Are We Drifting Toward War With North Korea?
We have no alternative but to open talks with Pyongyang; the sanctions strategy is not working.
South Korea’s Constitutional Court removed Park Geun-hye, the nation’s beleaguered president, on Friday, March 10, as had been anticipated at the time I filed this column. As Park no longer enjoys official immunity, she is now exposed to criminal charges based on allegations of bribery, extortion, and abuse of office. There is text and subtext in these events. Corruption is the immediate cause of the conservative Park’s downfall. She was accused last year of intimidating Samsung and other conglomerates into contributing very large sums to various foundations controlled by Park and her associates in exchange for government favors. But beneath this lies the highly charged question of Park’s right-wing politics and tough line on North Korea. Park, the daughter of Park Chung-hee, the nation’s dictator in the 1960s and ’70s, represented a Cold War order South Koreans have outgrown. Most recently, she and Hwang Kuo-ahn, her stand-in since she was impeached in December, acquiesced in the Pentagon’s request to position its THAAD anti-missile defense system on South Korean soil—this amid months of demonstrations against the deployment. It was the threat of Park’s downfall, indeed, that prompted the United States to begin rushing the system into place last week. Given that Park’s right-wing Liberty Korea Party is now discredited, the opposition Democrats are in a strong position to halt the THAAD project, as they have promised. The Democrats, as I have written, favor renewed negotiations with the North—and may, indeed, revive Kim Dae-jung’s celebrated “sunshine policy” should they take power in elections now due within two months. In sum, Park Geun-hye’s political demise is likely to have significant geopolitical repercussions.
The Trump administration addresses the North Korea crisis: What magnitude of angst overtakes you as you contemplate this thought? However bigly you may quake—or smally, in fairness—it is time to accept that the artful dealmaker is very likely to tuck into the world’s direst strait, nuclear-charged for the past 11 years, at some point during his stay in the White House. Recent events suggest this may come quite soon.
But before getting to recent events—missile tests, murder, and so on—I pose a question. What do Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un have in common?
No one would dare equate Donald Trump and North Korea’s latest leader—although Gail Collins, la fine fleur intellectuelle on the New York Times opinion page, came close the other day. But there is this: Anyone can say anything he or she wants about either of these people and, no matter how groundless, it is unlikely to be challenged.
Now a corollary question: Why is this? Why are these two national figures fair game for those many of us who think a name, a label, or a glib, thought-free cliché is just as good as a considered argument? “End of story,” these kinds of people like to say.
History, forgetting, a refusal of responsibility, the evasion of cause and effect: These are all good answers. I cannot separate them and so offer all four together. In our accepted views of these figures we find avoidances it is instructive to understand. Evil is personified so that no one has to bear responsibility for it. Just as nothing before Trump caused Trump, so to say, Kim Jong-un is young and crazy and that is that. Neither Kim nor North Korea has any history—and certainly not a history that a great and good nation such as ours had any part in shaping.
The intent here is to take a damp cloth to a blackboard thick with scribble and chalk dust. Very occasionally in the past, a few people in the policy cliques have thought through the North Korea question, let’s say, three-dimensionally. They appear to have considered the history and looked at things, as best one can, from the other side’s perspective. It is time to attempt this in earnest. When Trump was elected last November, we seemed to be approaching a critical moment on the Korean peninsula. Now this moment is upon us.
North Korea has been testing ballistic-missile technologies since 1993. These have advanced considerably since Kim Jong-un took office, in late 2011, and tests have grown in number. Last year there were roughly two dozen, including two launches from submarines and numerous tests of an intermediate-range technology that military analysts tell us can hit targets up to 2,400 miles away.
So far this year the North has tested five missiles, all pointedly timed. It tested one intermediate-range missile in February, while Shinzo Abe, Japan’s premier, was summiting in Washington; on Monday it launched four missiles at once in apparent response to joint military drills, an annual affair, that the United States and South Korea began last week.
The North’s nuclear technologies have developed apace. With Soviet assistance, it opened a research reactor in the mid-1960s and started refining domestically mined uranium in the early 1980s. Kim Jong-il, Jong-un’s father, negotiated an “Agreed Framework” with Bill Clinton in 1994, whereby the North halted its nuclear program, but its activities resumed in 2002. Pyongyang first tested a nuclear device in 2006; last year it staged its fourth and fifth tests—the last the most powerful to date.
A few weeks before the November elections, when the whole world still assumed that Hillary Clinton would win the White House, a source plugged into the Clinton campaign’s senior policy advisers telephoned to do a little sharing. He laid out Clinton’s foreign-policy priorities, and North Korea led the list. Then he explained the three alternatives Clinton’s people had on the table. One or another of these was to be settled upon as soon as Clinton moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue:
- The new administration could do nothing, I was told. This seemed more plausible then than it does now. And doing nothing is better put as doing nothing new. The United States and South Korea had added a new layer of sanctions against the North, atop numerous sanctions already in place, over the summer. Equally, the Pentagon had been negotiating with Seoul to deploy a missile defense system called THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense). The South Koreans recently agreed to host the system—amid very widespread popular protests against it.
