Anyone with a modicum of sense does not want to see the US teeter at the brink of war with North Korea and certainly not inadvertently stumble over that brink, or intentionally jump. The first Korean War in the 1950s was costly in terms of lives and treasure. A second Korean War, with the possibility of nuclear weapons use, would be far more costly to both sides, and could lead to global nuclear conflagration.
Neither North Korea nor South Korea want a new war, but US leadership in Washington is threatening war, with remarks such as “talking is not the answer”; North Korean threats “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen”; “military solutions are now in place, locked and loaded”; and “all options are on the table.” Such posturing has only elicited more nuclear and missile tests from North Korea.
It is clear, though, that threats of attack are not a responsible way of going forward. This may be difficult for Trump to grasp, since he has built his business and political reputation on threats and bullying behavior. Like all bullies, he backs down when confronted. But confrontation with a bully is still risky, particularly this bully, who is also thin-skinned, erratic, impulsive and has the full power of the US military at his disposal.
The US does not need another war, not with North Korea or any country. We need, instead, to extract ourselves from the ongoing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. Nor should we turn our backs on the well-negotiated agreement with Iran to halt their nuclear weapons program. In fact, this agreement should serve as a model for the type of agreement needed with North Korea.
What needs to be done?
The US should agree to negotiate with North Korea and do so without preconditions. It has been suggested by North Korea, as well as by China and Russia, that North Korea would freeze its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for the US and South Korea ceasing to conduct war games at North Korea’s border. The US has foolishly, arrogantly and repeatedly ignored or rejected this proposal to get to the negotiating table. It seems that the US would prefer to continue its war gaming on the Korean peninsula than to negotiate with the North Koreans to find a solution to control their nuclear arsenal.
It would appear that North Korea wants to assure that its regime is not vulnerable to a US attack and occupation, such as occurred in Iraq and Libya. In each of these countries the leaders were captured and killed.
Rather than seeking to tighten the economic sanctions on North Korea, which primarily hurt their people, the US should try a different approach, one offering positive rewards for freezing the North Korean nuclear and missile programs and allowing inspections. Such positive rewards could include food, health care, energy, and infrastructure development. North Korea has responded positively to such offers of help in the past, and would be likely to do so again. Kim Jong-un is not, as the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, has said, “begging for war.”
In addition, there has never been a formal end to the Korean War, and it is past time to reach a peace agreement and formally bring the war to an end. This would be a major step forward and one greatly desired by North Korea.
The Trump administration needs to engage with its allies, South Korea and Japan, in these negotiations. It should also bring other interested parties in Northeast Asia into the negotiations. This would include China and Russia. All of these countries appear to be ready to talk. The US just needs to put aside its arrogance and begin the task of negotiating rather than continuing the unworkable approach of trying to force its will on North Korea or any other country by means of threats or bullying. That is the reality of the Nuclear Age.