regime. Other governments, including European and Southeast Asian governments, likely would follow their lead. These could include South Korea.

Any final assumption must address the decisive question: Would an oil cutoff inflict enough pain on the North Korean elite and military to create a possibility that Kim Jong- un and his leadership would be forced to consider giving up their goal of a comprehensive nuclear-missile attack arsenal? It seems to me that there is a certainty that an oil cutoff would inflict more pain on the regime and its supporters than have existing sanctions. Within four to six months of the imposition of a cutoff, North Korea’s gasoline-based civilian transportation system would become paralyzed. Reports in April 2017 of gasoline shortages in Pyongyang indicate that North Korea’s supply of gasoline even in normal times barely meets the needs of the transportation system. Hydro-electric facilities fueled by oil would begin to shut down, creating acute electricity shortages even in Pyongyang. North Korea’s military would face dwindling supplies of gasoline and aviation fuel. Military exercises and mobility would experience increasing difficulties.

This impact would create for the regime a fundamental decision concerning the future of the nuclear-missile program. No one can predict the decision that Kim Jong-un would make. However, the emergence of a paralyzed elite and military would create at least the possibility that the regime might change course and choose to limit or even roll back the nuclear-missile program and offer concessions in negotiations. An oil cutoff represents the only remaining untried sanction that could produce such a possibility.

U.S. Strategy and the Role of China

China supplies North Korea with about 90 percent of its oil. A U.S. oil cutoff resolution in the Security Council would confront the Chinese Government with a fundamental choice in its policy toward North Korea. The long-held view has been that China would veto such a resolution. Until now, that view appears to have been correct. Thus, a U.S. resolution would have to be accompanied by a U.S. strategy aimed at dissuading China from vetoing.

Incentives to China. It seems to me that such a strategy could begin by offering the Chinese Government incentives if did not veto and imposed a Chinese oil cutoff in accord with the resolution. Incentives would constitute elements of U.S. policy toward North Korea that China wants the United States to adopt. In short, a balance between a key U.S. objective in its strategy toward North Korea and proposals and positions that China has taken. In dealing with China on North Korea, striking such a balance is necessary; but the Trump Administration must avoid a key mistake of the recent past in allowing China to influence U.S. policy-makers, especially in the Bush Administration, to abandon key U.S. proposals and positions in favor of unwise accommodation to Chinese pressure for the United States to modify and reduce in scope U.S. proposals and positions toward North Korea

First, the Trump Administration would offer to return to six party talks without pre- conditions; it would tell the Chinese Government that if China called a six party meeting in Beijing, the United States would participate. Since the six party talks collapsed at the end of 2008, China constantly has urged the United States to support a renewal of negotiations.

Another incentive would be to offer China a suspension for at least one year of the operation of the THAAD missile defense system that the United States has installed in South Korea. China has opposed strongly the THAAD system. It has imposed economic sanctions on South Korea in an attempt to pressure the South Korean Government to reject THAAD. Derailing THAAD is a high priority for the Chinese Government.

Some American advocates of the THAAD system in South Korea argue that THAAD must be operational immediately in order to protect U.S. military forces in South Korea from a North Korean nuclear-missile attack. That argument has merit. However, it seems to me that the United States still has a period of time before the North Korean leadership would consider a nuclear attack on South Korea. The reasoning of the North Korean leadership seems to be that it must achieve first a comprehensive nuclear-missile attack arsenal before it could consider a unilateral nuclear attack. Without an arsenal of nuclear-tipped ICBMs capable of striking the United States, North Korea still is short of this goal. The United States, thus, has a space of two years or more in which the danger of a North Korean nuclear attack on South Korea appears low.

It seems to me that the relatively low risk to U.S. troops in South Korea and the possible impact of an oil cutoff on North Korean policy justifies offering China a one year suspension of THAAD if China would not veto an oil cutoff resolution and would implement an cut off of oil to North Korea.

A third incentive would be to offer China cooperation in six party talks in developing a common negotiating agenda toward North Korea that would open the prospect of progress toward rolling back the North Korean nuclear-missile program. There are some negotiating proposals and goals upon which the United States and China could agree. The Trump Administration would need to make clear to the Chinese that U.S.-China negotiations over a common agenda would begin only after passage of a U.S. resolution and full implementation of an oil cutoff.

