Peace in Our Time on the Korean Peninsula?
Even if the administration is dissatisfied it will find it difficult to reject talks with the North for failing to meet Washington’s conditions. The ROK will put strong pressure on the United States to respond to what is being presented as a possible breakthrough. And if the administration does sit down with the North, America will have given Pyongyang what the latter long desired, bilateral negotiations without promising to yield its nuclear weapons. Indeed, the South Korean report indicated that Kim wanted to discuss bilateral relations as well as nuclear weapons. No doubt, North Korean officials would push to lead with the former which, after all, affects the “hostile policy” which they argue has made nuclear weapons necessary. At relatively minor cost—appearing reasonable and peaceable—Kim Jong-un then would fulfill his diplomatic objective, despite Washington’s past year of rejection.
In short, it is not at all clear that much of anything has been changed. President Trump’s fulminations and threats may have forced Kim Jong-un to be more creative, but they have not likely forced the latter to capitulate.
Nevertheless, despite such caveats, the prospect of negotiations offers a way out of today’s crisis. The Trump administration is threatening to start the Second Korean War and legislators like Sen. Lindsey Graham are egging on the president, arguing that such a conflict would be a good deal in the long-term. In fact, almost any alternative is better than preventive war. And creating an ongoing dialogue between Pyongyang and both Seoul and the United States would make resort to military action much more difficult.
After having helped keep the peace for sixty-five years, it would be foolish beyond measure for the administration to risk triggering another massive conflict on the peninsula, especially one which could lead to a nuclear exchange. Kim is unlikely to tolerate U.S. attacks aimed at destroying the regime’s most important weapons and perhaps the regime itself without responding. And America’s conventional preponderance would encourage Pyongyang to “use it or lose it,” which could mean attacks by missiles topped with biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. Japan, as well as South Korea, would be at great risk, and the harm could extend into China and Russia. Many Americans, civilians living in the south and military personnel sent to defeat and conquer the North, would die as well.
The DPRK long has been the land of second-best options. But Washington should use the prospect of talks to develop a plausible alternative to war or a nuclear North Korea. The United States should work with South Korea and Japan to develop a common denuclearization offer for the DPRK and then seek China’s backing for the plan. This offer should include America’s willingness to reduce and remove its military presence. Additionally, America should be willing to turn over to its allies defense responsibility for South Korea and the region to the ROK. It is not in America’s interest to remain permanently entangled in the conflicts of other nations or to turn the Pentagon into a welfare agency. Equally important, friendly states should not be allowed to become permanent welfare dependents.
Denuclearization should remain Washington’s long-term objective. In the meantime, the United States also should pursue other advantageous (and possibly short-term) goals, such as freezing North Korean missile and nuclear development and reducing the conventional military threat against the South. And as in the past, policymakers should consider creative options if such efforts reach a dead end. Among those creative options should be the possibility of shifting nuclear deterrence from the United States to South Korea, which would reduce risks to America while sharing the North Korean nightmare with China.
Pyongyang’s apparent offer to talk is a gambit in a larger strategy for dealing with America. As such, it is an opportunity, not a breakthrough. The move offers the possibility of gain for both sides. Washington should pursue the apparent opportunity to sit down with North Korea and search for a peaceful exit from the dangerous cul-de-sac into which administration policy has driven.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and coauthor of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.