The roller coaster of U.S.-North Korea tensions is at a relative low ebb after weeks of rhetorical nuclear brinksmanship between President Trump and Kim Jong-un. That this dip in tension comes during the long-planned Ulchi Freedom Guardian military exercises shows just how tense things had become. Starting Monday the U.S. and South Korea launched joint exercises and the North Korean state media released a statement calling the drills the actions of “war maniacs.” But there were no missile or bomb tests, no threats of “fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen,” nor threats of “merciless strikes” against Guam.
Numerous observers, including the U.S. Secretary of State, see the relative calm as an opening for diplomacy. Let’s hope so. Our country is faced with a choice: a devastating war, or sustained, multilateral diplomacy to freeze and then roll back North Korea’s nuclear program. If sanity prevails, we’ll choose the latter.
Why War is Not the Answer
A conventional military strike against North Korea’s scattered and well-hidden nuclear sites would likely fail to wipe out North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Instead it could backfire.
The greater area of South Korea’s capital city Seoul, a metropolis of 25 million people (for reference, there are about 8.5 million people living in New York City), is just 30 miles away from the North Korean border and the world’s largest artillery force capable of raining down 300,000 shells an hour. In the first hours of an attack, tens of thousands of civilians could be killed. Pentagon projections estimate a minimum of 1 million casualties, including some of the roughly 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. The conflict could easily spread to Japan if North Korea retaliates against U.S. military installations in the region. In the nightmare scenario, escalation begets escalation and the nuclear rhetoric turns into reality.
Thankfully, some administration officials appear to be working hard to avoid that scenario. For example, following President Trump’s threats of “fire and fury” and a “locked and loaded” military, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford visited South Korea in part to reassure our allies, and perhaps North Korea, that the U.S. is still seeking a diplomatic solution.
Unfortunately, most of the administration’s calls for diplomacy, including Gen. Dunford’s, are overshadowed by calls for ratcheting up a so-called “pressure campaign” through sanctions that have thus far failed to deter North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Why Sanctions Are a Dead-End
We should know by now that authoritarians like Kim can withstand the harshest of sanctions by shifting the burden to their people. North Korea has a relatively closed economy well-equipped to handle the pressure of sanctions. This week the U.S. trumpeted sanctions that are part of a plan to increase pressure on China, North Korea’s biggest trading partner. But for China, North Korea is far more valuable as a strategic buffer than as just another trading partner. China will resist enforcing any sanctions that have enough bite to destabilize North Korea because that instability could threaten China’s own security.
Even if the U.S. were able to inflict serious pain through sanctions the strategy could still fail while harming innocent North Koreans. The Kim regime appears to have made a strategic calculation that the cost of sanctions is worth the benefit of having a nuclear deterrent. “No amount of sanctions will stop North Korea,” Jae Ku, the director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, recently told Foreign Policy. “Nuclear weapons are their sole survival strategy.”
How the Diplomatic Process Could Work
The time for direct talks is now. In March, Secretary Tillerson called for North Korea to denuclearize and said “only then will we be prepared to engage them in talks.” But expecting North Korea to unilaterally disarm is a fantasy. Recently Tillerson hinted at a greater willingness to negotiate. Advocates for diplomacy need to support that hint of openness and keep pressuring the administration to come to the table in earnest. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California recently called for “high-level dialogue without any preconditions.” Other members of Congress should follow her lead.
Whenever talks begin, which will hopefully be soon, the immediate aim should be formalizing a parallel freeze, where North Korea agrees to freeze its nuclear weapons program in exchange for a freeze in major U.S. and allied military exercises in the region. An approach along those lines has support with some Western policy experts as well as in China and North Korea.
Such a freeze would accomplish the core U.S. objective of preventing North Korea from achieving the capability to reliably strike the U.S. with nuclear weapons. At the same time if a mutual freeze is put in place, that becomes the basis for further negotiations. Such negotiations might have to be be phased, with verifiable North Korean roll backs to its nuclear program exchanged for economic and security inducements offered by the U.S. and other countries.
As far as achieving long-term stability in the region, potential outlines of a lasting peace and security settlement with North Korea are not difficult to see. Those outlines include: a peace treaty to end to the Korean war (which has never formally ended), mutual declarations of no hostile intent, energy assistance and/or other economic aid for North Korea, an end to sanctions, and a Northeast Asian Nuclear Free Zone that would verifiably eliminate North Korean nuclear programs while committing South Korea and Japan to remain non-nuclear states as well.
We won’t know what’s ultimately possible at the bargaining table until we sit down. Critics of diplomacy with Iran said negotiations were a waste of time. They were wrong. It is long past time to start down the only sane path out of this crisis: sustained, hard-nosed negotiations without preconditions.