North Korea, US must be pulled back from brink

The dan­ger is war-by-er­ror. Had the North Korean mis­sile fallen short and struck the north­ern Ja­panese is­land of Hokkaido, an Amer­i­can re­sponse would have been in­evitable. A US war­plane or ship that crosses the line, for North Korea, from an­noy­ing to prov

The Sunday Guardian - - Covert -

In April 1969, a drunk Richard Nixon, fu­ri­ous over the down­ing of a US spy plane, or­dered the drop­ping of a 330-kilo­ton nu­clear bomb on North Korea. Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­vi­sor Henry Kissinger told the mil­i­tary that in­stead of fol­low­ing the for­mal pro­ce­dure to carry out the Pres­i­dent’s or­der, they should wait un­til the morn­ing when Nixon had sobered up.

The episode is a re­minder that we have been at the precipice be­fore in the USNorth Korean con­fronta­tion. Nixon may have been much smarter than Don­ald Trump, but at times he was no more sta­ble, and the North Korean regime—then led by Kim Il-sung, the grand­fa­ther of the cur­rent ruler Kim Jongun—was just as in­tran­si­gent a chal­lenge for the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity as well as Wash­ing­ton. Only a year be­fore, Py­ongyang sparked a cri­sis with the seizure of the USS Pue­blo and its crew, and sev­eral years later, Py­ong- yang tested Wash­ing­ton with the killing of two US Army of­fi­cers, who were in a crew cut­ting down a po­plar tree in the de­mil­i­tarised zone be­tween North and South Korea.

Of course, there are vi­tal dif­fer­ences in 2017. This time, North Korea is nu­clear-ca­pa­ble, with mis­sile tests demon­strat­ing the po­ten­tial of cross­ing the Pa­cific to reach the United States, as well as cov­er­ing the re­gion. The diplo­matic chairs have been re­ar­ranged, with both a post-Soviet Rus­sia and a China no longer im­pla­ca­bly tied to Com­mu­nist unity with the trou­ble­some Py­ongyang. The speed and score of elec­tronic and so­cial me­dia is a 24X7 desta­biliser, with a Don­ald Trump tweet or the boast of North Korea’s state news agency al­ter­ing ter­rain for con­flict or ne­go­ti­a­tion within a few min­utes.

But the fun­da­men­tal task re­mains: just as the ine­bri­ated Nixon was brought back from the but­ton in 1969, so the tee­to­taller Trump and a sober North Korean elite have to be con­tained now. On at least three oc­ca­sions in 2017, Trump and Kim Jongun’s team have been part­ners in cri­sis-mon­ger­ing. Trump has shouted via Twit­ter and ad hoc state­ments about a US “ar­mada” en route to the Korean Penin­sula—as the war­ships were mov­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion—and about the un­leash­ing of “fire and fury”. Un­de­terred, North Korea has ac­cel­er­ated its test­ing, cul­mi­nat­ing in the first bal­lis­tic mis­sile over­flight of Ja­pan and the ex­plo­sion of a nu­clear de­vice ten times more pow­er­ful than any they have det­o­nated be­fore. Like two ag­i­tated men in a bar, Trump and Kim have yelled and poked each other in the chest un­til they have sep­a­rated them­selves—or been sep­a­rated by oth­ers— be­fore they could tear the place apart. On Tues­day, Trump threat­ened a fourth round, as­sert­ing that just-passed UN sanc­tions— the most strin­gent to date, in­clud­ing lim­its on North Korea’s oil im­ports—pale in com­par­i­son to “what ul­ti­mately will have to hap­pen”. But the sav­ing, if far from re­as­sur­ing, grace is that the 45th Pres­i­dent is close to a fig­ure­head, with oth­ers lead­ing US pol­icy and try­ing to keep him out of the war room. De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis, Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­vi­sor H.R. Mc­Mas­ter, and Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son have been the adults in the play­ground, both in pri­vate de­lib­er­a­tions and in pub­lic sig­nals.

