Something positive may come out of the sky-high and overblown rhetoric surrounding North Korea the past few weeks. I wouldn’t call these eventualities likely or inevitable, merely on the edge of being possible.
That’s because Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have made statements publicly that no American administration has said before regarding North Korea, and those statements mark a clear departure from prior U.S. policy.
They are reconciliatory in nature and are genuine “carrots” in the diplomatic game, and are designed to go hand in hand with the “sticks” of President Trump’s inflated but largely useless rhetoric and the recent and more important August 5 vote in the U.N. Security Council. That vote, accomplished surprisingly with Russia’s and China’s consent, is to impose more economic sanctions on Pyongyang. Those sanctions are aimed at punishing Kim Jong Un because of his continued launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles that can hit the United States and Japan.
The positives come out of the “four noes” that Tillerson and Mattis laid out in speeches and in the Wall Street Journal op-ed of August 13. They said that the U.S. has “no” interest in regime change in North Korea, “no” interest in accelerated reunification of the two Koreas, “no” wish to station U.S. troops north of the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas, and “no” desire to inflict harm on the North Korean people.
The United States has never said those three first “noes” before, so overtly or publicly. They can serve as the basis of talks with North Korea, because they go part of the way toward what Kim Jong Un wants from the United States.
Un is not a madman, nor were his father and grandfather, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Il Sung, who have ruled North Korea now for 72years. Indeed, this newest Kim, although ruthlessly repressive and cruel like his ancestors, learned his lessons very well about how to be a weak country that manages to punch way above its weight internationally through the development of missile and nuclear technologies, and by playing the brinkmanship game so well.
The maximum that Un wants is this, and it is a lot: regime survival in Pyongyang through official worldwide recognition and ability to trade; a pledge from the United States not to attack it; an internationally negotiated and recognized official end to the Korean War, which was only stopped under a temporary 1953 truce; a stop to joint U.S.-South Korea military maneuvers and war games; separation of South Korea from American protection; withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea; the two Koreas united under his control; and continued possession of nuclear weapons and the intercontinental means to deliver them on target.
Most of these goals the United States cannot and should not negotiate away. Most experts on Korea see no way to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea, nor do I. Our troops there serve so many useful and worthwhile purposes, that no American president could give that away, and ,besides, we have agreements to that effect with South Korea.
Our troops guarantee South Korea’s survival as one of the linchpins of the East Asian economies and one of our most important trading partners. Our troops guarantee that Japan and the Koreas, who really do not like each other, will not go to war with each other. Our troops serve as a stabilization force that keeps all of East Asia, including China, in line. And the United States would never allow the two Koreas united under a Kim regime. No way, not ever.
But the U.S. and Japan and South Korea seem to be willing, now, judging by Tillerson and Mattis’ speeches and writings, to live with the Pyongyang regime, to not accelerate any reunification now under the South Korean government, and not move any U.S. troops to the North of the 38tth parallel, which roughly demarcates the DMZ that separates the two Koreas. And the U.S. has always been willing to negotiate a full peace agreement from the 1954 truce should the conditions be right.
Those are significant concessions on the part of the United States, Japan and South Korea. But the sticking points are huge and, more likely than not, insurmountable.
First sticking point: Would Kim Jong Un willingly give up his nuclear weapons and ICBMs? I think this is unlikely. Those weapons put him in the world’s most exclusive club, the nuclear club of eight nations – The United States, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, France, Great Britain and Israel. Talk about punching above his weight.
They give him increased leverage with the United States and with the Chinese, who no matter what they say publicly, are uncomfortable with their poor but ruthless neighbor next door having nuclear weapons. The weapons, to some degree, guarantee that his regime will not be attacked by the United States.
But let’s think a minute about how that really is, or isn’t, a significant change from the status quo. The Kims in the North have always held South Korea hostage. The threat from the North has always been this: If the United States were to attack Pyongyang, the Kims as they go down would destroy Seoul and much of South Korea with their huge array of artillery and rockets arranged along the DMZ. They would kill hundreds of thousands of South Koreans and destroy the economy there.
That is the unacceptable risk that has always confronted Washington and still does. That doesn’t change with Kim having nukes. This is what Stephen Bannon, President Trump’s former political adviser, has pointed out in his clumsy way: there is no military solution.
The Kims have always known that if they move to take South Korea, America will stop them and destroy them. That has been the “mutual assured destruction,” or MAD policy that has kept the peace across the 38th parallel for the past 70 years. Only now, Kim Jong Un must figure he has added deterrence, because if the U.S. were to attack him, he could now, perhaps, take out Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles with his nukes atop ICBMs, and that’s an unacceptable risk to Washington. I’m not sure Kim will ever give that up.
But if he got much of what he wants – a full peace treaty, international recognition and trade, a no pledge of attack from Washington, might he agree to a freeze-in-place on his nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development? Maybe.
Such an agreement would be hard to verify without intrusive inspections much like we negotiated with Iran under that nuclear bargain. But that might serve as a path through the darkness. This eventuality is far from probable, but it is a little bit possible.
I have reported from South Korea and North Korea, and there’s a lot more to say about Kim Jong Un and his miserable but ambitious country, but I’ll leave that for future blog posts. His regime is the ugliest on the planet in the way it treats its own people and one day this has to stop. The trick is how to go about it.