A fourth incentive already has been suggested by the Trump Administration: a cessation of talk by U.S. officials of a U.S. goal of "regime change" in North Korea and a disavowal by Trump officials of any such goal. Since the mid-1990s, talk by U.S. officials of North Korean "collapse" or "regime change" has contradicted and weakened the U.S. objective of strengthening cooperation with China. Readings of the official Chinese media over two decades make clear that such U.S. talk raises Chinese suspicions that the real U.S. goal is regime collapse rather than denuclearization. The Clinton, Bush, and Obama lacked any real strategy to bring about a North Korean collapse/regime change, and they gained nothing by their repeated rhetoric about it. The Trump Administration is on the right track in ending this rhetoric.

The Trump Administration also needs to end statements that Kim Jong-un is "crazy" and "unstable." Those statements feed into the "regime change" U.S. rhetoric. The real argument to make with Chinese officials is that an oil cutoff would create enough pressure on Kim Jong-un to force him to make a rationale decision of concessions regarding his nuclear-missile program—that Kim and his associates will react rationally if the regime and its supporters feel acute pain from an oil cutoff.

Verification. The balance I am suggesting between the U.S. goal of an oil cutoff and U.S. incentives to China must insure that an oil cut is implemented by China. The United States should insist that there be verification of a Chinese oil cutoff. China is known to supply North Korea with oil in two ways. One is an oil pipeline that runs across the China-North Korea border at Dandong. The second is shipments by sea to the North Korean west coast port of Nampo. An agreed-upon verification mechanism should cover both of these.

Wide-Spread Publicity of the U.S. Resolution and Incentives Offered to China. In conjunction with U.S. incentives, a second element of U.S. strategy would be to initiate extensive publicity to the U.S. resolution and the incentives offered to China. Past reports have described private discussions between Bush and Obama Administration officials and Chinese officials about an oil cutoff. The reports stated that the Chinese consistently rejected the U.S. suggestion. The Bush and Obama administration went no further than "secret" diplomacy.

That must change. The highest level Trump Administration officials should publicize the U.S. resolution, the rationale behind it, China as the source of most of North Korea’s oil, and the incentives offered to China. U.S. publicity should be directed especially to informed opinion in China, which has turned critical of North Korea in recent years. The U.S. Ambassador in Beijing, U.S. contacts with the Chinese media, internet contacts with Chinese, and broadcasts over Voice of America and Radio Free Asia combined would disseminate the U.S. proposal and its justification widely in China.

About three weeks ago, an editorial in the Chinese newspaper, Global Times, asserted that China should end oil shipments to North Korea if North Korea conducted another nuclear test. The Global Times is a main newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party. It often takes strong editorial opinions that sometimes vary from the official positions of the Chinese Government.

This editorial has at least two meanings. One is that an oil cutoff is being discussed in high, informed Chinese circles. The second is that an oil cutoff is being debated within the Communist Party and the Chinese Government.

A U.S. oil cutoff resolution and high publicity at this time likely would produce a real debate in China, both in the public and within the government. This would be a factor working against an automatic Chinese Government decision to veto the U.S. resolution. The Chinese Government would face pressure to publicize an explanation of a veto, unlike most of its arbitrary policy decisions. It would face more negative reactions from the growing number of Chinese critics of North Korea. It also would face more negative reactions abroad to any continuing Chinese proposals/demands for a shutting down of the THAAD system in South Korea and a return to six party talks.

U.S. Warnings to China

It seems to me that if China should veto a U.S. oil cutoff resolution in the U.N. Security Council, the Trump Administration ought to issue two warnings to the Chinese Government. The first would be that the United States would reintroduce the resolution in the Security Council in response to the next North Korean nuclear test or long range missile test. The second warning would be that if China vetoed the resolution a second time, the United States would initiate sanctions against Chinese banks and enterprises that, the U.S. Treasury Department knows, are doing illegal business with North Korea. Sanctions against these Chinese banks and enterprises long have been proposed and under discussion in the United States, including Congress. Linking this action specifically to a U.S. oil cutoff resolution again would confront the Chinese Government with having to make a fundamental choice in its North Korea policy. And given the consequences of a failure to impose an oil cutoff sanction on North Korea—a full scale North Korean nuclear-missile attack capability—the warning to China would be appropriate.

