How to Avoid Another Korean War

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un attends a meeting with Russia's President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok, Russia April 25, 2019. Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.

How to Avoid Another Korean War

Deterrence could break down due to accidents, miscalculation, miscommunication, or overreaction. Washington must prevent that from happening.

Enos also wrote to the National Interest that Washington should focus on human rights in addition to CIVD: “The U.S. should... pursue a more comprehensive strategy in negotiations with North Korea—one that recognizes that U.S. policy reflects a variety of policy priorities toward North Korea that include promotion of freedom for the North Korean people.”

A comprehensive strategy is certainly needed as is some level of deterrence and containment. The catch is while CVID or containment via maximum pressure slows North Korea down, it has limits.

For instance, on the one hand, Kim’s globetrotting normalizes him and makes it harder to enforce sanctions. China’s interests in keeping Pyongyang afloat also means Beijing will often flout sanctions. Moreover, if other powers are willing to break sanctions, Kim may survive just as his father and grandfather have. For example, in 2018, countries as wide-ranging as Mexico, Turkey, Uruguay, Ghana, and India all violated North Korea’s textile export ban by purchasing millions worth of clothing. Meanwhile, Washington’s bandwidth is limited by new crisis and America is busy fighting multiple wars in Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Somalia.

Yet, on the other hand, America might not want to push too hard. One possible scenario of sanctions gone wrong would be if economic pressure coupled with a crisis causes Kim to believe war is imminent and so he must act first. Alternatively, sanctions and Pyongyang’s mismanagement could cause a coup or collapse, as nearly happened in 1995 during a severe famine. But, regime change might not have positive results for Washington.

Pyongyang’s new leadership could be more openly hostile than Kim. There is also a chance the military would take control and would place their nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert in case of South Korean or American intervention. Beijing could even take military action to maintain order and secure North Korea’s nuclear stockpiles. But, of course, during a collapse, there is a high likelihood Seoul and Washington would also send in special forces to do the same thing. What would happen then? Could all of Pyongyang’s nuclear materials and weapons be accounted for? Would Chinese and South Korean and American forces work together or stumble into a third world war by surprise and accident?

With the difficulty of sanctions enforcement and the possibility of maximum pressure backfiring, some North Korea watchers have suggested only playing nice in the hope of trying to flip Pyongyang into an American ally like Vietnam.

However, such a bold goal is unlikely to work. There are still North Korea’s cycle of escalation and diplomacy to deal with and Trump cannot remove all sanctions unilaterally even if he wanted to. That is because in 2016, Congress enacted a law preventing economic relief for Pyongyang without clear progress on CVID.

Besides, Kim might not be a true economic and political reformer. Although Kim has made many reforms, being an economic liberalizer who wants to avoid famines doesn’t necessarily make one less of a nationalist. Even though Kim seeks prosperity and political stability through some reforms, his baseline goal remains staying in power and coveting at least influence—if not eventual dominance—over South Korea.

Additionally, as North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho told the National Interest in a previous interview, “[I]f North Korea undergoes reform and opening, their foundation of hereditary succession of power will be threatened. As long as Kim Jong-un wishes for a long-term dictatorship, he will neither reform nor open under any circumstances.”

The Only Real Options

So what is left if North Korea cannot be fully contained, forcibly made to comply with CVID, or completely transformed into an American partner?

Some variation on diplomacy with deterrence appears to be the only real answer at least for now. America needs a stable power and deterrence dynamic. If two traditionally hostile powers are to coexist indefinitely with nuclear weapons, they must at least have crisis management mechanisms in place if they cannot fundamentally alter the relationship.

As Alexandra Bell, the senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, explained to the National Interest, “[The] Hanoi [summit] was a failure for many reasons, not the least of which was lack of preparation. It also seemed that the Trump Administration had wildly unrealistic expectations about the scope of issues that could be handled in one summit.”

Bell wrote further: “Don’t add more sanctions assuming it’s some sort of magic wand to use when talks aren’t going well. Diplomacy is hard. The Administration needs to accept that. Get back to the negotiations with a real idea of what we want to talk about and it cannot be ‘everything.’ We need achievable, short-term goals. We can then build on success.”

This is why pragmatism is needed. It is difficult to lower the risks of accident, miscalculation, misperception, and overreaction, but Washington must seriously start somewhere.

Part of this can be done at home, where America has the greatest ability to avoid a future crisis. Washington must make a point to double check on its own nuclear arsenal and alert systems. It is not safe for the world’s most powerful country to have false alarms or accidents.

Also, America should encourage South and North Korea to maintain their hotline which was finally brought back online in January 2018. The United States itself has back channels to North Korea through the United Nations in New York and through British and Swedish diplomats. This is not good enough.

Washington and Pyongyang must set up their much-talked-about liaison offices. Having a more direct line of communication will vastly improve mutual understanding during a crisis. America also needs better coordination and preparation with South Korea and with China in case things ever do start to get out of control.

Finally, as Chung-in Moon advised Washington during his interview: “Going forward, it would be useful for South Korea, North Korea, and America to institutionalize a trilateral crisis monitoring and management mechanism. If the United States and North Korea progress toward normalization of relations, that would of course also dramatically improve their ability to sustain dialogue, including during a period of crisis.”

Continuous Crisis Management As a End Goal

It would be a mistake to trust North Korea completely, but Pyongyang is not so dangerous to be worth risking nuclear war. Kim is powerful, but he is not the leader of Russia or China which have more resources, modern armies, and vastly more numerous and advanced nuclear weapons. Washington should just manage North Korea so it can focus on real competitors like China and Russia.

After the Hanoi summit, both sides wisely left the door open to future diplomacy. Kim and Trump understand there is more at stake than whether one individual meeting is a success or failure.

Washington must continue its outreach to Pyongyang while also holding the line where necessary. But Trump must do this while tending to the relationship and ensuring crisis management is baked into talks.

As Davis told the National Interest, “The only way we lose in our relations with North Korea is if we engage in the unprovoked use of military force.”

CVID may not be possible any time soon or at all. But that is okay if both sides can avoid escalation in the future. America coexisted with the Soviet Union and can do so with a weaker North Korea.

John Dale Grover is an assistant managing editor for the National Interest. This project was completed in collaboration with Brad Howard, a U.S. Air Force veteran who writes about the military.

Image: Reuters