Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Time to think and act differently on North Korea

Edited version first appeared in Asia Times.

North Korea’s latest missile test—with the range to threaten American cities—has put the Trump Administration between wishful thinking and a hard place. Too bad neither represents a realistic resolution of the conundrum.

The easy way out, for the U.S. at least, is to “let China do it.” Trump, Secretary of State Tillerson, Defense Secretary Mattis and UN Ambassador Haley have in unison chanted the same basic mantra. Namely, problem solved if only China would apply more pressure on North Korea.

Unfortunately, this naïve wishful thinking is based on several false premises.

First there is no evidence that China can tell North Korea what to do.  The two countries are not buddies and there is no love lost between China’s President Xi ‘s and Kim Jong Un. They have not met since both leaders came to power and they communicate via messengers.

China has joined the chorus in support of the UN resolution strongly condemning North Korea. The Kim regime no more pays heed to China than it has to protests from South Korea, Japan and United States.

Just as China cannot stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapon and intercontinental missile technology, North Korea is not developing those technologies for China’s sake. North Korea needs nuclear strike capability in order to be taken seriously by the U.S.     

To date sanctions on North Korea have not deter them. The American response has been to ask the UN Security Council to impose more sanctions. In particular, Trump does not feel that China is tightening the screws hard enough.

Shutting down North Korea’s economy might bring Kim to heel from the American perspective but clearly unacceptable from China’s view. Economic collapse would trigger a massive humanitarian crisis and China would be left to deal with the refugees since migrating north into China would be the only viable option.

There is also a flip side to this approach. Even if the sanctions do indeed bring North Korea to its knees, it does not mean that the Kim regime would become more conciliatory. Kim may decide that he has nothing to lose and simply launch an attack on the south.

The other hard approach is to launch a Rumsfeldian shock and awe on North Korea before the north can begin their attack.

There is no chance that carpet-bombing of unprecedented scale could vaporize the array of artillery and missiles facing South Korea. The consequent damage on Seoul and other parts of South Korea from the retaliation would be significant, not to mention the danger to the 30,000 American troops stationed in the south.

There is also no assurance that any precision strikes could successfully take out Kim and his inner circle nor knock out all the nuclear weapons and development centers. The risks of failure are simply to too great to contemplate.

There is a more sensible approach and increasing number of commentators and foreign policy observers are suggesting for the Trump Administration to consider. And, that is why not offering to sit down and talk without preconditions?

North Korea fears the U.S. and knows that Beijing cannot speak for nor commit on behalf of Washington. Pyongyang wants to deal directly with Washington and does not see China as a credible intermediary. Why not begin a direct conversation?

The Clinton Administration almost reached an agreement with Pyongyang when the clock ran out on his term of office. The incoming George W. Bush elected to ignore North Korea and then imposed preconditions before being willing to resume negotiations.

Pyongyang saw the Bush White House as dealing in bad faith and that the only way to gain American respect was to complete the development of the nuclear bomb. North Korea detonated their first nuclear bomb in October 2006. (George W came into office in 1999.)

The Obama administration unfortunately elected to follow his predecessor’s line. Namely, no agreement to negotiate unless North Korea first agreed to abide by certain preconditions and in lieu of North Korean agreeing, Washington bandied the threats of sanctions and solicited Beijing for their help.

In the intervening 16 years since the end of the Clinton administration, Washington and Pyongyang have made no progress to reaching a common understanding. Each accused the other of acting in bad faith. The U.S. threatened more sanctions; North Korea kept testing weapons with bigger bang and missiles with longer range.

This endless cycle is clearly not getting anywhere.  The threat of American shock and awe is clearly what worries Pyongyang. Why can’t Washington soften a bit and show a willingness to talk without preconditions? What have we got to lose?

Will the world respect us less as a fearsome hegemon because we are willing to swallow our pride, or will the world applaud us for being willing to make the first move towards peace? Donald Trump has an opportunity to accomplish an important foreign policy triumph that has eluded his two predecessors.

For a more detailed review of the complicated history between China and North Korea, go to here.

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