The Oil Cutoff Proposal and Trump Strategy

Arguably, the most important element of the Trump Administration’s policy toward North Korea is the Trump "charm offensive" toward China that seeks China’s cooperation with the United States. President Trump now heaps praise on Chinese President Xi Jin-ping. He accuses North Korea of "disrespecting" President Xi. He praises China for doing more to dissuade North Korea from continuing its nuclear-missile program. He has softened his criticism of China’s trade policies in order to attract greater Chinese cooperation. U.S. criticism of China’s expansion in the South China Sea has dwindled. As stated previously, the Administration has disavowed "regime change" as a U.S. policy objective.

The Trump Administration has revealed no details of its discussions with the Chinese about North Korea. The Trump Administration may have urged the Chinese in private to cut off oil to North Korea and that the Chinese did not reject it outright. That could be a meaning of the Global Timeseditorial. It also is possible that China has warned North privately that it would cut off oil shipments if North Korea conducts another nuclear test, as the editorial advocated. However, it is likely that the Chinese Government would not have informed U.S. officials of such a warning. All of this, however, may be a façade similar to previous U.S. administrations’ praise of "Chinese cooperation."

The Trump charm offensive should include a proposal to China to cutoff oil. If it does not include such a proposal, I predict it will fail.

If North Korea does not conduct another nuclear test by October 2017, this would suggest that China has issued such a warning to Pyongyang. That would be progress; but the situation would contain three weaknesses. First, such a Chinese warning likely would apply only to a nuclear test and not necessarily apply to a North Korean test of a long range missile with ICBM range or an intermediate range missile that could reach Guam and the U.S. bases on that U.S. territory. North Korea’s continued, frequent missile tests indicate that any Chinese warning does not cover missile tests. Second, it would not prevent North Korea from expanding its arsenal of existing nuclear warheads for Nodong and Scud missiles. Third, it would not bind other countries to refrain from shipping oil to North Korea, particularly Russia and Iran.

It would be advisable for the Trump Administration to take three steps in this situation. The first would be to inform the Chinese that U.S. incentives to China, as discussed, would be forthcoming only if a Chinese oil cutoff warning to North Korea included future missile tests. Second, if North Korea tests a missile that has the capability to strike U.S. territory, including Guam, the Trump Administration should propose an oil cutoff resolution in the Security Council.

Don’t Ignore Russia. The third step would be to duplicate U.S. diplomacy toward China with equal diplomacy toward Russia. This should apply to either a U.S. oil cutoff resolution or to a bilateral U.S. proposal to China. This would be necessary to dissuade Vladimir Putin from deciding to ship Russian oil to North Korea as a substitute for a cutoff of China’s oil, or worse, to allow Iran to ship oil to North Korea by a route across Russia. Iran’s strategic collaboration with North Korea, including nuclear and missile collaboration, gives Iran much incentive to try to supply oil to Pyongyang if necessary.

Bush Administration officials have acknowledged that during the 2003-2008 six party talks, the Bush Administration treated Russia as an afterthought and concentrated U.S. diplomacy on China. That mistake should not be made again. Don’t ignore Putin in U.S. policy toward North Korea!

In short, the Trump Administration should give China only a limited amount of time to produce a cessation of North Korean nuclear and missile tests. If Chinese warnings do not produce a cessation of both nuclear and missile tests by October or November 2017, the Trump Administration should move an oil cutoff resolution into the U.N. Security Council.

How Long An Oil Cutoff

The duration of an oil cutoff should not be determined by time but by what happens diplomatically after the oil cutoff begins. If, in accord with a U.S. incentive to China, six party talks are renewed, the Trump Administration should seek negotiated agreements that would include several North Korean conciliatory measures.

----North Korea should agree to a moratorium on the testing and production of plutonium, weapons grade uranium, nuclear warheads and intermediate range and long range missiles. A moratorium on testing is not enough; it must include production.
----To verify a cessation of production, North Korea should admit the International Atomic Energy Commission (IAEA) into North Korea with full rights to conduct inspections throughout North Korean territory, not just at Yongbyon.
----North Korea should present to the six party forum by a date certain a complete inventory of its current stockpile of nuclear warheads and intermediate and long range missiles, including the Nodongs. This would open up a new phase of negotiations that would focus on the existing North Korean nuclear-missile threat to South Korea and Japan.

