Blog No. 156. North Korea: Diplomacy from the Tweetster in Chief

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 Raceis 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.

At a dinner on Thursday evening with top military commanders, Trump spoke to reporters and made a cryptic reference to a “calm before the storm.” He refused to expand or explain the reference and, like so many of Trump’s promises and predictions it may simply disappear into the the ether. Then again, it might not. Secretary Tillerson does not seem to have much influence on the President these days, we might hope that others, notably Generals Mattis, Kelly and McMaster do. It is ironic that, while civilian control of the military is a longstanding principle of American government, our best hope of avoiding  catastrophic military engagements may now  rest with military control of our civilian Commander in Chief.

10 thoughts on “Blog No. 156. North Korea: Diplomacy from the Tweetster in Chief

  • Doug, a brilliant, clear-eyed analysis of the problem. I am not convinced China can be counted on to help. It isn’t in its interests. Anything that diminishes the United States enhances China in Beijing’s view. There is nothing “for the greater good,” nor will there be. China is convinced history is on its side. What Kim Jong-Un actually thinks is as easy to decipher as what Donald Trump thinks, but he has gotten away with it so far.

  • I think yours is a great post.

    Of course, a nuclear war would be disasterous and is highly improbable. Yet it is most unfortunate that we have a deranged president who seems to relish conflict and will say anything to get media attention.

    The best thing our country could do to restore connfidence at home and abroad would be to force Trump out of office. I believe this could happen if the Democrats regained control of Congress next year.

    Every thoughtful American should join in a crusade to dump Trump.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Roger, on how essential it is that the public rises up and dumps Trump, and before he spreads his chaos and conflict for a full four years. The 2018 elections do provide the opportunity, with more Republicans coming to join Corker’s line of thinking, for survival if not for principle and integrity. Trump has cast a whole new negative light on being an Apprentice, in the land’s highest office no less, and certainly deserves to be Fired! Democrats and Republicans have trouble agreeing on anything, but perhaps can come to unite on that.

  • Negotiate with a despotic madman. Are you serious?
    Historic examples of negotiations and utter failures.
    Chamberlain ( peace in our time)and Hitler……Stalin and Hitler..
    How do you negotiate with a Bengal Maneating Tiger? Do we agree to sacrifice an arm or a leg for a promise to not eat the rest of us ?l
    This despot murdered his brother and countless others. He sentenced a young American to fourteen years in a horrific jail for stealing a banner. Should we send him to detention in the study hall?
    Should we negotiate with ISIS or theTaliban? This man is a deadly cancer on humanity
    Many of us participated to defend Korea from North Korea and ultimately China in the past and many more are doing even more around the world now to bansh terrorism, inhumane slaughtering and violence againsrt humanity
    Negotiate….I don’t think so!
    The UN is still negotiating at the 38th parallel (1952)and what has that done to insure peace in the peninsula.
    I think it was Rocky Marciano that said, “I hit him on the arms till he can not hold them up and then I pop him on the chin. “ ( not accurate, but the gist is there.) Rocky did not negotiate
    It is time for the United Nations to act again as it did in 1950/1951
    B

    • I am quite serious about negotiating. We negotiated with the USSR and avoided blowing up ourselves and the planet. Kim Jong Un is s despicable character and the result of any negotiation would not involve our trusting him. But the cost of annihilating Kim and his country is unacceptable. The reference to the UN action in 1950 is quaint but misplaced. Apart from the fact that the Russia and China would not be conveniently absent from the UN as the USSR was in 1950, the North Korea of 1950 is not the North Korea of 2017.

      • As always, you are an admired, calming voice of restraint and civility.
        However, ( Someone Once said to ignore all words preceding “however”)
        With whom does one negotiate? Have there been any NK’ s ,” left alive, “that have expressed a voice of reason? It was NK that invaded SK.
        I do not advocate bombing, invasion, or assassination. I do think that isolation from the worlds’ economy and additional sanctions should be imposed upon those countries that trade openly, or secretly with NK., seal the borders as best be accomplished, and demand and sponsor UN sanctions. China must play a large role in this effort., Was mainland China a permanent member of the UN in 1949 / 1950?
        As long as we are ambivalent in our actions and pronouncements we encourage our allies to do the same.
        I again make reference to the hungry bengal tiger.
        B

      • Facts.
        Japan has had its, airspace violated. I realize that the altitude of N. Korean rockets are beyond ordinary limits. Where is the United Nations response to these threats and possible calamities?
        NK is an international threat to all civilized nations.
        I believe a condemnation by the permanent member nations, and perhaps all members as well , will be somewhat effective. Sure, the nations with veto power may kill this motion, but this attempt will bring more pressure on NK’s trading partners and perhaps make obvious to all that this is not an NK/US only issue. If our country concedes to threats by NK, who is next on line?
        Our country should consider a ban on US trade with all countries that currently trade and invest
        In NK.
        Money talks in all languages.
        Keep this subject on the front burners. This is not a political Dem/Rep issue, nor is it a US/NK confrontation only You rightly profess, ….it is a humanity issue with consequences for survivability of humanity.
        B

  • Doug, thanks for your usual thoughtfulness. I agree with those who say that de-nuclearization of North Korea is a pipe-dream. We must simply accept the current reality, however painful and difficult that may be. With similar acceptance of ‘real-politik’ I have to disagree with your suggestion 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…in the DMZ.”
    My understanding is that the DMZ is a de-militarized zone by treaty to which North Korea is a signatory. Wouldn’t placing troops there then violate that aggreement and – in effect – only confirm in the North’s mind the imagined aggressive intentions of the South and U.S.? Even to my mind, militarizing a de-militarized zone appears pretty aggressive and threatening.

    • Troops could be placed in the DMZ with the express consent of both North and South Korea, each which would each have to give up aspirations of imposing their respective regimes on the entire peninsula. Such consents might be difficult to gain and the practical arrangements for a peace-keeping force in the DMZ might also be difficult. The entire concept is no doubt a long-shot, but the dangers of the present situation surely call for some creative thinking.

  • Leaders create a culture of accountability with responsibility. Leaders inspire and nurture an attitude about how to act, how to live and how to lead. Leaders always encourage. Americans never want leaders who seem arrogant, self-aggrandizing and unwilling to listen. Without better decisions and direction, ominous clouds lie ahead according to recent surveys.

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