At the heels of a diplomatic victory earlier this month spearheaded by US Ambassador Nikki Haley at the UN Security Council, came the war of words between North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un and President Trump that escalated tensions in the Korean peninsula to historic levels. Both sides have heightened the rhetoric to a fever pitch while the world has watched on, transfixed in apprehension that the slightest miscalculation (or perhaps, a tweet) could set off a chain of events with catastrophic consequences for all.
Adding to this volatile mix is the Pentagon’s confirmation of preemptive strike plans, North Korea’s impending plan to launch missiles towards Guam, and the biannual joint military exercises with South Korea scheduled to start next week.
There is nothing good that can come from this current path of escalation. If the threats are taken to their literal extreme, any military solution (whether preventive or defensive) holds devastating outcomes. On the other hand, if the threats are empty red lines, then US diplomacy ― regarded historically for its restraint and discipline ― loses credibility.
Military solutions have been war-gamed for decades, with no positive outcomes. If the US were to carry out its preemptive strike plan to take out launch capabilities, North Korea would retaliate with 21,000 heavy artillery pieces trained on Seoul, just 35 miles out from the DMZ. Over 25 million people would be caught in the crosshairs of the capital, including over 200,000 Americans who live in South Korea.
The US would need anywhere from 90,000-200,000 soldiers and many weeks to secure North Korean nuclear sites, while fighting off an army that is one million strong, with six million in reserves. That the US and its regional allies would defeat North Korea is a forgone conclusion, but the potential casualties would be astronomical: hundreds of thousands of civilians would perish within the first few hours of conflict, estimates of tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of US soldiers would be killed or injured, and millions would die on both sides of the peninsula when all is said and done. Despite the common refrain that “all options are on the table,” a preemptive strike is simply not a viable one.
While fighting words rally the domestic base against a belligerent dictator, given the potential outcome of war, are they worth the escalation? There is hope, however, and it’s found within the very threats that have been dominating the headlines over the past week. First, consider this statement from North Korean Foreign Ministry, “Should the US dare to show even the slightest sign of attempt to remove our supreme leadership, we will strike a merciless blow at the heart of the US with our powerful nuclear hammer.”
Next, observe US Secretary of Defense Mattis’ response, “The DPRK should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.” These statements (including President Trump’s now infamous “fire and fury” threat) are, no doubt, aggressive. They do, however, indicate a defensive posture on both sides. Despite the media over-hype that focuses primarily on the most incendiary parts of the exchanges, a more complete reading suggests that neither side has the intention to strike first.
What each side is (very poorly) communicating to the other is: IF you attack me first, THEN I will respond with devastating force. The operative word is “if.” With this comes a window of opportunity to consider a radical proposition to de escalate rising tensions, and bring about an end to the official state of war since 1950.
Towards De-escalation and Sustainable Peace
US presidents over the course of three decades have taken both hard and soft approaches towards North Korea, and yet its posture has remained the same: defiance when it comes to its nuclear ambitions. President Trump’s tough-guy approach will not make a difference in their nuclear policy. If anything, it will accelerate the North’s nuclear weaponization, which it deems necessary for its survival.
Disconcerting as it may sound, North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is a rational one. It’s leveraged as a form of life insurance: so long as they have the bomb, they feel secure against an attack. Mr. Kim’s reality is that that 28,000 US soldiers are fortified on his border. These troops are backed by South Korea’s military numbering over 500,000, manning sophisticated land and air weaponry that far outmatch his obsolete Soviet-era military hardware. Given the active state of war that the peninsula finds itself in and the frequency with which Washington has carried out regime change with troublesome dictators around the world, Mr. Kim has every reason to feel terrified about his precarious position.
Mr. Kim’s belligerent rhetoric and actions, though masked as bravado, are manifestations of this fear. In this context we can understand why, for example, following the US and South Korean joint military exercises earlier this year, he fired off an ICBM missile as a show of force. Or when CIA Director, Mike Pompeo recently hinted at North Korean regime change, it set off the current episode of nuclear threats with the North’s vow to strike at the “heart of the US” if such a move transpired.
The path of tough talk and sanctions has never worked with North Korea. Perhaps it’s time to try a different approach. Unlike his isolationist father, Kim Jong Il (who largely stayed out of the public eye), the Swiss-educated Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un channels (in appearance, speech, and mannerisms) the legacy and ambitions of his grandfather, Kim il-Sung, the founder of North Korea. In this spirit, Mr. Kim has pursued two main state objectives since his ruthless consolidation of power in 2011: 1) Modernize its military and nuclear weapons capabilities; and 2) Develop North Korea’s economic prosperity through controlled market oriented reforms.
Mr. Kim knows that the survival of his regime, and the future that he envisions for North Korea are both directly tied to a deal with Washington. He hopes to leverage the bomb to negotiate concessions out of the US: whether it is through aid, to bring about an official end to the Korean War, or to obtain US recognition of North Korea as a sovereign state.
