An Opening on North Korea?

The latest pattern in negotiations on the Korean peninsula might be a model for long-term success.

In the last few months, shuttle diplomacy over North Korea’s nuclear program has intensified. This weekend, diplomats from South Korea, Japan and China are likely to discuss the issue in Seoul. Last week’s White House summit with South Korean President Park Geun-hye produced strong affirmations of solidarity on the nuclear issue. Will it be enough?

Until recently, neither administration has had much success in confronting the North Korean threat. In fact, the situation has gradually deteriorated. As North Korea approaches the critical threshold where it could deliver a nuclear warhead by missile, the crises it provokes every few years will become more and more treacherous. The military crisis that dominated the peninsula for the month of August—in which the two Koreas faced off over the injury of two South Korean soldiers by landmines—was the latest in this trend. In the last year of the Obama administration, the allies must look for ways to keep from passing this policy malaise to the next U.S. president.

However, events since the August crisis may have created an opening on North Korea, and the favorable resolution of the August crisis suggests a way forward: the allies should move assertively to capitalize on recent developments, with South Korea leading the alliance. Three features of the August crisis point toward a compelling model for deterring or resolving future crises: improving South Korea-Chinese ties, a tantalizing deployment of Chinese forces to its border with North Korea and surprisingly constructive North-South negotiations. Together, these developments represent a narrow opportunity to revitalize a U.S.-ROK alliance that has drifted in recent years.

The most recent crisis began on August 4, when anti-personnel mines planted near a South Korean guard post detonated and maimed two soldiers. In a gamble, President Park demanded that her officially infallible northern neighbor apologize for the attack, and resumed propaganda broadcasts toward the north that had been suspended for more than a decade. North Korea threatened to attack the loudspeakers, put 70 percent of its submarine force to sea, initiated an exchange of artillery fire across the DMZ and deployed amphibious invasion forces to the border. Hours before North Korea’s threatened deadline, the sides agreed to marathon talks that would last for forty hours and result in a North Korean expression of “regret” for the attack, withdrawal of the loudspeakers and a rare opportunity for families separated since the Korean War to briefly reunite. Park’s gamble seemed to pay off: South Korea selected a firm but nonmilitary response, successfully brokered a favorable compromise to deescalate the crisis and laid the foundation for a possible future detente.

South Korea navigated the crisis without direct involvement from the United States, which remained relatively quiet during the August crisis. In an early 2013 crisis, in which tensions escalated following the North's third nuclear test, the United States deployed two B-2 stealth bombers to drop inert munitions on a South Korean range. Overt U.S. threats like this have not always helped to moderate the behavior of a proud and paranoid regime obsessed with U.S. power, and in 2013 caused another round of hysterical threats from the North.

By contrast, the U.S. response this summer was far more modest. In August 2015, the U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Walsh insisted in August that the three B-2s then being deployed to Guam were on a scheduled rotation. No one needed to be reminded that the B-2s were just hours away. Notably, it was a spokesman for the South Korean defense ministry who gave the most prominent public statement regarding U.S. forces, telling reporters that “South Korea and the U.S. are flexibly reviewing the timing and deployment of strategic U.S. military assets.” The model seemed to work well: by eschewing noisy threats, the United States allowed the Park administration to patiently negotiate a resolution with its paranoid neighbor. This may not have been possible if North Korea had felt the need to bluster in response to a U.S. threat.