Issues & Insights Vol. 19, WP1: Resolving The Korean Conflict

February 22, 2019

Much ink has been spilled on the return to major-power competition in recent years, singling out three states: the United States, Russia, and China. For good reasons: the relationships between these three states have become increasingly complicated, notably between the United States and Russia and between the United States and China. What’s more, there are few signs that the current trajectory could change for the better. If anything, we can expect these relationships to become more, not less, complicated.

Growing competition between Washington and Moscow and between Washington and Beijing does not mean that all forms of cooperation are out of reach, however. After all, during the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were bitter enemies but also cooperated in several areas, such as arms control and nonproliferation. Today, too, it is possible to identify areas where Washington, Moscow, and Beijing can and should cooperate. While there are many such areas, we believe that two are particularly important: strategic stability and nuclear-risk management.

Accordingly, in an effort to help maintain (and if possible, strengthen) strategic stability as well as reduce nuclear risks, our organizations, the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum and the Moscow-based Center for Energy and Security Studies (CENESS), in coordination with Chinese foreign-policy think tanks and with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, launched a Track-1.5 US-Russia-China strategic dialogue last year. The first round of the dialogue on “Regional Strategic Stability and Nuclear Risk Reduction in Northeast Asia” took place in Vladivostok, Russia, on November 26-27, 2018 and included more than 25 US, Russian, and Chinese scholars and officials. The meeting focused on the conflict on the Korean Peninsula, especially the events that took place during the 2018 “Spring Summitry” and led to the first-ever summit between a US president—Donald Trump—and a North Korean leader—Kim Jong-un (Singapore, June 12, 2018).

The conflict on the Korean Peninsula is a perfect case study for our US-Russia-China trilateral effort because it touches not only on broad strategic-stability issues, but also on intricate nuclear-risk management questions. Moreover, and significantly, while Washington, Moscow, and Beijing do not always see eye to eye on how to solve this problem, they all agree that, at least in theory, North Korea’s denuclearization, a nuclear-free Peninsula, and the establishment of a peaceful and stable regional-security architecture in Northeast Asia should be the goal, and they are convinced that they have a role to play in shaping ongoing developments.

With the second summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Chairman Kim Jong-un now just a few days away (Hanoi, Vietnam, February 27-28, 2019), and in all likelihood more high-level engagement in the not-too-distant future, we thought that it would be timely to take a step back and share US, Russian, and Chinese perspectives on 1) past diplomatic efforts to address the nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula, 2) the main results of the 2018 Spring Summitry, and 3) lessons from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran and their applicability to the North Korea problem.

The papers of this volume address these three topics. Dr. Fan Jishe and Dr. Georgy Toloraya give a Chinese and a Russian perspective on past efforts. This is followed by papers from Alexander Ilitchev, Duyeon Kim, and Dr. Teng Jianqun, who respectively give a Russian, a US, and a Chinese perspective on the key takeaways and implications of the 2018 Spring Summitry. Finally, Richard Johnson’s paper focuses on the lessons from the JCPOA experience with Iran and what they mean for the nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula. Because this is an ongoing research effort on a fast-moving situation, the volume does not include a wrap-up; it limits itself to sharing perspectives from the three countries in focus.