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Solving the Problem with North Korea

Without complete knowledge of American, South Korean and North Korean military capabilities on the Korean peninsula, it is difficult to make specific recommendations about how to solve or at least de-escalate the standoff and mutual threats between the U.S. and Pyongyang. Clearly, bombastic threats from President Trump have the effect of increasing counter-threats from Kim Jong Un. Clearly, Kim Jong Un plans to continue developing his nuclear weapon deliverability capability and demonstrating his progress to the world. Clearly, current approaches to de-escalation are not working.

By all reports, Kim Jong Un is wary, if not terrified of the prospect of a U.S.  led or instigated takeover of his country. His fears are based upon the absence of a permanent agreement to divide North and South Korea, the presence of American weapons and troops in South Korea, a large, well-equipped South Korean military, and repeated joint military exercises near his borders by the U.S. and South Korea. All of this military preparedness on the part of the U.S. and South Korea is justified by Kim Jong Un’s and his predecessors’ threatening language and actions against South Korea, and now against the United States as a potential target of North Korea’s military weapons.

The response and approach of the U.S. has been to both build up and maintain military preparedness to defend South Korea and to enact and get the rest of the world to enact economic sanctions against North Korea.

Historically, the United States has engaged in numerous efforts to forge agreements with and curtail both nuclear and missile development in North Korea, extending through several U.S. administrations. There have been times when these have appeared to be successful and other times when they have dissolved into mutual accusations and failure. An extensive summary of this negotiation over the years is available at https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/dprkchron .  What this summary reveals is that North Korea has used the threat of nuclear development as well as of supplying nuclear material to other countries as leverage to try to secure both lifting of sanctions, when they were in place, and “rewards” for lost income due to curtailing its illicit exchange of nuclear material and expertise to other countries. They have always held out the possibility of a non-nuclear Korean peninsula as a goal, if suitable conditions could be negotiated. However, each time progress seemed to be made, they either were shown to have been cheating with regard to their own nuclear activities or they backed out of agreements when they perceived themselves to be slighted or disrespected, mostly by the U.S. The United States, for its part has made genuine efforts to relieve tensions, including suspension of sanctions and even removal from the state department’s list of terrorist countries, although there were few times that at least parts of the North Korean economy were not under sanctions, often for supplying nuclear material to other countries.

What is clear from the historical record is that North Korea uses its nuclear development and its militancy as a bargaining chip and that at least parts of its economy are dependent upon its ability to supply nuclear material, expertise, and ordinary weaponry to other countries, something they have demanded compensation for discontinuing. They are also convinced that the United States, in particular, feels it has a right to place what they see as unfair demands upon their military and economic activities (restricting their ability to launch satellites, for instance), which is seen as an insult.

The United States is faced with an adversary that uses belligerence and brinkmanship as a negotiating tool, and occasionally has been rewarded for doing so, although most often it has led to their punishment by the international community. They have managed to occupy near-center stage in American military foreign policy for years, which seems to be something that pleases them. Given this situation, what can the U.S. do to relieve tensions and reduce the nuclear threat from North Korea?

North Korea is on a reward schedule, which on the surface appears self-defeating, but like a gambler who loses routinely but wins occasionally, or a misbehaving child who is usually punished but occasionally rewarded with attention, they have fallen into a pattern of high frequency provocation as a method of securing rewards. One option is to increase sanctions (which just happened via the U.N.), which has had some success in bringing North Korea to the negotiating table in the past, (though mostly not under Kim Jong Un). The problem is what to do if such sanctions don’t work, as they can only be extended so far. Another option is to threaten them with military retaliation for their own threatening behavior (which our president just did). The problem here is that any military action is likely to escalate into disaster. A third option is to resume talks with everything on the table— a permanent peace treaty between North and South Korea, lifting of sanctions, removal from the terrorist list, economic aid, removal of American troops and weapons from South Korea and in return their denuclearization—or not, but perhaps cessation of testing of weapons and missiles, cessation of shipments of materials to other countries, re-signing of inspection agreements with IAEA and other organizations, peaceful talks and collaboration with South Korea—who knows what else?

Of the above options, the third—resuming talks—appears least likely to result in disaster. Given the long history of occasional rewards for belligerence, we need to find ways to provide the rewards North Korea seeks and tie them to non-belligerent, peaceful and constructive actions on their part. We need to look for the sporadic positive behaviors on their part and we probably need to provide a pathway for those to occur. In the long run, it can be worth it.

Reader Comments (1)

I'm in complete agreement with you, Casey. Unfortunately, reasonable people are not at the helm in our nation. Let us hope the seasoned generals surrounding the Abomination will keep him from tweeting his way into a nuclear disaster.

August 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAnca Vlasopolos

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