WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump’s threat on Tuesday to rain “fire and fury” down upon North Korea if the nuclear-powered hereditary dictatorship made any more threats against the United States immediately increased fears of a nuclear war that could kill millions. It took less than 24 hours for North Korea to cross Trump’s red line and threaten to shoot missiles near the U.S. island territory of Guam. In those same 24 hours, U.S. officials walked back the erratic president’s off-the-cuff and already-crossed red line.
Tensions between North Korea and the U.S. are undoubtedly at their highest levels in years. North Korea has been a nuclear power for more than a decade and now may possess long-range missiles with the capability to carry nuclear warheads to the U.S. mainland. Trump warned in the spring that there could be a “major, major conflict” between the U.S. and the North. And the United Nations security council just imposed its toughest-ever round of sanctions on North Korea.
But experts on Korea and nonproliferation agree that there is one incredibly easy way to avoid war: The U.S. should simply not pre-emptively bomb or attack North Korea.
“We can’t attack them,” said Robert Kelly, a professor of diplomacy at Pusan University in South Korea. “We’re talking about a million people who are going to get killed. So let’s not do that.”
“Kim Jong Un and the ruling regime of North Korea are not suicidal. They are not seeking martyrdom,” former Secretary of Defense William Perry wrote in HuffPost in March. “They want to stay in power, and they understand that if they launch a nuclear attack, their country will be destroyed, and they themselves will be killed — it would end the Kim dynasty.”
As every U.S. president has made clear since the Korean War armistice in 1953, any attempt by the North to move on South Korea or other U.S. allies like Japan would result in the end of North Korea as a nation and of the Kim dynasty.
The flip side of that coin is that any attempt by the U.S. to attack North Korea would be met with all-out force from the North. For decades, the 10 million people living in Seoul have lived with the possibility that the North could incinerate the city with conventional weapons at any moment. Now armed with nukes, the North could destroy more than one city on its way to the dustheap of history. The North would lose the war, but millions could die.
Neither North Korea nor the U.S. has initiated this mass blood-letting. It’s clear that none of the countries involved want that ― especially not South Korea. President Moon Jae-In made that clear in a phone call with Trump this week. Moon “emphasized that South Korea can never accept a war erupting again on the Korean Peninsula,” according to a statement from his office.
At this point, that leaves either punitive sanctions (which the North is already under) or negotiations as the options to get the North to pause its nuclear and missile tests and possibly reach the United States’ stated goal of having a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.
Negotiating, however, is far more difficult than the easy step of just not bombing North Korea.
A number of Democratic Party senators have begun to call on Trump to immediately enter into talks with North Korea without any preconditions. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has said the U.S. is not seeking regime change in North Korea, is currently the only high-level Trump administration official calling for talks, but he has said those talks cannot begin until the North halts its missile tests for an unspecified period of time.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is the most prominent Democrat, but not the only one, calling for the U.S. to immediately begin talks with the North Koreans.
“Reports that North Korea is capable of miniaturizing a nuclear warhead to deliver on an ICBM shows they’re closer than originally believed to building a nuclear weapon capable of hitting the United States,” Feinstein told HuffPost in a statement. “This accelerated timeline has created an urgent need to restart diplomatic discussions. Calls for preconditions on direct talks delay that effort. A diplomatic solution is only possible if we get North Korea to the negotiating table — time is not on our side.”
Those talks would likely begin in secret without any preconditions. The parties involved ― which, beyond the U.S. and North Korea would likely include South Korea, China and Japan and possibly Russia ― would be able to set any conditions for public diplomatic talks, including temporary moratoriums on missile tests and nuclear tests by the North.
“It would be a really serious mistake to drop the objective, the long-term objective, of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula."
The North, of course, would need some assurances from the U.S. and its allies. Those nations would need to listen to North Korea seriously to decide what assurances to provide.
“The North Koreans say this over and over again,” said Joel Wit. Wit is a senior fellow at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and the former coordinator of the U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework. “They are willing to put their [nuclear] program on the table if the U.S. drops its hostile policy toward North Korea. Well what does that mean, hostile policy?”
Wit, who has also spoken to the North Koreans as part of unofficial negotiations, explains that “hostility” means the general posture of the U.S. to North Korea in every regard from the political, security and economic.
One place to start is with North Korea’s ongoing complaints about the routine military exercises conducted by the U.S. and South Korea. After the North tested a medium-range missile in February, the U.S. sent nuclear capable B-52 bombers to fly over the Korean peninsula during these military exercises. Earlier this year, North Korea offered to halt nuclear testing in exchange for the U.S. and South Korea halting all military exercises.
Leon Sigal, a longtime Korea nuclear negotiations expert who has engaged in unofficial negotiations with the North Koreans for years, told HuffPost the North Korean proposal to stop all military exercises is “a nonstarter and they know it.”
But there is room for the U.S. to give North Korea something on military exercises. In past efforts to open talks with North Korea, the U.S. has varied the number of troops involved, the types of exercises undertaken and the types of bombers flown. For one year, under President George H.W. Bush, the U.S. and South Korea suspended the exercises.
“Sometimes [the North Koreans] say cancel the exercises,” Wit said. “But they just don’t want us to hold big exercises.”
He says the U.S. should make public changes to the military exercises as part of talks to get the North Koreans to agree to a moratorium on their nuclear and missile tests.
Initial talks are not going to result in the North giving up its nuclear program immediately, although the program should be on the table during formal talks. The program gives North Korea intense leverage in talks with the U.S. and provides a level of security not had by dead dictators Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, who once sought nuclear weapons and met grisly deaths after U.S.-backed wars leveled their regimes. Obtaining a moratorium on tests would be a big step, but almost everyone agrees the final goal of the U.S. is and should continue to be the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
“It would be a really serious mistake to drop the objective, the long-term objective, of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula,” Wit said. “I think the North Koreans would eventually agree to that.”
Getting to a nuclear-free peninsula, however, would require big steps that are not normally discussed in U.S. politics. That would including providing North Korea with a more permanent security guarantee by agreeing to negotiate a peace treaty to replace the Korean War armistice.
“I think people ought to start thinking about [a peace treaty] because the reason why 1994 and 2005 [deals] fell apart is we didn’t do anything about the larger steps of ending enmity,” Sigal said.
Ending enmity and hostility may be the only way to stop North Korea from being a permanent nuclear power. But that may be all pie in the sky, particularly with the disorganized, understaffed, inexperienced and undiplomatic Trump administration running the show. Not to mention the North’s insularity, intransigence and history of breaking deals.
Not everyone thinks that negotiations will work, of course. Kelly argues the U.S. should maintain President Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic patience.” He says the U.S. should tighten sanctions, go after North Korean money in Chinese banks and increase funding for missile defense.
He also supports talking to the North Koreans, even if they’ve cheated on deals in the past. But he adds, “The best possible outcome is that the North Koreans come to the table and they negotiate away their nuclear missile program for something reasonable. That’s just not going to happen. They’ll ask for outrageous concessions that we’re not going to give them.”
Sigal believes that it’s just too late in the process to wait on sanctions before starting negotiations. “I think the fundamental question that has to be asked to the people who are talking about sanctions is how long it will take and how many ICBMs, nuclear weapons and better nuke weapons will the North have in the meantime. I think that’s fundamental here. We don’t have a lot of time.”
Jessica Schulberg contributed reporting.