​Exiting the highway to hell on the Korean peninsula​

Robert E. McCoy  | December 11, 2017

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula are high and the exchanges of churlish comments by Pyongyang and Washington do little to ease the pressure.

This writer had the good fortune to attend the Oct. 9th Tensions on the Korean Peninsula event held by the Mansfield Center at the University of Montana. Speakers were Greg Scarlotoiu, Executive Director of the Center for Human Rights in North Korea; Scott Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations; and Y. Kang, a young lady from Cheongjin, North Korea, who had defected some years earlier.

In responding to a question posed by host and moderator Abraham Kim, Executive Director of the Mansfield Center, Snyder discussed the need for an “exit ramp” to allow both North Korea and the U​.​S​.​ a graceful way of backing away from their belligerent posturings. He pointed out that the current levels of bellicosity from U​.​S​.​President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un cannot help but inflame tensions to the point that one or the other might come to believe that war is the only available next step.

After the formal presentation,​the author was able to spend a few minutes with Snyder. During conversation, he stated that the difficulties presented by North Korea are a “peninsular problem,” meaning that they must be addressed by Pyongyang and Seoul. That is certainly true as far as it goes, but – as with many things in Asia – the issue is far more convoluted than that single statement might lead one to believe.

The complications are many. First, the North has rejected nearly every offer of talks from the new South Korean administration of Moon Jae-in. Even though Moon is a liberal who favors engagement with Pyongyang, it would seem that Kim Jong​-un desires to talk with only the U​.​S. Further, all indications are that Pyongyang has little interest in discussions with anyone until it has consolidated both its nuclear weapons and long-range missile programs.

Understandably, North Korea wishes to enter any discussions or negotiations positioned as match for the U.S. – a powerful country worthy of respect by virtue of having the same kind of weapons and delivery systems as its perceived archenemy.

While tensions in Northeast Asia certainly affect Seoul and Tokyo, the enmity expressed by Pyongyang is directed primarily at Washington. When hostile statements from the North do mention South Korea and Japan specifically, the aim is likely to drive wedges between the U​.​S​.​and its regional allies. Consequently, Snyder contends that the U​.​S​.​ ought to make the first gesture of willingness to talk with the North.

With Washington having no other viable options, it is difficult to rationalize away an opportunity to engage in talks with Pyongyang. If Washington is concerned more about face than regional safety and stability, what does that say about the U​.​S​.​? Sitting down with one’s enemies – even if only to talk – is usually informative on some level, if both sides are willing to listen.

Furthermore, as recently pointed out by an analysis from Beyond Parallel (https://beyondparallel.csis.org/dprk-provocations-and-us-negotiations/ ), there is an inverse correlation between engaging in talks with North Korea and provocations initiated by it. That is, North Korean provocations are much less likely when Pyongyang is engaged in some form of dialog with the U​.​S​.​ – when talk is up, tensions are down.

Regrettably, Washington’s long-standing position is that there will be no formal discussions with Pyongyang unless they include denuclearization. But most analysts now conclude that, just as the North has openly stated on more than one occasion, it will not relinquish either its nuclear weapons or its missiles. The result therefore is a stand-off.

To be sure, dialog at this point would not stop Pyongyang from concluding its progress toward a functioning nuclear device-equipped ICBM capable of reaching all of the continental U​.​S. That notwithstanding, by refusing to talk, Washington squanders an opportunity to establish formal contact and perhaps begin the de-escalation process. The stakes are too high to not try.

Now that the North has tested its Hwaseong-15 missile, an ICBM thought by many to be capable of reaching all of the US, and has detonated what seems to be a true hydrogen bomb in September, Pyongyang is likely ready to sit down with Washington in the not too distant future – as a nuclear power equal. However, that is not to say there will be no more nuclear tests or missile launches.

It is quite likely that the North has more testing to do with regard to reliable reentry vehicles and ensuring that the Hwaseong-15 is ready for operational deployment. Moreover, an atmospheric nuclear test is not out of the question (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-nuclear-warning/north-korea-diplomat-says-take-atmospheric-nuclear-test-threat-literally-idUSKBN1CU2EI ). And even though the Kim regime will not negotiate away what it sees as the guarantors of its survival, there are plenty of other issues to be discussed. Alas, until such talks occur, we must be prepared for a walk on the wild side.

Image: ​US Vice President Mike Pence visits the inter-Korean DMZ at Panmunjom, 38th Parallel, on April 17, 2017. PHOTO: EPA


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