If North Korea met those terms, an oil cutoff could be ended. But an indefinite renewal of oil shipments should depend on progress within a reasonable period of time to subject North Korea’s existing nuclear warheads and fissionable material to inspections and monitoring by the IAEA or another agreed upon monitoring organization.

If six party talks were renewed on the basis of a private Chinese oil cutoff warning to North Korea known to the Trump Administration, the Trump Administration should give North Korea several weeks of negotiations to meet the above three terms. (In 2007-2008, the Bush Administration negotiated what became the February 2007 six party agreement over the period of about ten weeks.) If North Korea rejected these terms, demanded unacceptable conditions from the United States, or engaged in obvious delaying tactics, the Trump Administration should go to the Security Council with an oil cutoff resolution and open up a second front of U.S. diplomacy.

The bottom line of all this is that the oil cutoff diplomatic card is the only remaining diplomatic option available to the United States that contains a possibility of preventing North Korea from creating a comprehensive nuclear-missile attack arsenal over the next three to four years. It is a last resort diplomatically. Whether in the form of a resolution proposed to the U.N. Security Council or in the form of a Chinese oil cutoff warning to North Korea known to U.S. officials, the oil cutoff card should be on the table now as the centerpiece of U.S. diplomacy.

The New South Korean Government, the Oil Cutoff Card, and the R.O.K.- U.S. Alliance

Some remarks here about the new South Korean government. While the U.S. oil cutoff card would be directed primarily at China, South Korea’s reaction to it would be important. The U.S. initiatives based on the oil cutoff card, which I have described, would contain features that ought to appeal to South Korea’s new President, Moon Jae-in. President Moon has called for renewed negotiations with North Korea. He has voiced reservations about the U.S. THAAD missile defense system in South Korea. He also has voiced concerns and criticisms of North Korea over its nuclear-missile program. U.S. incentives to China for renewing six party talks and suspending the THAAD system for at least one year would satisfy at least part of his concerns and wishes. A U.S. proposal for an oil cutoff, too, would confront him with an early decision over his own North Korea policy.

The Crucial Decision Facing President Moon. He was one of the architects of the sunshine policy of Presidents Kim Dae-jung and especially Roh Moo- hyun. The sunshine policy lowered the priority South Korea gave to the North Korean nuclear issue. Kim and Roh chose to leave the nuclear issue largely for the United States to deal with. South Korea, instead, concentrated on bilateral negotiations with North Korea in which South Korea proposed projects containing financial benefit to North Korea and food aid to North Korea without calling for reciprocal measures from North Korea.

President Moon seems to realize that the North Korean nuclear issue is much different in 2017 than it was in the decade of the 2000s. North Korea now poses a direct nuclear- missile attack threat to South Korea. However, he also has voiced a desire to reopen key sunshine projects with North Korea, the Kaesong special industry complex and the Mount Kumgang tourist resort. His course is uncertain.

Difficulties in Returning to a Pure Sunshine Policy. It seems to me that President Moon would face three difficulties in reverting to a Kim-Roh sunshine policy. President Roh’s policy frustrated and sometimes angered Bush Administration officials. However, they "bit their lips" and did not criticize Roh openly. President Moon should not expect that silence from Donald Trump. A return to a Kim- Roh sunshine policy no doubt would draw strong, public criticism from President Trump. Anti-Moon twitter messages would be visible for all to read.

Second, Kim Jong-un is certain to demand more from South Korea than did his father. Kim Jong-il wanted primarily two benefits from South Korea: a substantial inflow of money and large scale food aid without monitoring. He received both of these. Kim Jong-un, on the other hand, already indicates that he will demand military concessions from South Korea. North Korean media statements call for Moon to suspend joint military exercises with the United States. That demand no doubt will include a South Korean prohibition of the U.S. policy of deploying advanced weapons systems, such as fighter-bombers, into South Korea on a rotational basis. It no doubt will include a demand that Moon terminate the THAAD system. North Korean statements also call on Moon to agree to North-South talks on security issues, including the South Korean-held islands close to North Korea’s west coast. (North Korean artillery shelled one of the islands in 2010.) In any North-South negotiation over the islands, Kim Jong-un can be expected to demand that President Moon give up South Korea’s adherence to the "northern limit line" separating the islands from North Korean territory.

