The deteriorating course of relations between North Korea and the United States over the past several months brings to mind William F. Buckley’s famous description of National Review: “It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” If only there were a way to yell “Stop” to both Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump, urging an immediate end to their reciprocal threats and fulminations. (Those who are not inclined to do so include Congress, which seems to have forgotten its Constitutional responsibilities, and the media, distracted by the endless supply of Trump scandals and misadventures in domestic policy.)
Twitter may be a dandy way for Trump to stoke the animal spirits of his base. But it has no place in thoughtful diplomacy. In a recent series of tweets, Trump undermined the diplomatic efforts of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and implied drastic actions ahead, unspecified but possibly imminent:
I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man..
…Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!
Being nice to Rocket Man hasn’t worked in 25 years, why would it work now? Clinton failed, Bush failed, and Obama failed. I won’t fail.
Contrary to Trumps bellicose stance, however, it is clear that, as numerous seasoned observers have pointed out, seeking negotiations with North Korea represents the only rational course for the United States.
Admittedly, such negotiations would be difficult even to commence and still more difficult to conclude successfully. A particularly chilling account of the prevailing mood in North Korea is offered by Nicholas Kristof on the basis of a recent visit to that country. Kristof portrays a nation that is not only defiant but one that seemingly expects a military conflict with the United States and one from which it would, against all odds and any sense of reality, somehow emerge victorious.
And if success is defined as “de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” it may well be impossible to achieve. The North Korean nuclear program is so far advanced, and so central to the regime’s senses of identity and security, that no combination of carrots and sticks is likely to persuade Kim and his colleagues to dismantle it. As Fareed Zakaria put it in the Washington Post:
The denuclearization of North Korea right now is a fantasy. It will not happen unless the United States is willing to wage a war on the Korean Peninsula. Everyone knows this, but no official in Washington is willing to publicly admit it.
The object of negotiations, therefore, should be to reduce to the maximum extent possible both the threat of, and the perceived need for, military action by either North Korea or the United States. In that context, it is essential to view clearly the interests of both countries.
In the case of North Korea, some observers believe that the country’s interest in nuclear weapons is defensive—a means of deterring an attack by South Korea or the United States. That view was summed up in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post by former President Jimmy Carter:
They are probably the most isolated people on Earth and almost unanimously believe that their greatest threat is from a preemptory military attack by the United States.The top priority of North Korea’s leaders is to preserve their regime and keep it as free as possible from outside control.
Others see a more aggressive motivation behind North Korea’s relentless quest for nuclear weapons. For example, David Ignatius in the Washington Post cited such an alternate view:
B.R. Myers, whose 2010 book “The Cleanest Race” is being closely read by U.S. officials, argues that North Korea isn’t really a communist regime but one propelled by right-wing talk of Korean racial purity. Its goal may be the “victory” and unification it failed to achieve in 1953.
Under that analysis, North Korea may believe that, if it has the capacity to launch a nuclear attack on the United States, we would no longer risk coming to the defense of South Korea to resist aggression from the north.
Notably, however, neither scenario would involve the kind of preemptive attack or “first strike” by North Korea that, despite the effectiveness of mutual deterrence, remained a worry throughout the Cold War. Notwithstanding the outward confidence reported by Nicholas Kristof, it is highly implausible that Kim and his generals could in fact imagine surviving the massive retaliation that such an attack would provoke. It follows that fear of an attack from North Korea is not sufficiently realistic to justify a first strike attack by the United States. What President Trump might really have in mind now, or next year or the year after, no one knows. But his penchant for inflammatory rhetoric, suggesting a willingness to resort to military action, could be more of a stimulant to the North Korean military than a deterrent.
The possible use of nuclear weapons by North Korea as a shield to allow unimpeded aggression against South Korea is a legitimate concern, but also not one that would justify a preemptive strike by the United States. The key to diminishing this threat is to make it unmistakably clear to North Korea that, despite its nuclear arsenal, such aggression will not be tolerated. In that respect, the support and active participation of China could be vital. Blog No. 151 suggested that a possible means of addressing North Korea’s fears of aggression from the south might be to guarantee its territorial integrity by stationing a multi-national peace-keeping force, including a substantial component of Chinese troops, in the DMZ. Such a force could also contain a component of United States troops and be supported by a four-party agreement among China, the United States and the two Koreas, Under the agreement, China and the United States would jointly guarantee the sovereignty and territorial integrity of both North and South Korea. Guarantees of territorial integrity are, of course, neither iron clad nor self-executing, as Ukraine discovered greatly to its cost; but the presence of troops in the DMZ would make the guarantee in this case far more credible.
The odds against negotiating such a long-term agreement may be considerable and, in any event, it would doubtless require considerable time to accomplish and implement. In the meantime, it is essential that steps be taken to reduce tensions and avoid miscalculations by either party. The most obvious step would be a freeze on missile and nuclear testing by North Korea in exchange for a suspension of joint military training exercises by the United States and South Korea. The military importance of the training exercises is not entirely clear—they could not, for example, prevent a devastating attack on Seoul by either nuclear missiles or the hundreds of conventional artillery pieces trained on the city from nearby North Korea. Indeed, their greatest value may lie in being a bargaining chip in negotiations with North Korea.
In any case, as many observers have noted, the dangers of the present situation, and the cost of a military “solution” are unacceptably high. For example, as summarized by Nicholas Kristoff:
Both sides are on a hair trigger. That’s why in war games, conflicts quickly escalate — and why the American military estimated back in 1994 that another Korean war would cause one million casualties and $1 trillion in damage. Today, with the possibility of an exchange of nuclear weapons, the toll could be far greater: One recent study suggested that if North Korea detonated nuclear weapons over Tokyo and Seoul, deaths in those two cities alone could exceed two million.
Even beyond that, the first military use of nuclear weapons since Nagasaki could have global implications that are, quite literally, unimaginable. It is long past the time to forsake Twitter, cool the rhetoric on both sides, and begin the journey to negotiations through serious diplomacy supported by the President as well as his Secretary of State.