According to a recent testimony by Gen. Raymond A Thomas III, U.S. Special Operations Commander, nuclear-armed North Korea poses one of the five most potent threats to the U.S. national security.
Gen. Thomas’ assessment reflects a typical and mainstream analysis of threats. He focuses on foreign policy actors and their capacity rather than relationships that determine the possibility of peace or war between countries. While the focus of attention in the Korean peninsula has been on North Korea and its capabilities, war is about a relationship.
U.S. military exercises, sanctions, and aggressive diplomacy have always been viewed as a reaction to North Korea’s irrational aggressiveness. This, of course, is true, too. However, we know less about the reasons (not necessarily justified, but reasons nevertheless) North Korea might have for its provocative behavior. North Korea is assumed to act out of its irrationality. Nuclear weapons are a source of irrational pride and national prestige and not just a reaction to external security threats. In general, this is something a leading expert in the field, Dr. Jim Walsh from the MIT, has proven in his studies about nuclear powers, and it must be part of the truth for North Korea as well.
Yet, the explicit reason that North Korea keeps on repeating, but which is not very well portrayed in the world media, is that nuclear weapons could also be for deterrence against U.S. nuclear attacks. Such fear is not irrational, given that president Richard Nixon has actually once given an order for a nuclear attack against North Korea.
North Korea’s foreign minister Ri Yong Ho claimed in his speech at the ASEAN Regional Forum that North Korea’s fear is rational given that the U.S. has actually used nuclear weapons against civilians, that it has placed nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula, that it keeps on practicing war operations that simulate regime change, that it has changed regimes in several authoritarian non-nuclear countries and that it has refused the commitment to non-use of nuclear weapons against countries with no nuclear weapons.
These points are easily lost in today’s mainstream media. While the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, feels that North Korea is begging for war, and that it is blackmailing the region with nuclear weapons, North Korea can, actually, be begging for peace. It may be building a nuclear deterrent to react to what it sees as U.S. nuclear blackmail.
Considering dynamics of interaction in the region, we can see that first aggressive move in a tense situation like this is likely to be taken by the U.S., not North Korea. The close calls of war over nuclear weapons (Cuba 1962 and Iran 2007) have both been occasions in which a regional nuclear monopoly or balance of power has been challenged. In these situations, the country that the time is working against has a motive to move first. If we assume that North Korea is still a few months away from the actual capacity to hit the American continent with nuclear weapons, the time must be working against the U.S., and thus it is the U.S. that has an incentive to act first.
If we think of the solutions from in an interactive frame, we can also see that the challenge on the peninsula is not pressure but dialogue. If North Korea is acting out of national prestige, pressure would not help as it would be humiliating for its leadership to yield under pressure. China could then be useful for the resolution of the dispute only if it was possible for it to persuade the leadership in a way that could offer face-saving plan for the North Korean leaders. If, again, North Korea is really driven by genuine fear for U.S. intervention and military regime change, pressure and military threat only makes it worse. It reinforces the unreasonable image North Korea probably has of the U.S.
Of course, the U.S. statements and threatening behavior is a result of the escalating tension and North Korean provocations as well. But domestic drivers affect U.S. foreign policy, too. President Donald J. Trump has mainly been criticized for good relations and positive statements about Russia and now also of China, not for his belligerent rhetoric or his escalating military campaigns. This puts him, and his original idea of talking directly to North Korean leaders, in a difficult situation. Talking to North Korea might not bring about a desired diplomatic effect, but domestically it will undoubtedly weaken Mr. Trump’s position and draw criticisms against his leadership.
There are, however, regional opportunities for a dialogue. If North Korea does not yet possess a nuclear capacity to hit the U.S. continent, Japan, South Korea, and North Korea could have a common interest in a dialogue for peace. Since North Korea certainly has the capacity to reach Japan and South Korea with its nuclear weapons, there could be a common regional incentive to negotiate a solution to pre-empt a pre-emptive strike.
The new South Korean president is more willing to negotiate than his predecessor was. He also has exceptionally capable aides as diplomats and advisors, much more so than the previous president. According to a leading North Korea specialist, Robert Carlin, North Korean leader has also indicated some willingness to negotiate.
On July 4, he gave a statement suggesting that negotiations on North Korea’s nuclear weapons could be possible, assuming there was a reversal in the American “hostile policy and nuclear threat to the DPRK”. Ever since this statement has been repeated by the North Korean media several times, and the statement can even be found online (in Korean, though).
The media and world leaders have decided to ignore it, however. Even though the situation is dangerous as we have heard from the mainstream media, there are also more opportunities for a peaceful resolution than we have learned from the statements of world leaders or from the media.
There won’t be peace without American involvement. The question is then: Will the promise of success in regional Korean dialogue manage to lure back the negotiating businessman — President Trump — so that decisive deals can be struck?Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.