By: Georgy Toloraya

It is fortunate that the new South Korean government seems to be much more realistic and seems to understand that simply isolating and pressuring North Korea is not enough to achieve any meaningful progress. Seoul seems to be prepared both for dialogue with North Korea and to solicit support from other international players. It is important that President Moon Jae-in’s special envoy to Moscow, Song Young-gil, discussed these issues with Russian leaders, including President Vladimir Putin, in May, and even discussed the idea of Russia more directly engaging North Korea by sending a special envoy to Pyongyang.

A message from President Moon was also delivered to President Putin. It seems that the current South Korean approach aimed at direct dialogue, multiparty talks, and the eventual creation of a collective security system in Northeast Asia is in sync with Russian proposals on political-diplomatic means of solving the Korean issue. Russia and South Korea can work hand in hand to realize such concepts.

Practical implications

How can the diplomatic process be started? I purposefully do not write “re-started,” because it should not be a continuation of the 2003-2008 exercises, but rather a brand new effort with a broad mandate: the principle difference is that the agenda should not be limited to discussing the nuclear problem only, but should encompass a wide range of issues related to achieving comprehensive security on the Korean Peninsula.

I believe this process should start with direct US-North Korea talks on these new modalities. The crucial issue is that some realistic initial goals should be set. The most obvious one seems to be the concept of “moratorium for moratorium,” suggested first by the North Koreans and later elaborated on by China. The first-stage goal could be a freeze on North Korean missile and nuclear development in response to a US moratorium on “hostile actions” and the start of meaningful dialogue.

However, it should be well understood that discussing complete denuclearization (complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement, or CVID) at this stage would lead nowhere and would only ruin the dialogue. That may become a distant final goal, but not a practical agenda item. The possibility of North Korea retaining its existing nuclear arsenal while ending production of new weaponry might be considered in the future.

However, at this stage, it is vital to start the talks with a freeze as a first step. Moreover, North Korea at this very moment might be reluctant to discuss even that. They may be hurrying to finalize the development of ICBMs and a reliable second-strike capability and may be ready for talks “from a position of force” only after achieving “strategic parity” with the US (in their understanding).

But lack of progress on the US-North Korea track should not preclude North-South dialogue on restoring cooperation and healing the wounds of the previous decade, dismantling the pitiful heritage of the conservative era. Hopefully, this will be initiated by the new South Korean government. However, in order to avoid rejection, any such initiative from Seoul should not mention the nuclear issue: this is an agenda for multi-party discussion, because South Korea is not in a position to provide any security guarantees for the North. It remains to be seen how soon North Korea will be ready to respond, because it would first like to determine the Moon government’s degree of independence from US pressure.

Also, a general discussion on the possible mechanism for the talks and principles of peace and cooperation in Northeast Asia should be conducted in the relevant working group of the former Six-Party talks (headed by Russia). This could be reestablished as an organizing bureau or secretariat for future multi-party talks.

If such preliminary steps prove successful, the formal process may be jump-started by a symbolic meeting of the foreign ministers of the six countries plus plenipotentiary representatives of the UN and the IAEA on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September, perhaps in the presence of the national leaders. The first issue on the agenda of the talks should be the voluntary freeze of the North Korean nuclear program for the duration of the talks in exchange for easing sanctions.

Of course, such daydreams are hard to realize. However, the political and diplomatic solution advocated by Russia is not impossible. The single condition for it is that the adversaries should face reality and rely on hard facts. The US and South Korea should come to terms with the existence of North Korea and pursue a policy of coexistence rather than seeking to undermine the “dreadful” regime. South Korea should abandon its dreams of unification by absorption and learn to live with a difficult neighbor, projecting the attitude of a mature and developed country.

North Korea should admit the fact that there will never be peace and prosperity in North Korea unless it abandons its nuclear weapons program (provided a new security regime is first established). Then, other regional players such as China, Russia and Japan could play constructive roles in bridging the gaps and misunderstandings, based on the simple fact that a war in Korea would benefit no one.

Finally, I do believe a new South Korean government at this stage could play a significant role in working out and implementing such concepts and thus take the “driver’s seat” in the settlement of the Korean problem.

Georgy Toloraya is a former diplomat with decades-long experience in Asian affairs and a scholar on Asian and global issues. He served two postings in North Korea (1977-1980 and 1984-1987. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect any official position of the East Asia Foundation, which give permission for reprinting.