Since so much of what Mr. Kim is after is dependent on improved relations with the US, there is leverage to negotiate a meaningful peace with North Korea. In this context, the following four steps offer a path to help alleviate the current tensions, and set a trajectory for an eventual reconciliation in the peninsula:
1. Reduce Threat Perceptions
The nuclear age is not the time to engage in armed brinksmanship. Each provocation brings with it the very real possibility of miscalculation. The graveyard of history is replete full with wars that began under such faulty premises. In the current scenario, North Korea is like a caged beast that feels provoked (warranted or not) to the point that it has lashed out in increasingly alarming ways. Threats and repeated demonstrations of force have not worked for over half a century with this regime.
To reduce the current threat perception, it becomes necessary to demonstrate restraint through control of rhetoric and actions that can be perceived as a threat to the regime. These include public statements made by US officials and perhaps even a reconsideration of this month’s joint military exercises between the US and South Korea (that are said to have included decapitation strike drills in the past), at least until the ongoing tensions are reduced.
2. Open Bilateral Talks
When Vice President Mike Pence visited South Korea earlier this year and warned the North that the “era of strategic patience is over,” it missed the point that strategic patience combined with bilateral dialogue has, in fact, helped the US secure peaceful outcomes with nuclear rivals in the past. When Stalin’s Soviet Union and Chairman Mao’s China pursued a path of nuclear confrontation with the US, the US adopted a policy of restraint and engaged in high-level, bilateral talks until mutual agreements were reached.
The US secured a big win at the UN Security Council this month, which demonstrates its continued ability to lead the global community on the issue. If this is coupled with a joint US-China approach towards Pyongyang, it would send a strong message that its physical security and economic potential are directly tied to its commitment to regional peace. Strategic patience combined with skillful diplomacy has worked for the US in the past and can be leveraged in this current situation just as effectively.
3. Demilitarization for Denuclearization
It’s worth asking the question: To what extent are US interests served with the continuation of its military presence along the DMZ for the past 64 years? Is it worth the possibility of a nuclear war? To complicate matters, the current situation is reminiscent of the chicken and egg scenario: North Korea will not let up its nuclear weapons program so long as it feels threatened by the US, while the US refuses to budge until North Korea gives up its nuclear program. This diplomatic conundrum has the potential to be resolved with a mutually assured drawdown. In this scenario, Washington would commit to a phased reduction in troops along the DMZ, following North Korea’s commitment to phase out its nuclear weapons program. This phased and scheduled draw-down would continue until both sides are mutually assured in one another’s fulfillment of pledges.
Any draw-down would occur with reassurances to US allies in the region that its security commitment to the region remains unchanged. Additionally, North Korea must feel secure that its territorial integrity will remain in tact from any potential (however unlikely) South Korean bid to unify the peninsula with it’s vastly superior military.
This effort should not be read as appeasement, nor an abandonment of its interests in the region. To the contrary, today’s capabilities are very different than what they were in 1950s: if North Korea violates the agreement (which it has often done in the past), or worse, takes action against the South, the US can, and should be in a position to intervene locally with swift precision. Secretary of Defense Mattis’ recent statement warning against any action that would threaten the US or its allies is the appropriate tone to convey in this regard.
4. Re-conceptualize and Reconcile:
Perhaps it’s time to take a step back and reconsider the US’ broader role in the region. Currently the US is caught between an ally and a bad place. To add complexity, there is some sentiment among the Southern ally that US military presence along the DMZ comprises prospects for an inter-Korea reconciliation process. The recent election of President Moon Jae-in demonstrated a willingness on the part of South Koreans to depart previous hawkish stances towards the North, in favor of direct bilateral talks. This is backed by polls that show strong support (80 percent in favor) towards the resumption of talks for denuclearization and eventual reconciliation.
In an acknowledgement of these realities, the US can begin to shift its role from one of protector to mediator. It can remain the guarantor of security and stability for its allies, but from a reasonable distance. This move would phase the US out of the direct line of conflict, and into the role of mediator at the peace table. There are three goals that can be accomplished through this shift in policy: 1) Reduce US tensions with the North, 2) Support opportunities for mediated reconciliation between the North and South, and 3) Remove the US from the line of fire both along the DMZ, and the homeland.
Considered together, these policies aim to achieve an immediate reduction of tension and a long-term possibility of peace. Fortunately, despite the concerning rhetoric of the past week, there are no visible indications that a war is imminent. There would be two tell-tale signs of this: 1) the mass evacuation of American citizens and dependents along the DMZ; and 2) a build up of US military presence in the region. That said, the first step towards peace is to step away from the inflammatory rhetoric. The US has the opportunity to demonstrate responsible leadership once again by being the example of restraint, stability, and calm it hopes to achieve in the peninsula.