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North Korea and the US: are there ways out?

by Dan Smith

Was it a response? Was it not a response? Following a missile test on 15 September, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) went two months without another one. On 20 November, President Trump formally designated the DPRK as a state that sponsors terrorism. On 28 November the DPRK launched what may have been an intercontinental-range missile, reckoned by some reports to be its 20th test-firing of the year. The risk of the US-DPRK leading to conflagration is still not huge but it is increasing. With such high stakes, it is urgent to find a way to cool things down.

The terror list

Let’s take a bit of background first. According to the State Department website, states are designated as sponsors of terrorism if they “have repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism“. Three other states are on the list – Iran, Sudan and Syria. Cuba was removed in 2015 and the DPRK was actually removed from the list in October 2008, not because of any view the Bush administration of the day took about the DPRK’s links to terrorism, but as part of a deal that would open up the country’s nuclear research programme to international scrutiny.

That step was intensely controversial within the Bush administration and nobody could look at the nine years since then and think that the deal worked or that coming off the terror list proved much of an incentive. The DPRK had conducted one nuclear test by then – in October 2006 – and the second followed just seven months after it came off the terror list. Four more nuclear tests have followed (2013, two in 2016, and the most recent in September this year).

Questions arise, however, about the practical impact of the move. International sanctions against DPRK have long been in place and have been tightened this year without visible effect. Though President Trump has promised “an additional sanction, and a very large one“, one could be forgiven for thinking that toolbox is now pretty much empty. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the move might dissuade other states from supporting or helping the DPRK but not much else.

Of course, judging potential impact depends in part on knowing the purpose. The administration can cite unacceptable actions by the DPRK such as causing the coma of the imprisoned American student, Otto Warmbier, and his eventual tragic death in June and the murder of DPRK Leader Kim Jong-un’s half brother, Kim Jong-nam, in February, together with earlier actions including alleged cyber attacks. But there are grounds for thinking that, like the de-listing in 2008, putting DPRK back on the terrorism list is primarily about its nuclear and missile programmes.

Either way, there are issues of timing. If it is about terrorism, it seems like a delayed response to the high profile cases of Otto Warmbier and Kim Jong-nam. If it’s about the weapons programmes, the last missile test before the terror designation was two months earlier. That may just have been a result of the DPRK’s scheduling rather than a gesture of conciliation or a response to external pressure. But the speed with which the DPRK prepared another test after the designation was announced suggests it is responsive in its own way to external stimuli.

The rhetoric of force

This year, as I reflected some three months back in this short interview, there has been a distinct ratcheting up of the rhetoric of confrontation on both sides.

That was before Donald Trump’s UN General Assembly speech and “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission.” Which quickly became Little Rocket Man.

Those jibes were followed in turn by counter-blasts from Pyongyang, calling Trump “an old lunatic, mean trickster and human reject” who deserves the death penalty, while Trump sarcastically remarked he would never call Kim Jong Un short and fat.

Beyond the insults a more forcible language has also continued. Trump’s immediate response to DPRK’s September nuclear test was a tweet saying darkly that “they only understand one thing,” immediately followed by mentioning he would meet the military top brass to discuss North Korea.

Tough rhetoric can run away with itself and establish a logic that eventually leads to action. That is especially true when the language of confrontation supports and is supported by commensurate actions such as the missile and nuclear tests, the US simulation of an attack on DPRK’s “core facilities”, or a show of aerial force off its coastline, or the DPRK redeploying key forces in response.

The options for actual use of force are at once appalling in human terms and strategic blind alleys for both the US and the DPRK. That itself makes armed conflict an improbable choice by either side but misunderstanding fed by lack of any communication except hostile rhetoric makes the unwanted war a possible outcome.

And alternatives

So what can be done? There is no lack of options available. A SIPRI report in 2007 identified 57 separate measures that could be undertaken to build confidence between the contending parties on the Korean peninsula. From a technical standpoint, these measures are still relevant and viable.

One priority right now is to reduce the risk of a conflagration starting up accidentally as a result of misperception and misunderstanding. Arrangements to give advance notice of military exercises, manoeuvres and major movements of forces along with some kind of a “hot line” arrangement to handle potentially difficult incidents form one set of measures that would reduce risk. There could also be working groups and eventually agreements on nuclear safety and on the non-transfer to other parties of nuclear technology and know-how.

Quiet “pre-talks” could identify each side’s red lines beyond which no concession or compromise is possible, and thus identify areas where there could be some movement. These would be helped by a calmer tone and, in turn, would help the process of dialling down the rhetoric. More ambitiously, with some risk reduction measures in place, each side could identify what could offer the other a degree of assurance. At present the DPRK has grounds to believe the US and allies want forcible regime change – the overthrow of Kim Jong Un and a change of political system in North Korea. For their part, the US and its allies can reasonably suspect that DPRK’s nuclear ambitions are not limited to deterring attack but actually aim for the leverage with which to reunify the two Koreas into one by force. What would it take to persuade each side that its greatest fear about the other is unwarranted? Or more precisely, what can be done that is both politically feasible and strategically practicable on each side to persuade the other? What is the role of the regional powers in setting up a viable system of risk reduction? How can other governments help from outside the region? These would be worthwhile topics for discussion, if the initial reduction of risk leads onto to a broader effort to cool the confrontation.

The short-term goal in Northeast Asia has to be to avoid the risk of both conventional and nuclear war. That risk is of low probability right now, but nonetheless identifiably increasing. And were it to occur, the impact would be devastating beyond words. There are ways of reducing and eventually minimising the risk and it is time to take them up.

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