Compromise and diplomacy, not military might, has the greatest potential to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula. From accepting North Korea as a nuclear state, to China offering nuclear protection in exchange for the North denuclearizing, there are creative ways open to world leaders to diffuse tensions in the region.
According to some estimates, North Korea has far greater military might than its neighbors to the south. The Institute for Strategic Studies asserts that this advantage is especially pronounced in active duty troops (1.19 million versus 655,000) and artillery pieces (21,100 versus 11,000). This significant military muscle is positioned a stone’s throw from Seoul. At a moment’s notice, or in case of a surgical strike on the leadership of North Korea, this conventional force could be unleashed on South Korea’s capital and neighboring areas, destroying one of the linchpins in East Asia’s economy and having collateral effects on neighboring economies through the global production chain.
Simply, the North poses an existential threat to South Korea but also is a potential major destabilizing force in the region and global economy.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to send an aircraft carrier group and his threats to deal with Pyongyang unilaterally pose a great danger to the region. They also demonstrates a paucity in understanding of the strategic edge the North enjoys on the peninsula, the potential for countries in the region to shape North Korean behavior and the negative cascade of consequences that a strike would have.
The consequences of the Libya intervention and wars in Iraq have convinced the Kim regime that the acquisition of nuclear weapons will guarantee its survival because the U.S. is not willing to attack a nuclear power. This is North Korea’s paramount objective and its primary national interest shaping the country’s path toward building a nuclear arsenal.
Importantly, this drive outweighs the North’s economic and political relationship with China. This is a germane point at three levels. First, in regards to the U.S. strategic calculation that China has economic leverage on the North to pressure it to alter its behavior. As regime survival is at stake for North Korea, it is hard to see how secondary sanctions on Chinese companies that do business with North Korea would alter the regime’s position on nuclear weapons. In contrast, secondary sanctions could have the reverse effect, with the North — fearing abandonment by China — suddenly accelerating its nuclear and ICBM development.
Second, China’s strategic interest in maintaining North Korea as a buffer state between a pro-U.S. South Korea and a pro-China North to guarantee its own security would be compromised by weakening the North’s ability to defend itself.
Third, notwithstanding China’s interest in a pro-Beijing North Korea (irrespective of the Kim regime’s existence), a nuclear-capable North Korea has security implications for China’s longer-term national interests — namely, encouraging Japan and potentially South Korea to acquire pre-emptive strike capabilities or even nuclear capabilities to act as a deterrent to not only North Korea’s nuclear threat but also China’s strategic nuclear arsenal.
Tokyo and Seoul have already begun to discuss acquiring pre-emptive strike capabilities. The Liberal Democratic Party’s national security panel is in the process of recommending acquiring pre-emptive strike capabilities, as is its counterpart in Seoul.
Pre-emptive strike capabilities, in addition to the installment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea and Japan’s theater missile defense and the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense, would further amplify China’s security concerns and increase instability in the region by sparking an arms race. This would disrupt the stability and predictability that China values to ensure continuance of its socio-economic development trajectory.
With so many moving parts and conflicting national interests in the region, finding a solution to the North Korean conundrum requires patience, diplomacy and compromise. The North’s strategic advantage over the South on the 38th parallel has resulted in a military stalemate. As a result, North Korea sees the U.S. as its primary threat and has constructed its security paradigm based on that reality.
Rather than China holding the cards, it’s the U.S. that has the greatest potential to de-escalate tensions on the peninsula. This task, though, has been made increasingly difficult by the hollowing out of the State Department through Trump’s cutbacks and an escalation in tensions through tweet diplomacy and the movement of the USS Carl Vinson strike group into the area.
Bilateral talks between the North and the U.S., as suggested by China, rather than military force has the greatest potential for a positive yet less than ideal outcome on the peninsula. It is less than ideal because the U.S. and countries in the region may have to learn to live with a nuclear North Korea. The trade-off is that in return the North could either limit its nuclear arsenal or agree to gradually denuclearize in exchange for the extension of a China nuclear umbrella.
The “One Country, Two Systems” agreement with Hong Kong shows that China can demonstrate both pragmatism and a relatively positive track record on these kind of agreements. The North Korean version could see China agree to extend its nuclear umbrella in exchange for the North’s commitment to denuclearize. In return, the North would get a peace agreement with the U.S., a security guarantee from China and commitments from both South Korea and Japan not to resolve their security issues with North Korea through military means.
While not ideal, this arrangement would incrementally de-escalate tensions on the peninsula while maintaining China’s interest in having a pro-Beijing neighbor. For South Korea, the arrangement would continue the painful division of the Korean Peninsula but may allow the North to pursue an incremental, nonmilitarized socio-economic development strategy that would make it a more synergistic and less provocative partner. This could lead to more family exchanges, economic partnerships and a gradual path toward peaceful coexistence.
In the medium to long term, this strategy would decrease the incentive for South Korea and Japan to invest in defensive systems that China deems a challenge to its security, and the potential acquisition of pre-emptive strike capabilities. For South Korea, Japan and the U.S., a China that takes a leadership role in reducing tensions on the peninsula may contribute to building valuable political capital and trust with Tokyo, Seoul and Washington, all of whom have become disillusioned with Beijing’s support for the North.
This strategy is not without costs for the U.S., China, Japan and South Korea, but it does chart a pathway forward in which military force and its associated cascade of negative consequences is avoided. The U.S. would have to move away from its long-standing position that it will not negotiate with the North. It will have to offer a peace treaty to a country that deliberately pursued a nuclear program to force the U.S. to the negotiating table, setting an example for other states such as Iran that harbor nuclear or regional hegemonic ambitions.
Creative diplomacy, compromise and dialogue may not be an immediate solution to dealing with North Korea and its nuclear brinkmanship, but they, rather than military power and threats, have the potential to bring a sustainable peace to the peninsula.
Stephen R. Nagy is a senior associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies at International Christian University. This article was first published in Policyforum.net.