As in any exciting soap opera, last week resulted in another climax. In fact, the two main characters’ intention to meet each other came as less of a surprise then was presented. It falls nicely in line with one of US President Donald Trump’s main ambitions: the president is aiming for a dramatic diplomacy breakthrough, anywhere. Achieving the “ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians seems almost impossible. On the Korean Peninsula, however, any sort of arrangement, even just easing tension, will have a big impact.
Korean leader Kim Jong-un took the reins in the past few months, while America was forced to take the back seat. It started after the late November intercontinental missile test. Then Kim declared the achievement of full nuclear capabilities and indicated his willingness toward diplomatic discourse. Pyongyang abstained from sending more images of Kim embracing veteran generals. Then Kim launched his Winter Games “friendly attack” and leveraged the good atmosphere to invite South Korean President Moon Jae-in for direct North-South talks. The Trump administration found itself coping with the leaders of both Koreas, who share a mutual interest: to prevent military confrontation.
North Korea was developing nuclear deterrent capabilities for self-defense. It is the exception that proves the rule: the only country today still conducting nuclear tests. But apparently, no Korean leader intends to commit suicide, and therefore will not violate the strongest of all political taboos – first use of nuclear weapons.
Kim’s success is also, of course, the failure of all previous American administrations. Deterioration into war constituted a risk that led past US presidents to seek short-term arrangements. They did not have any realistic alternatives, and nor does Trump.
Current tension came to a peak in the summer of 2017. Trump promised to obliterate the “little rocket man” and destroy North Korea with “fire and fury.” He borrowed discourse from the ‘50s, reminiscent of the “massive retaliation” rhetoric used during Eisenhower’s time. Both sides used “brinkmanship” strategy, formulated by US secretary of state Dulles in 1954. It takes two rational players to play this kind of game without disastrous consequences.
North Korea is completing an intercontinental nuclear missile that could threaten America. Its successful completion will result in a “balance of terror” with the US, although not the Cold War-style equilibrium called “Mutual Assured Destruction” (MAD); nuclear deterrence these days is effective even in an asymmetrical scenarios.
Trump’s threats were also aimed at China. While China was concerned about a possible American involvement on its border and so pledged support for tough sanctions, China would not abandon Kim. The Chinese demonstrated their flexibility in resolving the confrontation with Seoul, after it was decided that an American anti-missile system (THAAD) would be positioned in South Korea. Their agreement with South Korea included the proviso that the anti-missile system would not be directed toward China, and will be the only one.
Kim has reacted nervously to military exercises in the South. Perhaps he suspects deception – a rapid, direct transition from drill to real attack, similar to the 1968 Soviet invasion of Prague, and Egypt’s “Tahrir 41” ahead of the surprise attack which launched the 1973 war.
An American assault would lead to strong objections from China, Russia, South Korea and Japan and could isolate the US. Despite numerous recent articles outlining preparations for a strike, there is much doubt as to whether Trump planned to launch a military confrontation.
“A leader who goes to war stops being a master of policy and becomes a slave of unexpected events” noted Winston Churchill. This is correct in every sphere, and certainly with regard to North Korea. The Pentagon recently warned that an American attack would lead to an unexpected reaction from the North against Seoul. A successful surgical strike requires high-end operational and intelligence readiness. It should be noted that the round of North Korean tests exposed major gaps in American intelligence apparatuses.
Unlike with Iran, and contrary to common thinking, sanctions have not been effective. Although isolation makes it very difficult for the general public, it serves the regime, which want to limits its citizens’ exposure to external influences. Sanctions reinforce the leadership’s paranoia that the real intention is to overthrow the regime. Removing sanctions and opening the North Korean market to international trade could in time form a strong middle class, essential for long-term domestic change. Initial signs of implementing the “Chinese model” are already in sight – a tiny private market, while the totalitarian regime continues. Strengthening the economic factors of its foreign policy can serve to restrain the regime behavior. If North Korea decides to provoke again in the future, there will be much more to lose.
Currently, it seems a comprehensive agreement is unattainable. America is demanding the total dismantling of nuclear capabilities, and Kim probably will not give in. But what is clear is that the US need to act. Waiting another year or two will give the Koreans time to test and become capable of threatening the entire country with nuclear missiles. Therefore, negotiations will likely focus first on a partial agreement, even if lacking power to “roll back” all capabilities. America’s minimum demands are to stop North Korea’s testing and to remove direct threats. The Koreans are expected to demand a halt to all exercises, the lifting of sanctions, recognition the legitimacy of the regime and its nuclear status.
Real progress is still far on the horizon, demanding compromise, relinquishing ego and exercising calm and patience – not exactly the features that characterize the leaders of both countries. Nonetheless, there’s probably no better option.
The writer was former deputy head of the research and analysis division at the Prime Minister’s Office.