Are Switzerland and Sweden the keys to easing the North Korean crisis?

North Korea

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The opening of the United Nations General Assembly has historically been a chance for world leaders to trade platitudes about peace. But this year’s edition of the U.N. jamboree may have actually increased the risks of the North Korean crisis erupting into a major conflict.

By Richard Gowan

U.S. President Donald Trump told the assembly that he would “have no choice but to totally destroy” North Korea if the U.S. is “forced to defend itself or its allies” from Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs. In the days that followed, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, threatened to punish the “dotard” Trump, and its foreign minister told the General Assembly that it is “inevitable” that Pyongyang’s missiles will strike U.S. targets. Trump responded with more bellicose talk via Twitter.

Foreign diplomats and politicians were profoundly unnerved by the U.S. president’s performance. It is possible that he had not meant to be quite so incendiary. Trump’s initial warning to North Korea, and his attendant belittling of Kim as “Rocket Man,” was clearly a television sound bite meant for his domestic political base. As soon as he had dropped his rhetorical bomb, he switched to thanking China and Russia for supporting U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang. He may have hoped that his UN audience, and even the North Koreans, would understand that he is still open to diplomacy on the crisis. If so, his message got a bit lost.

Even US allies are worried that Washington is stumbling toward a new Korean war. French President Emmanuel Macron caught the general mood by calling for more cooperation with Beijing and Moscow to bring the North Koreans to the table to settle the situation politically. “France will refuse any escalation and will close no door to dialogue,” he added, “so long as the conditions are there for this dialogue to further peace.”

Yet while the vast majority of UN members are horrified by the prospect of a mass-casualty war on the Korean Peninsula, there is very little that most of them can do about it. China has unique economic leverage over Pyongyang, and Russia may also exert some influence. Can the rest of the UN do anything to assist?

There is a general, if vague, sense that the UN or some neutral powers could help construct a framework for engagement to seek a way out of the current impasse. This could take one of three forms. UN officials could work to open channels for dialogue. Sweden and Switzerland, two neutral nations with expertise on mediation and a history of engagement in the Korean standoff, could try to facilitate talks with Pyongyang. Major US allies, such as France and Germany, could attempt to create a far higher-profile framework for addressing the situation, modeled on previous talks with Iran involving Chinese, Russian, American and European diplomats.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has offered his good offices to help find a resolution. Although North Korea’s public response has been negative, the UN has multiple entry points for discussions about easing the crisis with Beijing, Moscow and Washington—but also with Pyongyang: UN officials deliver food aid to North Korea, report on its human rights abuses, track its proliferation efforts and assess the impact of sanctions on the country.

Guterres nonetheless has little or no power to initiate a new political process to end the crisis. His predecessor, former South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon, made a number of well-intentioned but futile efforts to engage with Pyongyang. Guterres is not likely to be able to achieve much more through public diplomacy. But UN officials may still be able to act as go-betweens behind the scenes. At a minimum, UN agencies should be working on plans to assist in North and South Korea if a war breaks out.
If the UN has to move cautiously, can anyone else do more? Switzerland has suggested that it could work with Sweden to mediate. This may not be as curious as it sounds at first. A handful of Swiss and Swedish military personnel have technically supervised the cease-fire that ended the Korean War since the 1950s, so they have some formal claim to a role. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told journalists at the General Assembly last week that he is open to “neutral European countries” playing some sort of mediating role in the crisis. Kim Jong Un also attended a Swiss boarding school as a teenager, although his nostalgia for the joys of fondue and yodeling may not be enough to get him to surrender his nukes.

There has also been more ambitious talk of applying the sort of intensive multipolar bargaining that produced the Iranian nuclear deal to North Korea. Officials from the European Union, which chaired the Iran process, have indicated some interest  in doing something similar for the Korean Peninsula. German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that she would be willing to play a part in such a process if requested.

The main problem with such a high-profile approach is Trump’s loathing for the Iran deal, another bone of contention in New York last week. If the president views the agreement with Tehran as an “embarrassment,” as he told fellow leaders, it is hard to see him signing up for a rerun of it in a situation over which China and Russia have even greater say. This will not necessarily discourage ambitious European diplomats: Britain, France and Germany launched the Iranian process over opposition from the George W. Bush administration in 2003. But the EU is unlikely to venture anything on North Korea without the approval of Japan and South Korea—let alone China and Russia—and Tokyo and Seoul might question any gambit that may alienate Trump.

So, at least in the first instance, there may be greater value in Guterres, the Swedes and the Swiss pooling their organizational resources and limited political leverage to address the crisis. That could involve simple shuttle diplomacy between the main powers to try to keep everyone on the same diplomatic page, or off-the-record efforts to limit the risks of an accidental escalation to war by Washington or Pyongyang.

To make even very limited progress with Pyongyang, the Swiss president noted in the run up to the General Assembly, “Twitter will not be an adequate instrument.” It is a sad sign of the times that this is one of the most sensible statements any senior official has made about the Korean crisis in recent weeks.

Richard Gowan is an associate fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and nonresident fellow at NYU’s Center on International Cooperation, where he was previously research director. He also teaches at Columbia University. His weekly WPR column, Diplomatic Fallout, appears every Monday.

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