Use the G20 to Reinvigorate North Korea Negotiations
BERLIN — G20 leaders are meeting in Hamburg today to discuss joint initiatives on trade, equality, climate change, and sustainable development. The focus should be on Africa. But most likely it won’t. U.S. President Trump has made it clear that he is opposed to free trade and globalization, rendering U.S. support for any major agreement unlikely. Additionally, the security situation on the Korean peninsula provides a major distraction from the original G20 agenda.
The successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile on the Fourth of July has raised the threat level markedly. This is not the first time the North Korean regime carefully timed missile tests. The series of medium range missiles tested on the occasion of last year's G20 meeting in China being only one example. But the latest missile launch has underlined the potential of a North Korean missile to reach U.S. territory, something President Trump tweeted in January "won't happen." It serves as a gentle reminder that declaring a red line — even if only via Twitter — is dangerous when all of one's options for recourse are lousy. Donald Trump has indicated that he sees the ball in China's court. China on the other hand is unwilling to take the blame for escalations that it considers to be the result of ongoing U.S. and South Korean provocations.
Against this background, the G20 summit will by default serve as a platform for dialogue on the issue: A trilateral summit between the leaders of the United States, Japan, and South Korea already took place on its sidelines Thursday night, in which the leaders agreed to take a tougher stance on sanctions. The UN Security Council had met the previous night but was unable to find an agreement due to Russian and Chinese objections. Can the discussions between the leaders of the United States, China, Russia, and Europe break the deadlock that the ambassadors at the Security Council were unable to resolve?
The United States wants to reassure its allies, put pressure on China, and is willing to use economic levers to do so. Chinese President Xi is looking for ways to take the North Korean nuclear issue out of the bilateral U.S.–China relationship and avoid linkage between trade policy and security matters. South Korean President Moon wants a return to dialogue to avoid the conflict from spiraling out of control. And North Korea? They want bilateral negotiations with the United States on security guarantees — only the United States. Go Myong-Hyun, North Korea expert from the South Korean think tank Asan, argues that any other form of multilateral diplomatic activity would only be a distraction from this main goal. But as Washington does not want bilateral negotiations with Pyongyang, Go argues that the only way to really put pressure on the North Korean regime to change its premises, is for China to cut off energy supply to North Korea. Worried about the stability of its neighbor, China remains unwilling to take this step and has rhetorically joined forces with Russia calling for a freeze in U.S.–South Korean military exercises in exchange for a North Korean freeze on missile testing.
The U.S. administration has indicated that it is willing to exert significant pressure in the area of trade on China to take on the issue. This is not a promising dynamic for the Hamburg summit. The German G20 presidency wants deliverables and Germany has no interest in a potential trade war between its largest and second largest non-EU trading partners over North Korea. In a speech ahead of the G20 meeting in Berlin South Korean President Moon called on the G20 to find a joint position on the North Korean issue. As the host of the summit, Germany should seize this opportunity and push for a strong G20 statement condemning North Korea’s nuclear activities and missile program. At the same time it could propose a new North Korea Contact Group with prominent European participation. Europe is already thinking about how to engage constructively on the issue and Germany is experienced in this form of diplomatic exercise and has shown increasing willingness to take on more responsibility in matters of international peace and security.
With the United States, China, South Korea, Japan, Russia, and the EU all potential members are present in Hamburg. A contact group could help prepare the ground for eventual negotiations with the North Korean regime. Progress on the North Korean issue with support of European partners could potentially help to re-establish trust in the strained transatlantic relationship. The initiative could make use of Germany’s special relationship with China and provide economic incentives to convince Beijing to embrace existing and further sanctions. This would serve the U.S. agenda of linking trade and security, while at the same time serving the Chinese interest of taking the issue out of the bilateral basket. It is very much in the South Korean and Japanese, but also the transatlantic, interest to reduce the rising tensions and re-engage in dialogue.
The G20 is not intended to be a security political forum, but when global security is at stake, all options are on the table. As host, Germany and Europe should use all mechanisms that are available to facilitate diplomatic solutions.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.