Mean­while, North Korea faces the de­ter­rent that any first strike would be regime sui­cide as well as the death knell for many of its sub­jects. Py­ongyang’s ar­tillery and rock­ets, with the South Korean cap­i­tal Seoul 35 miles away, are a more-than-suf­fi­cient an­swer to Trump’s blus­ter, but they are far less ef­fec­tive as an of­fen­sive threat. As Mat­tis made clear in Au­gust’s cri­sis mo­ment, “We are not look­ing to the to­tal an­ni­hi­la­tion of a coun­try, namely North Korea, but...we have many op­tions to do so.”

The dan­ger is war-by-er­ror. Had the North Korean mis­sile fallen short and struck the north­ern Ja­panese is­land of Hokkaido, an Amer­i­can re­sponse would have been in­evitable. A US war­plane or ship that crosses the line, for North Korea, from an­noy­ing to provoca­tive could bring sud­den es­ca­la­tion.

So the es­sen­tial, even if nei­ther Trump nor Kim Jong-un will say this, is ac­cep­tance fol­lowed by ne­go­ti­a­tion. The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity will have to ac­cept, and in­deed many al­ready have dis­creetly, that North Korea is a nu­clear power: there is no way to put the ge­nie back in the bot­tle. Even the hawks will have to ac­knowl­edge that regime change through force or eco­nomic war­fare is not pos­si­ble. In re­turn, Py­ongyang will have to ac­cept that, if it is ever to come in from near-iso­la­tion with the restora­tion of vi­tal eco­nomic links, then lim­its will have to be placed on its nu­clear ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

In the dis­tant time of 1994, that is where we were when the Agreed Frame­work was adopted by North Korea and the US. The process for the con­tain­ment of the nu­clear pro­gram, in re­turn for an as­sured en­ergy sup­ply for the North Kore­ans, fell apart be­cause of Py­ongyang’s ma­noeu­vres and the ag­gres­sive ap­proach of the Ge­orge W. Bush Ad­min­is­tra­tion, but that fail­ure—given the legacy of the next 16 years— only high­lights the need for re­vival. But this time the re­vival may not be Wash­ing­ton leads and oth­ers fol­low. To en­sure the con­tain­ment of both Trump and Team Kim, as well as to re­flect shifts

The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity will have to ac­cept, and in­deed many al­ready have dis­creetly, that North Korea is a nu­clear power: there is no way to put the ge­nie back in the bot­tle. Even the hawks will have to ac­knowl­edge that regime change through force or eco­nomic war­fare is not pos­si­ble.

in the re­gion and be­yond, China will have to be at the cen­tre—even if that of­fends US hawks, like for­mer White House chief strate­gist Steven Ban­non, who see Bei­jing as the great­est en­emy. Other re­gional stake­hold­ers will have to be in the process. And North Korea will have to be at the ta­ble as an ac­knowl­edged equal, not as a de­fen­dant to re­ceive a sen­tence.

This ap­proach will take time. Be­cause no one will want to lose face or give away a po­si­tion, it will have to start with back-chan­nel con­tacts for both di­rect and in­di­rect ex­changes. The con­tacts will have to be cal­i­brated with the build-up of pres­sure through mul­ti­lat­eral sanc­tions: too lit­tle and North Korea may not see the need to dial back its tests and rhetoric, too much and Py­ongyang may re­sist out of anger while coun­tries and com­pa­nies see prof­its from sanc­tions-bust­ing.

But as with Kissinger’s in­ter­ven­tion to block Nixon in 1969, there is no al­ter­na­tive. The costs of al­low­ing ei­ther a Trump or a Kim to go unchecked can­not be borne—by Kore­ans on both sides of the DMZ, by the re­gion, and by the rest of the world. Scott Lu­cas is Pro­fes­sor of In­ter­na­tional Pol­i­tics at the Univer­sity of Birm­ing­ham, UK, and founder/ed­i­tor of the analysis web­site EA World­view (www. ea­world­view.com).

VIA REUTERS

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un guides the launch of a Hwa­song-12 mis­sile in this un­dated photo re­leased by North Korea’s Korean Cen­tral News Agency (KCNA) on Saturday.

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