Instead of Threats of War, Trump Should Make an Artful Deal: Halt US War Exercises in Exchange for a Halt to the North's Weapons and Missile Testing
April 29, 2017
Bruce Cumings / The Nation & John Delury / The Washington Post
There is no way to hit North Korea without being hit back harder. There is no military means to "preempt" its capabilities. The prudent move would be to open direct talks with Pyongyang. Start by negotiating a freeze on the fissile-material production cycle, return of Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, and a moratorium on testing nuclear devices and long-range missiles. In return, the US should entertain Pyongyang's long-standing request for to halt its massive joint military exercises with South Korea.
Korean War Games
Bruce Cumings / The Nation
(April 22, 2013) -- North Korea greeted 2013 with a bang (or several of them), not the dying whimper that Beltway officials and pundits had hoped for -- and have been predicting ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall. In December, Pyongyang launched a long-range missile that, after many failures dating to 1998, got the country's first satellite rotating around the earth.
A couple of months later, North Korea detonated its third atomic bomb. Then, as the annual US–South Korean war games got going and a new president took office in Seoul, the North let loose a farrago of mind-bending rhetoric, bellowing that events were inching toward war, renouncing the Korean War armistice of 1953, and threatening to hit either the United States or South Korea with a pre-emptive nuclear attack.
In between, Chicago Bulls great Dennis Rodman brought his stainless-steel-studded, tattooed and multi-hued six-foot-eight frame to sit beside "young lad" (as the vice chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff described the North's new leader) Kim Jong-un at a basketball game in Pyongyang. As the saying goes, you can't make this stuff up.
The Republic of Korea, one of the most advanced industrial states in the world, was, according to Pyongyang, a "puppet of the US imperialists" led by a "rat" named Lee Myung-bak; if he was on the way out, the incoming president, Park Geun-hye, brought something new, a "venomous swish of skirt," to the Blue House in Seoul. As if the North weren't hated enough (it ranked fourth in a 2007 global index of unpopularity, albeit behind Israel, Iran and the United States), it added blatant sexism to its repertoire -- in Korean, this phrase is used to taunt women deemed too aggressive.
If the North's heated rhetoric set some kind of record, the approach was hardly new. Nothing is more characteristic of this regime than its preening, posturing, overweening desire for the world to pay it attention, while simultaneously threatening destruction in all directions and assuring through draconian repression that its people know next to nothing about that same world.
Twenty years ago, when the Clinton administration brought maximum pressure on the North to open its plutonium facility to special inspections, the North railed on about war breaking out at any minute; that 1993–94 episode likewise sought to shape the policies of an incoming South Korean president, Kim Young-sam.
Almost 40 years ago, when Jimmy Carter was president, North Korea shouted itself hoarse about the peninsula being "at the brink of war." The difference is that, in past decades, specialists read this stuff in Korean Central News Agency reports that arrived weeks late, by snail mail; today, it gets instant Internet coverage, which the North is exploiting to the utmost (while the masses still have no Internet access). The daunting part, of course, is that the North relies on the good sense of its adversaries not to take its incessant warmongering racket seriously.
Today, the rhetoric is designed to do three things: to confront President Park with a choice of continuing the hard line of her predecessor or returning to engagement with the North; to raise the stakes of Obama's stance of "strategic patience" (which has not been a strategy but has certainly been patient, as the North has launched three long-range missiles and tested two nuclear bombs since Obama's 2009 inauguration); and to present China, which for the first time worked with the United States to craft the most recent UN sanctions against the North, with a choice -- enforce the sanctions at the risk of events spinning out of control, or return to its usual posture of voting for sanctions and then looking the other way when the North violates them.
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It can hardly be said that Pyongyang's patented antics are disturbing amicable regional relations. Sitting now as prime minister in Tokyo is Shinzo Abe, whose grandfather Nobusuke Kishi ran the munitions industry in 1930s Manchukuo, the region of northeast China occupied by Imperial Japan after its 1931 invasion.
This was the same time that Kim Il-sung and his fellow guerrillas combated Japanese militarists there, and that Park's father, Park Chung-hee (who was South Korea's ruthless military dictator for eighteen years), was an officer in the Japanese Army and the happy recipient of a gold watch for his loyalty to puppet Emperor Puyi.