- Clinton, rarely shy of a reckless threat, could confront the Chinese with an ultimatum. Either Beijing agreed to force the North away from its missile and nuclear development programs, or the United States would prepare plans for military intervention. There are numerous problems with this proposal. How much influence can China exert? How much is it willing to exert? How responsive would the North, no stranger to hardship, prove? All in, intervention treats the symptom and ignores the cause—a habit of Washington’s with a success rate of zero. But the showstopper is more immediate: Analysts reckon the North could destroy roughly a third of Seoul, taking several million lives, almost instantly after the United States began an attack.
- The “Clinton administration” could open talks with Pyongyang. Given Kim Jong-un’s profile, this may seem even less promising as a strategy than the military option. And, indeed, I was told there were hawks among Clinton’s people who vigorously opposed any such thought. But there is a history of talks with Pyongyang stretching back to the early 1990s. Bill Clinton’s Agreed Framework with Jong-un’s father marked one of several moments when a settlement with the North seemed within reach.
Let’s headline the conclusion this way: Trump inherited exactly what Hillary Clinton’s people told her was in store for her. Her priority is his now. But Trump’s wisest choice—setting aside whether or not he commits to it—is clearer than Clinton’s. What looked like the least plausible strategy is now the only plausible strategy. It is time to talk.
The problems with doing nothing, the leave-as-is approach, are two.
One, Kim Jong-un is plainly a nervous young man, and he is fueling increased tensions every which way. The most recent missile launches tested a new-generation device and came within a couple of hundred miles of the Japanese coast. Kim appears to have ordered the murder of his half-brother in Malaysia a couple of weeks back, burnishing his reputation as a nerve-racking leader whose next move no one can guess, while suggesting to the rest of Asia that anything can happen anywhere.
Two, and speaking of the rest of Asia, I understand from sources in the region that every leader who counts is frustrated with the self-evident failure of the Obama administration’s sanctions strategy. They simply do not work: They cause suffering, but they do not change behavior. Ever more clearly—though usually in their impossibly courteous fashion—Asians are signaling that they favor a new round of negotiations with Pyongyang. Home after his summit with Trump a month ago, Abe told legislators in the Diet, “It’s time for a new approach.” There is only one way to understand this remark.
As to intervention, there is no reason to waste any of the lineage my editors kindly afford me on this Strangelovian proposition. We have no evidence yet that Trump’s advisers are so stupid as to consider it. Here a caveat, however: If John Bolton or some like screwball gets cut into the Trump administration’s conversations on North Korea, we will have to revisit this (and start stocking up on canned goods). Pyongyang seems to be the pebble in Bolton’s shoe. Study the man and he will remind you of those deluded Christians who sneak into the North with suitcases full of Bibles. Bolton obsessively sought to scuttle previous negotiations—the more promising the talks, the more vigorous his paranoiac clamor. As recently as a month ago he asserted on Fox News that Trump should consider “the possibility of some kind of military action”—the stated objective being the annihilation of North Korea.
It is remarkable, given the current pitch of things, to consider the history of talks with the North.
When, in 1989, satellite photographs revealed that the North Koreans had begun building a nuclear complex at a site called Yongbyon, the Bush I administration signaled to Pyongyang that if it complied with the Non-Proliferation Treaty, talks on a variety of questions, including diplomatic normalization, could begin. At this point the Kim regime was on the brink of losing Soviet support after 45 years of it. For the next few years, “denuclearization” was the running theme on the Korean peninsula.
Bill Clinton opened formal negotiations with Pyongyang in 1993 and signed the Agreed Framework a year later. Kim Jong-il committed to halting enrichment activities in exchange for shipments of heating oil and food; the United States also agreed to build two light-water reactors, which produce energy but not weapons-grade nuclear material. The framework changed the atmosphere considerably. Clinton considered a summit in Pyongyang at one point; Junichiro Koizumi, the Elvis-loving bantamweight then serving as Japan’s premier, did make the journey for a day’s talks with Jong-il. And it was during this period that South Korea pursued its “sunshine policy” with the North. But the fuel-oil shipments were halted in 2002—the event that finally killed the accord. The reactors were never built.
Nonetheless, the Agreed Framework had endured through a lot of thick and thin—even into the Bush II administration. While there had been moments of serious promise, Bush had already put North Korea on his infamous “axis of evil” list by the time it fell apart. A year later the first rounds of “six–party talks” began. These put the United States, China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea on one side of the mahogany table and North Korea on the other. Again, grounds for optimism on several occasions. But these talks, too, collapsed after Barack Obama took office in 2009, amid the same two-way recriminations that eventually sank Clinton’s framework pact with Jong-un’s father. Hot- and cold-running sanctions have been the unimaginative, going-nowhere strategy ever since.
What is to be done, as a famous Russian once asked.
