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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
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
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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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.-
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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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