Famous for his brain-dead insensitivity to his neighbors' historic grievances against Japan earlier in his career and in his election campaign, Abe said at a public forum on his state visit to Washington in February: "I met [President-elect Park Geun-hye] twice . . . and my grandfather was best friends with her father, President Park Chung-hee . . . . so President Park Chung-hee was someone who was very close with Japan, obviously." Abe probably thought this was a compliment.
Meanwhile, China has besmirched a decade of careful diplomacy with its neighbors by instigating ever more serious confrontations with Japan and Southeast Asian nations over islands (most of them uninhabited rock piles) that it covets, called the Senkakus/Diaoyus, Spratlys and Paracels; barely a week goes by without Chinese naval ships intruding on islands claimed by Japan, counting on Tokyo -- whose navy is far superior to
China's -- not to escalate the conflict. South Korea has a similarly insoluble dispute with Japan over yet another set of windswept rocks, Dokdo/Takeshima, which could also get out of hand.
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Now comes Barack Obama with his "pivot to Asia," bringing new US bases and force projections to the task of containing China -- while denying any such purpose. Surely many in Washington enjoy the spectacle of China, the world's second-largest economy, at the throat of Japan, the third-largest, with their relations arguably at the lowest ebb since they exchanged ambassadors in 1972.
North Korea's relations with China may also be at their worst ever, now that Beijing is working hand in glove with Washington on sanctions. China is apoplectic because the North's missiles and A-bombs just might push Japan and South Korea to go nuclear.
They certainly elicited a quick US response: in mid-March, President Obama decided on a $1 billion acceleration of the US ballistic missile interceptor program, adding fourteen new batteries in California and Alaska (calling them interceptors is a bit of a misnomer; in fifteen tests of these systems under ideal conditions, only eight worked).
As luck would have it, such anti-missile forces are also useful against China's antiquated ICBMs. The truth is that Pyongyang ought to be paid by Pentagon hard-liners and military contractors for its provocations; the North Koreans are the perfect stalking horse for America's stealth containment of China -- and for keeping military spending high.
At the end of March, Obama upped the ante by sending B-52 and B-2 Stealth bombers soaring over South Korea to drop dummy bombs. It was a needless and provocative re-enactment of "the empire strikes back"; more than sixty years ago, Washington initiated its nuclear blackmail of the North when it launched B-29s on simulated Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombing missions over North Korea in the fall of 1951.
Operation Hudson Harbor dropped dummy A-bombs or heavy TNT bombs in a mission that called for "actual functioning of all activities which would be involved in an atomic strike, including weapons assembly and testing." Ever since, nuclear weapons have been part of our war plans against the North; they were not used during the Korean War only because the US Air Force was able to raze every city in the North with conventional incendiaries.
Hardly any Americans know about this, but every North Korean does; no wonder they have built some 15,000 underground facilities related to their national security. However provocative the North appears, we are reaping the whirlwind of our past nuclear bullying.
Washington's injudicious patience and Seoul's hard line have gotten nothing from the North but the ever-growing reliability of its A-bombs and missiles. They really have no choice but to talk to Pyongyang -- most likely along the lines of former Los Alamos head Siegfried Hecker's suggestion that the programs be capped through the "Three No's":
"No more nukes,
No better nukes,
Given the North's labyrinthine subterranean complexes, spies can never be sure to have pinpointed every bomb anyway, and a handful of nukes will provide security and deterrence for an insecure leadership with much to be insecure about. Otherwise, they are useless.
Last year, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said we have been "within an inch of war almost every day" with the North. Today, it looks more like millimeters. What a terrible commentary on seven decades of failed American policies toward Pyongyang.
Bruce Cumings teaches at the University of Chicago and is the author of The Korean War (Random House, 2010).
In 2012 on Jeju, an island off the southern tip of Korea, villagers protested a South Korean-US military base installation. Koohan Paik and Jerry Mander explored the environmental, cultural and political repercussions of yet another military base in the Asia-Pacific region.
Instead of Threatening North Korea, Trump Should Try This
John Delury / The Washington Post
Vice President Pence warned North Korea not to test President Trump during a press conference in South Korea on April 17, citing "the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan," as examples. (The Washington Post)
(April 23, 2017) -- President Trump's missile strike on Syria won plaudits from commentators on the left and right, with some of the enthusiasm spilling over into the debate about a "military solution" when it comes to North Korea.