It is a grim picture. The latest missile tests jangle nerves in Tokyo and Seoul such that summits and the sunshine policy Kim Dae-jung declared in 1998 seem like pre-history. The assassination of Jong-un’s half-brother leaves Pyongyang further isolated. Late last month the State Department approved visas for a half-dozen North Koreans one morning, providing for informal talks in New York, and was overruled—almost certainly by the Pentagon—the same afternoon.
This week the United States began shipping components of the THAAD anti-missile system to South Korea, a move that bothers me three times: Pyongyang is certain to respond, China is furious and taking it out on Seoul, and, as it has since the armistice in 1953, the Pentagon is once again forcing South Koreans to carry spears amid vigorous political objections in one of Asia’s most accomplished democracies.
In sum, conditions for a new round of negotiations with North Korea could scarcely be closer to perfect.
China has long been in a difficult position on the North Korea question. Having fought the United States to a draw on the 38th parallel, it has ever since viewed the North as a useful if noisome buffer state. On the other hand, it has repeatedly cooperated in pressuring the North, not least by signing onto numerous sets of sanctions. A month ago Beijing suspended critical coal imports from the North—a very significant move. But note: When announcing this, Foreign Minister Wang Yi took the occasion to assert that talks were the only way out of what is again a crisis. “This situation cannot continue,” Wang concluded, “because the ultimate outcome may be intolerable for all sides.” China’s stated position for some time has been that a solution lies between Washington and Pyongyang. Reflecting a growing sense of urgency in Beijing, Wang proposed Wednesday that the North halt its nuclear activities in exchange for the suspension of the US–South Korean military exercises.
Abe, too, has subtly but clearly signaled his desire to restart negotiations. As noted, the rest of Asia grows impatient with Washington’s failure to leverage stacks of sanctions already piled on. South Korea’s main opposition party, the Democrats, have explicitly called for negotiations—which counts, given that the leadership is knee-deep in scandal: The president is under investigation for corruption, while the Democrats announced on Monday they will try to impeach the acting president. Who is left? The Russians are sure to support new talks, as they did the previous rounds, so it is only the Americans who need to decide, and all of Asia awaits.
Although the six-party format failed to produce a result, many Asian diplomats and political figures liked it at the time—to the point of proposing to apply it to other regional conflicts. There are indications the Chinese and others favor it again. So do I, for a number of reasons. High among them, it dilutes American power by forcing Washington into a multilateral context. Equally, it puts China on the same side of the same table with South Korea, and with Japan, and with Trump administration officials, who would have a chance to repair the minor mess they have swiftly made of Sino-US ties. Anyone favoring neo-détente with Russia, as I do without qualification, will see in the six-party format a chance for Trump to display its benefits.
Look again at Kim Jong-un, who craves acceptance as much as his father did. The missile tests bear a more sophisticated interpretation than we have had to date. Mine is this: Jong-un has had a long think about the nuclear accord Washington and Tehran signed in 2015 and has taken to wondering whether he could have one of those. Like the rest of the planet, he has also wondered if there is something for him in this dealmaker fellow’s election victory: He seems to be open to anything. Kim has considered Trump’s talk of détente with Russia and wondered yet again.
If this analysis is correct, many stars align to suggest that what good diplomats there may be on the Asia desk at State should have little trouble convening allies and bringing the young Kim to the table. This thought raises a question, and I will conclude by posing it.
Are those running North Korea policy able to think historically? This is not an idle abstraction. Acknowledging historical facts—facts the rest of the world is perfectly aware of but facts most Americans have either purposely obscured, forgotten, or never knew—is essential to any successful exchange with Pyongyang. Our habit of portraying North Korea’s leadership as crazed, America-hating freaks beyond all understanding rests very largely on one thing: our erasure of the Strategic Air Command’s bombing of the North during the Korean War. It was so savage, by all accounts—when accounts are available—as to inflict a national trauma. This remains perfectly apparent. It is part of what sits at every negotiating table where North Koreans are present.
Curtis LeMay, who commanded SAC, looking back later: “Over a period of three years or so, we killed off—what?—20 percent of the population.” Dean Rusk, later on secretary of state: “We bombed everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another.” Bruce Cumings, the war’s passionately dispassionate historian, describes Kim Il-sung as forever scarred after living through the firebombing of Pyongyang.
Can we stop pretending at last? It is no good proceeding otherwise. The point here is not to inflict a case of national guilt. It is to distinguish between guilt and responsibility and urge that we accept the latter. This will open us to a settlement in Korea that our ahistorical narrative renders impossible. Human beings do things for reasons—no exceptions. North Koreans are human—daring assertion as this is—and they have theirs. Recent history is not the only one. Washington’s genocidal conduct of the war, as many critics considered it, combined very badly with the Hermit Kingdom tradition (the tendency toward isolation), two millennia of Confucian culture, and ever more appalling economic conditions to produce the nation we can but glimpse today. An eternal enemy is also a useful prop in systems such as North Korea’s. But there is no leaving out the responsibility of knowing the other—and oneself, of course.