WASHINGTON – The Korean Peninsula is heating up, with North Korea mixing missile tests with an assassination via nerve gas and China launching an economic strike against South Korea for joining America’s anti-missile program. Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s policy appears to be to stoke the flames.
When presented with a Chinese proposal for a North Korean nuclear and missile freeze in exchange for U.S. and South Korean cancelation of ongoing military exercises, U.N. Ambassador Nikki R. Haley declared that “We have to see some sort of positive action by North Korea before we can take them seriously.”
The threat of additional negative steps should be reason enough for contact. However, South Korea’s U.N. ambassador, Cho Tae-yul, declared: “This is not the time for us to talk about freezing or dialogue with North Korea.”
If not now, when? And if not dialogue, then what?
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is heading to Asia for talks “to try to generate a new approach to North Korea,” according to a State Department spokesman. What might that be?
Haley repeated a bromide from the past: “I can tell you we’re not ruling anything out, and we’re considering every option.” However, the implied military threat will only drive the North toward greater commitment to creating a deterrent while unsettling the South, which would bear the brunt of any ensuing conflict.
Such a strike would be a wild gamble, assuming that the U.S. could take out the essentials of the North’s nuclear program while Pyongyang exercised restraint in its response. If Haley believes North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to be “non-rational,” as she said, why would she assume he would passively sit through a U.S. attack?
What are the other options? More sanctions, almost every observer says. But so far Beijing has carefully limited the impact of economic restrictions to prevent a crisis in the North.
If Tillerson really wants to promote “a new approach,” he needs to be prepared to negotiate with China, addressing their concerns about the prospect of a messy collapse of the North and hostile reunification landing U.S. forces on their border. That is, the sort of deal-making favored by U.S. President Donald Trump.
China long has pressed the U.S. to make a generous offer to Pyongyang to reverse the “hostile” environment which Chinese officials believe to be the cause of the North’s missile and nuclear programs. If Washington wants China’s cooperation, the U.S. needs to give as well as take.
Indeed, why reject the nuke freeze for military maneuvers offer? Maybe North Korea isn’t serious, but the only way to find out is to accept, forcing the North to say yes or no. Dropping the maneuvers would be a small concession — South Korea long ago should have taken over its conventional defense long ago—while backing up China would allow Washington to request greater support from China.
Some analysts boldly propose sanctioning Chinese financial institutions which deal with the North. Tillerson even proposed compelling China to enforce sanctions as demanded by Washington, whatever that would entail. However, neither China’s leaders nor its people are inclined to accept foreign dictates.
Indeed, the explosive Chinese reaction against South Korea’s participation in the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system demonstrates nationalism’s power in China. If Washington’s demands upend the U.S.-China relationship, the impact would affect other important issues, including trade, territorial claims and Taiwan.
Perhaps administration officials cannot see the world from Pyongyang’s and Beijing’s perspective. The Kim regime is evil. It is incautious, even reckless. But there is no evidence that the young marshal and his minions are mad, determined on self-destruction or global immolation.
Indeed, Washington’s proclivity for military intervention has created a premium for potential adversaries to develop deterrents, as the North is doing. Which suggests the starting point for any modus vivendi should be, as Beijing suggests, reducing Pyongyang’s feelings of insecurity.
That might not be enough, but the Kim regime is unlikely to voluntarily dismantle itself. This step also is necessary to win greater Chinese backing.
Beijing is frustrated: Kim has ostentatiously ignored China’s counsel and interests.
However, Washington must negotiate with, not dictate to, Beijing if it hopes for Chinese cooperation. And that, in turn, requires a willingness to engage the North. Success obviously is not assured, but failing to change policy almost certainly guarantees continued failure.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of “Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.”
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