The comparison, like much of the administration's rhetoric about Korea, is dangerously misleading. There is no way to hit North Korea without being hit back harder. There is no military means to "preempt" its capabilities -- nuclear and otherwise -- with a "surgical" strike. Any use of force to degrade its weapons program would start a war, the costs of which would be staggering.
Maybe in the era of America First, we don't care about death and destruction being visited on the 10 million people who live in Seoul, within North Korean artillery and short-range missile range.
Do we care about some 140,000 US citizens residing in South Korea -- including soldiers and military families at bases here, plus more in nearby Japan? Or South Korea's globally integrated $1.4 trillion economy, including the United States' $145 billion two-way trade with the country?
Do we care about North Korean missiles raining down on Incheon International Airport, one of Asia's busiest airports, or Busan, the sixth-largest container port in the world? What happens to the global economy when a conflagration erupts on China's doorstep and engulfs Japan?
Surely the American public and Congress, regardless of party, can agree that these costs are unbearable and unthinkable. Given the presence of many sober-minded strategists and policymakers in the administration, it seems reasonable to conclude the military taunts are a bluff.
If so, they are a distraction from the real, pressing question: How much longer should they wait on economic pressure generated by Chinese sanctions, rather than pursue diplomatic options opened up by direct dialogue and engagement?
The Obama administration said it was open to dialogue, but put its money on sanctions and pressure as North Korea made the power transition from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un.
North Korea, unfortunately, is not vulnerable to the pinch of the purse like normal trading nations such as Iran. North Koreans are already so cut off from the global economy and disconnected from international society that deepening isolation does little to change their calculus.
The one promising thing about Kim Jong Un is that he harbors ambitions to improve North Korea's economy, and his domestic policies have already generated modest growth. But his first priority is regime survival and national security, and for that, he considers the nuclear deterrent is to be essential (a rational proposition, sadly).
Eight years of sanctions and pressure -- but for one spasm of diplomacy just prior to Kim Jong Il's death -- did little to disabuse Pyongyang of the sense that it needs nuclear weapons, or to prevent North Korea from improving its capabilities and expanding its arsenal.
The Trump administration proclaims that the Obama approach of "strategic patience" has ended. But if it really wants to start a new era, the way to do so is not by distracting the public with reckless threats of war, while waiting in vain for Chinese President Xi Jinping to bring Kim to his knees.
Instead, the prudent move would be to open direct talks with Pyongyang that start by negotiating a freeze on the fissile-material production cycle, return of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, and moratorium on testing nuclear devices and long-range ballistic missiles (including satellite launches).
In return, the United States should at least entertain Pyongyang's standing request for suspension of joint military exercises with South Korea.
Kim may be willing to accept something less, such as an adjustment in scale. Or he may be open to a different kind of trade -- initiating talks to convert the 1953 Armistice Agreement into a proper peace treaty to end the Korean War, for example. The only way to probe these options is to get to the table. With two months of large-scale exercises coming to a close, now is a good time to do so.
A freeze is just the initial move in what needs to be a long-term strategy that changes underlying dynamics and addresses what each side sees as the core of the problem. We cannot really know what Kim wants, and what he might give up to get it, until we initiate dialogue. But since he took power, there have been strong signals that his ambitions go beyond a nuclear deterrent, that his real goal is economic development.
Rather than threaten war or deepen sanctions, a more productive path is to nudge Kim down the same road that the major countries in East Asia have all taken: a shift from power to wealth.
If Kim wants to be North Korea's developmental dictator, the United States' best long-term strategy is to help him do so. We cannot rationally expect him to surrender his nuclear deterrent at the beginning of that process, but it is the only realistic path for getting him to do so eventually.
Now is the time to jump-start a diplomatic initiative that reopens channels, lowers tensions and caps North Korea's capabilities where they are. Then, working closely with the new government in Seoul and others, the United States should support a long-term strategy that integrates North Korea into regional stability and prosperity.
Because the nuclear program is the last budget item that Kim will cut, sanctions only deepen the misery of the North Korean population, and pressure fails to improve human rights abuses on the ground. The best way to alleviate the suffering of the North Korean people is to give them a chance to succeed economically and help open up their country step by step.
By simply inflicting economic pain, threatening military strikes and keeping tensions high, the United States is playing into the worst tendencies of the North Korean system. Kim's nuclear intentions will harden and North Korea's capabilities will only grow. It's time to reverse course.
John Delury is an associate professor of Chinese studies at the Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul.
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