For more than two decades, North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them long distances has prompted recurring international crises.
Sudden bursts of heightened tension, primarily between the North and the United States, were interspersed with diplomacy that never definitively halted the gathering storm.
After a week of brinkmanship and escalating rhetoric between the two sides, Pyongyang and Washington suddenly found themselves at perhaps the most dangerous moment in more than 60 years – with some declaring that the window to anything but a military solution to the crisis had nearly closed.
The ups and downs in tension are almost certainly not over – the US will hold annual joint military exercises with South Korea beginning Aug. 21, a show of force that often provokes the North.
Yet some glimmers suggest that the diplomatic path, though narrowed, remains open. For one thing, North Korea announced Tuesday that its leader, Kim Jong-un, had decided to hold off on plans to fire four intermediate-range ballistic missiles into waters near Guam, the US territory in the Western Pacific. In response, early Wednesday President Trump praised Mr. Kim’s “very wise and well reasoned decision.”
Senior Trump administration officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, are even hinting that they are looking ahead to what a permanent peace agreement with North Korea might look like – although everyone agrees that getting there remains well in the distance.
“I think we’re on a roller coaster with North Korea, and tensions are going to go up and they’re going to go down, but we may now be on the downward slope after an especially steep climb,” says Joel Wit, a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies’s US-Korea Institute in Washington. “It’s not going to be easy, but if we can keep things from getting out of hand again for a while, we may have at least an opportunity to get somewhere on this” crisis.
Diplomatic pressure on China
The stepping stones on a diplomatic path forward are generally well-marked, although none will be easy, analysts say. Among them: increased pressure on China to move its client-state neighbor away from its threatening posture.
Moreover, the US would likely face its own hard-to-swallow diplomatic prerequisites – for example, accepting the North's denuclearization as a long-term goal rather than as an opening card in any negotiations.
For some, signs are palpable that the diplomatic push with China is already bearing fruit. China has announced it is beginning to implement the new sanctions recently imposed by the United Nations Security Council (including China) on Pyongyang over its recent missile tests. China, which buys more than 90 percent of North Korea’s exports, says it has halted all new imports from the North of coal, iron ore, and lead.
At the same time, the Trump administration appears to have quietly stepped back from plans to curtail Chinese steel imports and from other punitive trade measures.
Still, some North Asia experts say the US will have to do more and push harder to get meaningful cooperation from China on North Korea.
“I guess my response to the Chinese saying they will start enforcing the new UN sanctions is, ‘OK, that’s good, you’re required to,’ ” says Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center in Washington. “Are we going to see what we’ve seen in the past, which is that China vows to enforce new resolutions and then backslides after a few months?”
To really get China’s attention, Mr. Klingner says, the Trump administration would have to proceed with a number of “secondary sanctions” on Chinese businesses that continue to work closely with North Korea – for example, banks that launder Pyongyang’s proceeds from its illicit trade in everything from cigarettes and drugs to arms.
“Trump has not yet differentiated his policy from that of [former President Barack] Obama and the former administration’s under-implementation of US laws” that provide for action against Chinese entities using dollars in their dealing with North Korea, he says. “I’m hopeful the administration will live up to its pledges to enforce US law,” he adds, “but until that happens China is not really going to have the incentive to cooperate.”
Others suggest that the US could reinforce pressure on China to get serious by dangling the prospect of Japan going nuclear if the threat North Korea presents to the region is not addressed.
Ground rules for negotiating
As in the past, any serious stab at diplomacy would likely start with what diplomats refer to as “talks about talks” – initial exploration of whether the sides (primarily Pyongyang and Washington) are even able to set the ground rules for negotiations.
Some level of discussions between US and North Korean officials appear to be ongoing. Klingner, a former CIA deputy division chief for Korea, says that while “I’ve been told the [backchannel] is reopened, I would distinguish between diplomacy and negotiations.”
Some aspects of opening positions are already well known – for example, the North Koreans insist that any talks be initiated without preconditions, says Mr. Wit, a former State Department North Korea policy specialist who has continued to meet informally with North Korean officials.
The North balks at US demands that it cease all nuclear and missile testing as a precondition to talks, although it has promoted the idea of “freeze for freeze” – cessation of its tests accompanied by suspension of the US military exercises with South Korea that it considers threatening.
Klingner cautions against such a deal, saying that Pyongyang is equating its own illegal activities – nuclear and missile tests proscribed by UN resolutions – with legitimate activities the US is undertaking with an ally.
“It’s apples and oranges,” Klingner says, adding that a more promising proposal would be for the North to suspend its own military exercises in exchange for a suspension of the US-South Korea exercises it finds threatening. “At least that would be apples and apples,” he says.
On the other hand, Wit says the US should not reject the North’s proposal out of hand, especially since his contacts suggest that the North is not insisting on a freeze of all US military exercises in order to start talking. Rather, he says, Pyongyang would require an end only to those exercises that “are aimed at decapitating the regime.”
That requirement hints at what many experts say is Kim’s sole preoccupation: survival of his regime.
“The North Koreans have built their nukes to ensure regime survival, so they’re never going to give them up voluntarily,” says Vice Admiral John Bird (ret.), former commander of the US Navy’s Seventh fleet in the Pacific, speaking Tuesday in a conference call organized by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs in Washington.
“As crazy and wacky and murderous as Kim is,” he says, “I do not believe he is going to cross whatever line he believes would result in a US” attack. “At the end of the day he’s going to be rational on regime survival.”
It is perhaps recognition of Kim’s overriding focus that has prompted Mr. Tillerson to state more than once that the US is not seeking “regime change” or even reunification of the two Koreas, but rather denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
The hard part will be getting from such statements to the initial steps required before yet another diplomatic initiative aimed at resolving the North Korea standoff could even begin.