Commentary / Japan

A silver lining in the North Korea nuclear impasse?

by Ted Gover

Contributing Writer

Pyongyang’s series of short-range ballistic missiles firings of late is part of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s efforts to keep U.S. President Donald Trump focused on the North’s demands for sanctions relief and to express displeasure for last month’s U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises. While Kim’s calculated behavior avoids breaking his handshake agreement with Trump to cease long-range intercontinental ballistic missile launches and nuclear testing, the projectiles fired in recent months have a range capable of striking the Japanese archipelago, placing Tokyo at risk as Pyongyang makes technological advances with each session.

Policymakers in Tokyo are working overtime to identify ways to protect Japan from the North’s increasingly lethal intermediate-range missiles, and some have understandably been left asking if it’s time to put Kim back in his box? The answer is yes, although with the box half open.

Some context is necessary here.

To date, Kim has not taken any meaningful steps toward denuclearization. As his primary focus is the survival of the Kim dynasty, he has not relinquished any of his nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, nor has he shut down any of his nuclear facilities. Despite prior pledges, Kim has not allowed unfettered inspections of his facilities.

While resolving this long-standing problem by force is an option, it would be costly for the United States and South Korea, as well as Japan. A non-nuclear conflict with North Korea would likely result in Pyongyang firing intermediate-range missiles at any number of Japanese civilian soft targets as well as U.S. and Self-Defense Forces military facilities, resulting in casualties and significant destruction to property, infrastructure, markets and the world economy.

Furthermore, there are 30 million South Korean citizens, 200,000 U.S. citizens and 25,000 U.S. military personnel concentrated in greater Seoul, all of whom are within range of the North’s rocket battery artillery.

This reality still requires the U.S., Japan and South Korea to maintain a North Korea policy involving a long game of strategic deterrence with overwhelming military capabilities, containment and sanctions while leaving the door open for negotiations. This approach, although imperfect, has worked well on the Korean Peninsula over the past 65 years. While it has failed to prevent North Korea from developing a nuclear weapons program, it has prevented another Korean War.

Therefore, from a security standpoint it’s time to put Kim back in his box through the use of deterrence and containment. He has had ample time to demonstrate verifiable steps toward denuclearization yet he has opted not to do so.

Yet the impasse over Kim’s nuclear weapons program may be an opportunity for both Washington and Tokyo to establish an alternative form of diplomatic relations with the North. A long-term goal of Washington and Tokyo working together to lure Pyongyang away from Beijing, the North’s sponsor and sole military partner, is in order.

Both Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have explored prospects of personal diplomacy with Kim, Trump with his summits and handshakes, and Abe with offers of private meetings. Such efforts should continue, regardless of who is in power in the White House, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ryongsang Residence.

Critics of both Trump and Abe argue that their outreach to Kim surrenders leverage and prestige, emboldening Kim to engage in further missile tests and provocations. Yet Trump’s and Abe’s efforts to develop relationships with Kim can be useful here. It would require Washington and Tokyo keeping Kim’s box half open, allowing Kim to pop out every now and then for negotiations and statecraft.

While this scenario may seem ludicrous to many, such a development has often been the source of anxiety for the Chinese. For decades, Beijing has worried that Washington and Pyongyang would develop a partnership — even an alliance — that would leave Beijing on the outside, devoid of influence on the Korean Peninsula. The concern is that a U.S. president could pull off a Nixon-China move, bringing North Korea into America’s orbit.

It is in Washington and Tokyo’s interest to play on these Chinese fears to keep Beijing off balance and on the defensive. Developing a new relationship with Pyongyang would serve as a blow to China’s stature in the region. It would also force Beijing to grapple with the strategic challenges associated with yet another nuclear-armed state on its border — the third, after Russia and India — that pursues its own foreign policy objectives that often clash with Beijing’s interests.

While it is unrealistic to expect that Washington and Tokyo will become steady allies with Pyongyang, it is within the realm of possibility that working relationships could be established, moving from a state of brinkmanship to one of transactional exchanges, possibly even cooperation in some realms.

What would Kim want out of such a relationship? Sanctions relief and assurances of his personal security while not giving up any political control. Part of this may involve a game of balancing powers against one another, thereby developing relationships with Washington and Tokyo in order to shield the North from Chinese coercion. In order to secure these benefits, Kim may be willing to partly dismantle his weapons program.

Some initial areas of understanding and cooperation may be 1) a U.S. security guarantee for Kim in exchange for pledges by Pyongyang to not attack the U.S. or its allies; 2) a peace treaty and normalization of relations between both countries; 3) an agreement that leaves partially intact the North’s nuclear program and keeps U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula; and 4) economic investment commitments by the U.S. and Japan on the condition that the North cease with weapons proliferation, take specified steps to improve its human rights record and provide a full accounting of all Japanese nationals kidnapped by the regime in past decades.

A scenario of this nature would possibly open the doors to collaboration on food security, economic development and further North-South reconciliation. It may also serve as a wedge between Pyongyang and Beijing, degrading Beijing’s ability to determine facts on the ground in North Korea while strengthening Washington and Tokyo’s influence on the peninsula.

Pyongyang’s bellicosity toward Tokyo and Washington in years past leaves much to be desired. While Trump’s and Abe’s efforts to form a rapport with Kim are unlikely to result in the North’s denuclearization, they may just set the stage for moving relations with North Korea from a state of impending war to one of basic, working ties. Such a platform could lend itself to geopolitical cooperation, yielding strategic benefits in Washington and Tokyo’s increasingly contentious rivalry with Beijing.

Yes, it’s time to put Kim back in his box. But, let’s keep the lid half open, allowing for both Tokyo and Washington to pursue new strategic thinking and diplomatic possibilities toward Pyongyang.

Ted Gover writes on foreign policy and is the director of the Tribal Administration Program at Claremont Graduate University.

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