Third, when knowledge of the specifics of North Korea’s nuclear-missile threat becomes more widespread in South Korea, support for any policy of unconditional sunshine concessions to North Korea likely will contract. The government of President Park Geun-hye did a poor job of informing the South Korean public of the specifics of the North Korean threat: up to 40 nuclear warheads fitted on Nodong missiles. When that knowledge disseminates, President Moon no doubt will have to give this threat a much higher priority in his North Korea policy than Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun ever envisaged. Continued North Korean missile tests and any nuclear tests would further exacerbate this pressure on President Moon.

Alliance Issues. All of these three difficulties involve the United States. President Moon will face greater pressures to coordinate and cooperate with the United States regarding any new South Korean initiatives toward North Korea, Kim Jong-un’s likely military demands, and diplomacy on the North Korean nuclear-missile issue.

President Moon’s key constituency contains many Koreans who want South Korea to exhibit greater independence from the United States. There are a number of issues in the R.O.K.-U.S. alliance that give Moon an opportunity to demonstrate independence; but Moon and his Minjoo Party will need to proceed cautiously.

A Shutdown of the THAAD System. President Moon may order a shutdown of the THAAD system. Much of the South Korean public has reacted negatively to the method used by the U.S. military to install the system: moving equipment by night and installing the system within two weeks of the R.O.K. presidential election, undoubtedly to present the new South Korean President with a fait accompli. The U.S. military’s unwise action gives Moon a convincing justification to order either a suspension of the operation of THAAD or a dismantlement of the system. He now does not have to justify an order by arguing that it is necessary to improve relations with China and/or North Korea.

The real possibility that Moon would order a suspension or dismantlement of THAAD adds another rationale for the Trump Administration to offer China a one year suspension of the operation of THAAD if China will cutoff North Korea’s oil—another good reason to use THAAD as a bargaining chip with China. President Moon would make a wise decision if he, himself, urged the Trump Administration to make this offer to China as part of a proposal for an oil cutoff to North Korea.

Host Nation Support Disagreement. President Moon likely would resist demands from President Trump to increase drastically South Korean host nation financial support to the U.S. military in South Korea. If President Trump issues demands that South Korea pay 100 percent (or close to 100 percent) of the costs of U.S. troops in South Korea and/or 100 percent of the cost of the THAAD system, a serious breach would emerge in alliance relations.

However, in considering how to deal with such Trump demands, President Moon should keep in mind that, since the middle of the decade of the 2000s, the U.S. Defense Department has requested that South Korea increase its financial support of U.S. troops from the continuing level of about 42 percent to over 50 percent. Three R.O.K. presidents have turned down this request. The U.S. request is credible. South Korea’s 42 percent is far below the percentage that Japan provides to the cost of the nearly 50,000 U.S. troops in Japan: 70 to 75 percent. President Moon would be wise to consider agreeing to the long-standing Pentagon request in order to gain control of the host nation support issue.

Implementation of the OPCON Agreement? It was President Roh Moo-hyun’s proposal of 2007 that led to the OPCON agreement of 2008: an agreement to close down the U.S.-R.O.K. Combined Forces Command and replace it with two separate military commands. Implementation of that agreement has been postponed several times in large part because of criticism from South Koreans and Americans that it would damage the alliance. However, elements of the Minjoo Party continue to advocate implementation. Moon might call for implementation, partly to demonstrate independence from the United States.

My view always has been that the OPCON agreement should be re-negotiated. The critics of the agreement are correct when they cite the value of the highly-integrated, effective Combined Forces Command (CFC) and urge that it be continued. It also seems to me that if the CFC is replaced by separate R.O.K. and U.S. military commands, the Defense Department and the U.S. Army will decide to withdraw U.S. ground forces from South Korea and make a U.S. command strictly a U.S. Air Force command.

