Stepping back from the brink with North Korea

Author: Editorial Board, East Asia Forum

The United States and North Korea look to be on a collision course as tensions on the Korean peninsula approach breaking point.

Since taking over from his father as leader of North Korea in December 2011, Kim Jong-un has accelerated the country’s nuclear and missile testing program. North Korea has conducted 15 missile tests so far this year, including two which flew over Japanese territory, as well as six nuclear tests since 2006, four under Kim Jong-un.

North Korean soldiers keep watch toward the south as US Vice President Mike Pence (not pictured) arrives at the truce village of Panmunjom, South Korea, 17 April 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji).

The latest nuclear test on 3 September was its biggest yet, producing an estimated yield of between 100 to 250 kilotons. The seismic shockwaves from North Korea’s test site in Punggye-ri were equivalent to a 6.3 magnitude earthquake and could be felt powerfully in northern China. Though well behind the weapons capabilities of established nuclear powers, this puts the North Korean blast at five to 10 times the power of the atomic bombs the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

President Trump’s sabre-rattling response has made a difficult situation worse. Trump shocked the world when he remarked that any North Korean threats to the United States would be met with ‘fire and fury’, rhetoric closer to what one would expect from North Korea than from a US president. In a speech to the US Air Force at Joint Base Andrews, Trump remarked that US military options on North Korea are ‘both effective and overwhelming’. And in his first speech at the UN, Trump threatened to ‘totally destroy North Korea’.

Trump’s fulminations against the nuclear deal with Iran also serve to undermine the trust that Kim Jong-un would need to pursue a similar deal, jeopardising prospects of a peaceful resolution to the Korean problem.

More than half of Americans distrust President Trump’s handling of the conflict with North Korea. This reflects his unpredictable disposition and the procedural ease with which he could order a nuclear strike without careful regard for the consequences.

As Hitoshi Tanaka explains in our lead essay this week, based on his extensive diplomatic experience negotiating with both the United States and North Korea, ‘it is apparent that each side fundamentally misunderstands the other’. Tanaka identifies five factors that make the ‘risk of misperception and miscalculation leading to an accidental military conflict higher than most realise’.

‘North Korea does not appear to understand the essence of US foreign policy and strategic thinking’, writes Tanaka. Specifically, Pyongyang underestimates ‘the probability that the United States will feel compelled to resort to military options’ against North Korean nuclear weapons able to target major mainland US cities. ‘The United States does not understand the North Korean national mindset’, hemmed in and under pressure on all sides, meeting coercion with defiance. Kim Jong-un’s missiles and nuclear weapons are instruments ‘to project an image of strength domestically’ and bolster his grip on power.

Trump’s domestic difficulties and foreign policy don’t help either. Facing ‘an array of problems unlike any other US president in history’, it’s tempting for him resort to ‘tough-talking nationalism as the most visible manifestation of his “America First” foreign policy’. And the ‘vast differences between the American and North Korean political systems and their absence of normal diplomatic relations increases the possibility of miscommunication and misperceptions’. The risk is high that each side may misread the other’s intentions and take actions which will spin out of control into a large-scale war with massive loss of life that neither side can want.

As the vicious cycle of North Korean missile and nuclear tests being met with increasingly tough sanctions continues, the United States may be heading down a path of so-called ‘maximum pressure’ without any realistic chance of persuading Kim Jong-un that he should change his course. Trump’s latest executive order on North Korea on 21 September shows that he views sanctions not as an instrument to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table but rather as instruments for US economic warfare against North Korea. This strategy is deeply flawed.

Ramping up the pressure on North Korea to resolve the problem peacefully needs to be accompanied by clearly defined end goals which all parties can accept. And there’s little sign of anyone laying the foundations for that yet.

Only an international accord, equivalent to a latter-day Potsdam agreement in Northeast Asia, can provide the diplomatic reassurances — not only to North Korea but also to South Korea, China and the United States — that will avoid stumbling down the pathway to war. These four parties are core, but Japan and Russia also have a continuing and critical stake. The groundwork for this requires cooperation among stakeholders to coordinate the application of sticks and carrots for credible negotiations and to bolster contingency planning to prepare for a worst-case scenario on the peninsula. The global community, through United Nations brokerage, has a role in making it happen and making it stick.

Six key elements need to be agreed.

  • North Korea needs reassurance and an iron clad guarantee that its existence will not be threatened if it gives up its nuclear ambitions. If there are not treaty-like guarantees North Korea won’t be willing to surrender its nuclear and missile programs, seen as they are as essential to national survival.
  • There will need to be a formal end to hostilities and a peace treaty between the United States and North Korea, replacing the 1953 Korean armistice agreement, and removing the threat of future hostilities between them. Similarly, normal diplomatic relations need to be established between Japan and North Korea.
  • There will need to be normalisation of economic relations between North Korea and all parties, accompanied by preparation for North Korean membership of global institutions.
  • A framework for peaceful economic cooperation between South and North Korea would need to be established without prejudice to how integration might be developed over time.
  • There would need to be agreement between the United States and China on their mutual security interests in stability on the Korean peninsula and the mechanisms for managing those interests.
  • There will need to be a multi-party agreement that sets out principles for phasing down military deployments on the Korean peninsula towards a program of disarmament on both sides.

The process of pulling back from the brink can begin with the ‘four noes’ outlined by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — that the United States does not seek regime change, regime collapse, an accelerated reunification of the Korean peninsula, or an excuse to send its military north of the 38th parallel. This could be followed by the ‘two suspensions’ suggested by China and Russia, whereby North Korea would suspend its nuclear and missile tests, and the United States and South Korea would suspend joint military exercises in the vicinity of the peninsula.

But the ultimate goal, which gives credibility to these principles and actions, must be a comprehensive resolution of the Korean problem under the framework already established by the Six-Party Talks September 2005 agreement.

Without the goal of a Northeast Asian accord that incorporates elements like these, and the opening of a pathway toward a comprehensive resolution, the North Korean crisis will likely end in rivers of blood and tears.

The EAF Editorial Board is comprised of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Amy King, Liam Gammon, Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and Ben Hillman, and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

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Lintong Feng
2 October 2017 11:07 pm

This article, like the leading article of the week, underestimates the important role of Russia in the context of the Korea peninsula nuclear crisis. Sidelining Russia will be a huge mistake and represents a serious misunderstanding of the world power dynamics. As a result, it is unlikely to work.
An obvious point is that the US often threatens China militarily but not against Russia, because it thinks China is no match in term of nuclear power.
Do the author really think that the US and China can guarantee the security of North Korea, given that China’s own security cannot be guaranteed? Do you think North Korea is that naïve as the authors are?
While it is true that China is very important economically, but Russia is much more important militarily than China.
Unfortunately, this is a security issue more than an economic issue involved here.