In Pursuit of an 'Olympic Truce' on the Korean Peninsula

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a state awards ceremony for military personnel who served in Syria, at the Kremlin in Moscow

The road to Pyongyang may well run through Moscow.

For the North Koreans, Tolaraya says they will have to agree not to deploy ICBMs and show a willingness to forswear any kind of proliferation to other states. But he warns that once the gears are turning on a new and ever larger annual joint U.S.-South Korea exercise early in 2018 that “the chance for ‘double freeze’ will actually be missed” [шанс на “двойную заморозку” будет фактически упущен.] For Russia, he importunes regarding this urgency: “Our country in these conditions must work in all directions, to convince the Americans and North Koreans of the need to move away from the dangerous line.” [Нашей стране в этих условиях необходимо работать по всем направлениям, убеждать американцев и северокорейцев в необходимости отойти от опасной черты]

To gather Toloraya’s insights, one does not actually need to know Russian, as he frequently writes essays in English too, thankfully. These include one that appeared on the Johns Hopkins website “38 North” in mid-December. The tone is logically more polite and respectful, as he repeatedly calls for “American leadership.” Based on “interviews with North Korean representatives,” his unique analysis should be getting very close attention in Washington DC. While finding that generally Pyonyang’s viewpoint is that its nuclear weaponry is “non-negotiable,” he makes important probes into the question of how North Korea might respond if the United States ended its “hostile policy,” and even suggests a promising opening in the form of a Korean Peninsula or Northeast Asia “nuclear free zone” that could be reached gradually. Other creative compromises are usefully broached. For example: an agreement in which Pyongyang agrees to forgo ICBM deployment in exchange for Washington’s acceptance of some North Korean nuclear capability. Above all, Toloraya sees an urgency to remove the seeming imperative for North Korea to demonstrate that it has a working nuclear warhead. He strongly advocates for an “Olympic Truce,” noting that South Korea has every reason to support compromise measures that calm tensions in the short term. Again, he underlines that this “window of opportunity” will not remain open for long and U.S. diplomats must work with other regional states immediately to reach for a short-term compromise that makes a solid start on stabilizing this incredibly dangerous situation.

Tolaraya might just have the future of the world on his shoulders. He is likely one of the few people on the planet with excellent contacts in both Pyongyang and also Washington DC—not to mention decades of experience working on this delicate issue.

The “blob” in Washington needs to accept that it's ongoing endeavor to thoroughly despoil U.S.-Russian relations could actually have extremely deleterious effects—not least preventing skilled Russian specialists from acting as crucial emissaries and go betweens to alleviate this crisis. A foolish New York Times columnist, as recently as mid-December, mocked President Trump for requesting help from the Kremlin in the Korea crisis. But Russia’s help in these circumstances is badly needed, as the crisis appears to go from bad to worse and we stand on the brink of something close to utter catastrophe, if not Armageddon.

A significant Russian diplomatic push spearheaded by Putin himself, and supported by his genuinely capable North Korea experts like Toloraya, to secure a compromise agreement would hardly detract from his election campaign and could quite possibly “kill two birds with one stone” [одним ударом убить двух зайцев], easing tensions simultaneously in Asia, but also in Europe as well. Let’s not forget that Putin did meet directly with Kim Jung-un’s father many years ago in Vladivostok, so there is a precedent. Such a diplomatic master stroke even has the potential to reverse the negative spiral so apparent now in U.S.-Russian relations, as well.

Lyle J. Goldstein is Professor of Strategy in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the United States Naval War College in Newport, RI. You can reach him at [email protected].. The opinions in his columns are entirely his own and do not reflect the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. government.

Image: Reuters


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