Commentary / World

Time to dial down tensions on the Korean Peninsula

Pyongyang and Washington should be pushed to create a 'period of calmness' before the U.N. General Assembly convenes next month

by Hitoki Den

The recent exchange of belligerent rhetoric between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump has escalated tensions on the Korean Peninsula to dangerous levels where any miscalculation by either side could lead to war, while renewed efforts to seek a political solution to the issue of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons development continue.

Reacting to the latest sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council, North Korea has threatened to launch intermediate-range ballistic missiles toward Guam — which would theoretically fly over Japan’s Shimane, Hiroshima and Kochi prefectures. Trump, responding in a bombastic manner never shown by his predecessors, warned that North Korea would face “fire and fury, like the world has never seen.”

After month-long negotiations at the U.N. between the U.S. and China, North Korea’s ally and largest trade partner, the Security Council adopted unanimously a new resolution on Aug. 5, on the heels of Pyongyang’s two test-firings of what it claimed to be an intercontinental ballistic missile on July 3 and 28. The latest resolution condemned the ICBM launches in the “strongest terms” and imposed tougher trade and financial sanctions that included a total ban on imports of coal, iron and iron ore, lead and lead ore, and seafood from the reclusive state. It also prohibits any increase in the number of North Korean workers abroad, as well as new or expanded joint ventures with North Korea.

The new sanctions could reduce North Korea’s export revenue by one-third if fully implemented. Whether the sanctions can bring about the desired effects remains to be seen, however, as doubts remain if these measures would be implemented in good faith and the export of crude oil to North Korea, on which Pyongyang depends for its survival, was excluded from the sanctions.

While trying to increase pressure on Pyongyang to halt its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, the resolution also stressed the need for solving the ongoing crisis through dialogue and reaffirmed the Security Council’s calls for the resumption of the six-party talks among North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the U.S., a mechanism for dialogue that has been suspended since 2009.

The resolution repeated its reference to the support for the joint statement of Sept. 19, 2005, which, among other things, stated that “the U.S. and North Korea undertook to respect each other’s sovereignty, exist peacefully together and take steps to normalize their relations subject to their respective bilateral policies.”

Meanwhile, at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) held in Manila on Aug. 7, 27 foreign ministers who took part in the regional mechanism meeting for dialogue and preventive diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific region reaffirmed the importance of achieving denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner and to that end called on the parties concerned to exercise self-restraint and resume dialogue. The participants’ attention were called to specific proposals, including the one calling for “double-freeze” of missile and nuclear activities by North Korea and large-scale joint exercises by the U.S. and South Korea as a possible way to address the peninsula situation, according to the chairman’s statement.

The foreign ministers of China and Russia met separately with their North Korean counterpart Ri Yong Ho on the sidelines of the forum and reportedly urged Pyongyang to abide by the latest Security Council resolution, while highlighting the need for all parties involved to show the utmost restraint and explore ways to settle through dialogue the pressing issues, including the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The forum also provided a venue for a high-level encounter between Ri and his South Korean counterpart, Kang Kyung-wha, to take place, though it apparently did not lead to any major breakthrough in the improvement of inter-Korean relations.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, while not having a meeting with Ri, held the door open for dialogue with North Korea, saying Washington was willing to talk to Pyongyang if it halted further missile test launches. He had also said earlier that the U.S. was neither seeking a regime change, the collapse of the Pyongyang regime, nor an accelerated reunification of the peninsula. “The best signal that North Korea can give us that they are prepared to talk would be to stop these missile launches,” Tillerson was quoted as saying.

Regrettably, the calls for dialogue made by the Security Council and the ARF have so far not resulted in tangible shifts in North Korea’s position. Ri said in Manila that his country would not give up a nuclear program that he described as “a legal option to defend our territory from aggression.” His remarks were followed by the bellicose statement from Pyongyang that it was preparing to fire four intermediate-range ballistic missiles into waters off Guam, a detailed plan for which it said would be completed by mid-August. Trump on his part reiterated that the U.S. was ready to respond with its military forces if Pyongyang “acted unwisely.”

Despite the heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the window for a political solution through dialogue has not been closed entirely. What Pyongyang and Washington should do is to set aside rhetoric, take the necessary steps to de-escalate the tension on the peninsula and work toward generating a political climate conducive for the resumption of dialogue either bilaterally or through a multilateral framework, such as the six-party talks or under the U.N. auspices.

As Tillerson has indicated, North Korea should refrain from conducting further ICBM test-firings, not to mention nuclear tests, while the U.S. should scale down its future joint military drills with South Korea, including the one due to start later this month. The international community, and particularly the other members of the six-party talks, should redouble their efforts to encourage both Pyongyang and Washington to work toward creating a “period of calmness” before the U.N. General Assembly where all the parties concerned are represented convenes in New York in late September.

A former United Nations official, Hitoki Den is a commentator based in New York. He is the author of “Kokuren wo Yomu: Watashino Seimukan Noto Kara” (“A Story of the U.N.: From the Notes of a Political Affairs Officer”) and many articles on U.N. and Asian issues.

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