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Avoiding a pathway to war with North Korea

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A North Korean soldier looks at the south side while US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visits the border village of Panmunjom, which has separated the two Koreas since the Korean War, South Korea, 17 March 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Lee Jin-man).

In Brief

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula continue to rise. Kim Jong-un has ramped North Korea’s missile and nuclear testing programs, edging closer to possessing nuclear-tipped ICBMs that are capable of targeting the US mainland.


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US President Donald Trump has exacerbated the tensions with his tough talk, including his remarks that North Korean threats to the United States ‘will be met with fire and fury’.

A war would be a losing proposition for everyone. It would be suicide for Kim Jong-un given the overwhelming power of the combined US-ROK forces. It would be a deadly affair for South Korea, given the North Korean heavy artillery stationed along the border that can target Seoul. Japan would also be in the crosshairs, as would US personnel in the region and beyond.

It is apparent that each side fundamentally misunderstands the other. The risk of misperception and miscalculation leading to accidental military conflict is higher than most realise. There are five main factors that play into the risk.

North Korea does not appear to understand the essence of US foreign policy and strategic thinking. North Korea’s determination to develop ICBMs is motivated by the idea that it will serve as a deterrent against a US invasion. But this is a mistake. The United States will surely not allow a situation where it can be targeted by a North Korean nuclear strike. North Korea must be made to realise that this calculation is flawed. The more success North Korea achieves in developing its ICBMs, the greater the probability that the United States will feel compelled to resort to military options.

The United States does not understand the North Korean national mindset. Historically, the Korean peninsula has been a geopolitical battleground and North Korea has felt threatened from all sides by more powerful nations. The North Korean propaganda machine characterizes the United States as an imperialist power bent on bringing down its government and reminds its citizens daily that the country must be prepared for total war at a moment’s notice. North Korea responds stubbornly to pressure and coercion with defiance and continues to routinely violate UN Security Council resolutions, despite overwhelming pressure from the international community.

Kim Jong-un needs to project an image of strength domestically. As a young leader with relatively little experience he cannot rely solely on his family name. Missiles and nuclear weapons, as the symbols for demonstrating his strength, bolster his domestic political legitimacy.

Donald Trump’s domestic difficulties and foreign policy are interconnected. Trump is facing an array of problems unlike any other US president in history, including his troubled relationship with Congress, his adversarial relationship with the media, the chaos within the White House, and allegations of collusion with Russia. This has made it tempting for him to consolidate his position with tough-talking nationalism as the most visible manifestation of his ‘America First’ foreign policy.

The vast differences between the American and North Korean political systems and the absence of normal diplomatic relations increases the possibility of miscommunication and misperceptions. North Koreans lack an intricate understanding of the complex checks and balances of US institutions. This is especially the case given the inconsistent messaging between Trump’s off-the-cuff tweets and ad-libbing on the one hand and the carefully prepared official administration statements on the other. By contrast, North Korea’s over-the-top propaganda is coordinated with totalitarian precision.

Unless the two countries establish a secret communications channel for frank discussions, the risk that they will misinterpret one another’s intentions increases the risk of accidental war.

The North Korean regime’s strategy of ensuring its survival by developing its nuclear weapons and missiles hinges on its ability to drive a wedge between the major players. But a coordinated response to its nuclear weapons program would force it to rethink its calculus. It is critical that any move to take a tougher line on North Korea be part of a broader strategy geared toward resolving the issue through a negotiated settlement that aims at complete denuclearisation. For that, three steps are needed.

China and North Korea must understand that if North Korea continues developing its missiles and nuclear weapons, its game of brinksmanship could prove fatal. If North Korea continues on its current course, there is a high probability that the United States will feel compelled to pursue a military option.

The UN Security Council’s new resolution on stringent economic sanctions, including a rigorously enforced oil embargo, must be tight enough to make North Korea realise it will not be able to survive if it continues with its nuclear and missile program.

Intensive consultations between the United States, China, South Korea and Japan are needed in order to establish a common foundation for immediate management and ultimate settlement of the North Korean issue. The framework for this has already been delineated in the Six-Party Talks September 2005 agreement. This entails the denuclearisation of North Korea, the establishment of a permanent peace treaty to replace the 1953 Korean War Armistice Agreement, the normalisation of North Korea’s diplomatic relations with the United States and Japan, and the promotion of international economic and energy cooperation with North Korea. Without establishing such a common understanding it will be increasingly difficult for the United States, China, South Korea and Japan to coordinate the necessary sticks and carrots to achieve a negotiated settlement.

The danger of misperception and miscalculation leading to a devastating war in Northeast Asia is high. The need for quick and decisive action to reach a a comprehensive negotiated settlement with North Korea has never been more urgent.

Hitoshi Tanaka is a senior fellow at JCIE and chairman of the Institute for International Strategy at the Japan Research Institute. He previously served as Japan’s deputy minister for foreign affairs and Japan’s chief negotiator with North Korea.

This article is an extract from the East Asia Insights September 2017 issue, which is available in full here, and is reprinted with the kind permission of JCIE.

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