President Moon would be wise to abandon implementation of the OPCON agreement. He should call for a renegotiation based on two principles: (1) retention of the CFC; and (2) a change in the CFC’s command leadership hierarchy. The current hierarchy of a U.S. Commander of CFC and a South Korean Deputy Commander should be replaced by a rotational change every three years or so. At that juncture, an existing CFC U.S. commander would be replaced a South Korean commander; a U.S. General would become the Deputy Commander. In another three years, this would be reversed. Such a rotational system would give South Korea equality in an already well-functioning organization. That ought to satisfy President Moon and his constituents.

A Revival of the Comfort Women Issue With Japan. President Moon has stated that he favors a re-negotiation of the December 2015 agreement with Japan that was supposed to settle the comfort women issue between South Korea and Japan. If he follows through on this intention, he likely will demand an explicit apology from Japanese Prime Minister Abe for Japanese treatment of Korean comfort women during World War II. This would present two problems. First, Japanese prime ministers have apologized many times for Japan’s wrongs and misdeeds during that period. When Abe issued a lengthy statement in August 2015 on the 60th anniversary of Japan’s surrender, he indicated that, henceforth, there would be no need for Japanese prime ministers to apologize. Hence, a Moon demand for another apologize likely would resort in deadlock, a collapse of the December 2015 agreement, and renewed strains in South Korean-Japanese relations.

Second, a Moon demand would receive much less U.S. support than South Korea received in the United States during the decades of the 2000s when the comfort women issue stirred much U.S. criticism of Prime Minister Abe. The Obama Administration and much of American opinion considered the December 2015 agreement a satisfactory settlement of the issue. The view within the U.S. Government is that cooperation between Japan and South Korea to deal with the North Korean nuclear-missile threat is imperative in dealing with Pyongyang. The new Trump Administration foreign policy- national security leadership likely holds that view even more strongly. Much of American opinion supports that view.

A breakdown of the December 2015 comfort women agreement instigated by the South Korean Government would result in new strains in the R.O.K.-U.S. alliance. South Korean opinion would hold that the United States has a built-in bias in favor of Japan. A view likely would rise in the United States that President Moon has stoked anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea for political gain, including leverage to renew old elements of the sunshine policy toward North Korea.

President Moon has a better alternative to threatening the December 2015 agreement. Instead of demanding another Japanese apology, he could focus on the core issue in the controversy over comfort women in Japan itself. History revisionists in Japan have as their primary target a revoking of the 1993 Kono Statement of the Japanese Government. That statement outlined all of the major abuses the Japanese Government and Japanese military committed against comfort women during World War II in the Pacific.

In working on the comfort women issue during and after my years at the Congressional Research Service, I have noticed that South Korean leaders have disregarded the importance of the Kono Statement in the comfort women issue. No South Korean leader ever has stated flatly that the Kono Statement is historically accurate. This is ironic since Prime Minister Abe, too, has never issued such a statement.

If President Moon wishes to revive the comfort women issue, he should state this simple truth. This would challenge Prime Minister Abe and other Japanese leaders to take a clear position on the historical accuracy of the Kono Statement. American opinion would recognize the validity of such a statement by President Moon. It would revive the debate on a key substantive issue rather than on another apology demand. It would keep the December 2015 agreement in tact. Strains in the South Korea-Japan relationship would be better contained so that they could continue cooperation in dealing with the North Korean threat.


These alliance issues collectively have the potential to create threatening strains in the U.S.-South Korean alliance. However, they can be better managed if the Moon Administration’s policy toward North Korea is closely aligned with U.S. and Japanese policies. His crucial decision regarding North Korea will determine whether South Korea’s alliance with the United States is strengthened or weakened.

Equally, the Trump Administration faces a crucial decision whether or not to play the oil cutoff diplomatic card to the fullest extent. If it does not, North Korea will achieve a full- scale nuclear-missile attack arsenal that could strike South Korea, Japan, and the United States.

If or when North Korea achieves this supreme strategic objective of three generations of Kim leadership, the policies of governments everywhere toward North Korea will change in unforeseen ways. A new East Asian structure of relationships will emerge. This uncertain future awaits us unless the North Korean regime can be forced to reverse its long-held course.

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1 Larry Niksch is a Fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies. He was a long-time Specialist in Asian Affairs at the U.S. Congressional Research Service. He currently is a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and teaches East Asian Security at George Washington University. The views expressed are his personal views and do not represent any official positions of the organizations to which he is affiliated.

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