Dialing back escalating tensions with North Korea will require the United States and partner nations to pursue careful diplomacy and put a pause on using military assets to send the Kim regime a message, regional experts said on Tuesday.
The latest round of provocations and saber rattling kicked off with North Korea’s successful December long-range rocket launch and February nuclear test. The U.N. Security Council responded with new sanctions, witch resulted in a stream of angry rhetoric and threats from the North.
Pyongyang threatened nuclear strikes against South Korea and the United States, ordered its ballistic missile units placed on the highest alert, and on Tuesday declared it would dedicate all its atomic facilities toward the production of nuclear weapons.
Washington has responded by refocusing its ballistic missile defense strategy toward the North and sending nuclear-capable bombers and missile destroyers to the Korean Peninsula
The Obama administration was correct to “make the deterrence point” by having the B-2 and B-52 bombers conduct flyovers during U.S. military exercises with South Korea, according to East Asia expert James Schoff. With the message delivered, Washington can steer away from similar “gentle reminders” of its strategic power, he said.
The Foal Eagle exercise is to conclude on April 30. Pyongyang, which views such drills as a pretext for invasion, might ease back the ferociousness of its rhetoric as the allied maneuvers wrap up, said Schoff, a senior associate in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Asia Program.
“It is possible that North Korea will declare a victory and go home,” Schoff said. When no invasion takes place, Pyongyang could make the case in its domestic propaganda that it succeeded in frightening the United States and South Korea into not attacking, he explained.
Schoff said he does not believe the United States should yet seek a return to the moribund six-party talks focused on achieving permanent North Korean denuclearization. Such a move would send the wrong signal to Pyongyang that its provocative behavior is rewarded.
“That doesn’t mean we couldn’t offer some talks to reinstate the [terms of the] armistice” to the Korean War, which the North declared invalid in March, he said.
Discussions could involve South Korea and be focused on returning to an uneasy détente in which the sides reconnect their emergency hot lines and other military communication mechanisms. “If North Korea refuses that kind of an offer then it looks more clearly to the international community but also importantly to China that the problem lies in Pyongyang,” said Schoff, a former Pentagon strategic planner.
The United Nations maintains the Korean War armistice is still valid regardless of what the North might say.
The Obama administration is not likely to pursue such talks, contended Joel Wit, a former State Department official who was in charge of implementing a now-failed 1990s denuclearization accord with North Korea.
The White House is not presently interested in taking diplomatic steps to defuse tension with Pyongyang, he said in an interview that was largely critical of the U.S. approach toward North Korea. Rather, the Obama administration favors maintaining its policy of “strategic patience” in which it offers no concessions and only limited engagement until Pyongyang takes steps to halt its nuclear weapons work.
“We need a totally new policy. We need a policy that adopts strong measures to contain North Korea but also a strong diplomatic track,” said Wit who now manages the website 38 North, which tracks developments in North Korea.
With the implementation of the latest U.N. sanctions, imposition of additional U.S. economic penalties, and repositioning of military forces in the Asia-Pacific, Washington is taking strong measures to contain North Korea. However, the Obama administration is neglecting the diplomatic track, according to Wit.
The Obama administration “can’t just have a policy purely of containment,” Schoff agreed.
“I think we really do need to address core security issues on both sides, establishing permanent peace agreements on the [Korean] peninsula,” Wit said. North Korea has repeatedly called for a peace treaty to replace the armistice but Washington maintains any such treaty must come after headway is achieved in the closure of the Stalinist state’s nuclear weapons program.
In order to boost diplomatic dealings with the North, Wit advised involving officials more senior-level than special envoy Glyn Davies, who leads North Korea policy at the State Department.
“When we talk to Iran, you have an undersecretary of State participating in the multilateral meeting,” said Wit, referring to the negotiations between Iran and the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany. “We don’t have anything like that. Glyn Davies is well below the undersecretary of State level.”
Washington should take a page from Seoul, which under new President Park Geun-hye spelled out a three-step approach for building trust with North Korea, according to Wit.
The Park administration’s plan calls first for allowing humanitarian aid to the impoverished North to resume while simultaneously urging Pyongyang to adhere to agreements previously reached with Seoul. Success in that area would allow broader bilateral economic collaboration to take place that is uncoupled from denuclearization demands. Progress in this second area would be followed by expansive economic assistance to the North that is directly tied to achievements on the denuclearization front.
Park’s focus on building inter-Korean trust has not stopped her from warning that South Korea will not hesitate to respond quickly with military force if it is attacked.
Schoff said Washington might also want to reconsider its stance against permitting South Korea from using pyroprocessing technology in a new bilateral atomic trade agreement. The nuclear fuel reprocessing technique can be used to reduce atomic waste levels and to produce fissile material.
“Given the fact that North Korea is just taking all of the camouflage off of its nuclear program now, I actually don’t think it would be such a bad thing both in terms of the alliance commitment … and as a broader message to [North Korea] that its actions are not consequence free for the region,” Schoff said.