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The hawks are growing louder

Trump will need to decide whether he wants to be a military strongman or top-notch negotiator.
Dec 21,2017
You may think that the United States is the perfect guardian of nuclear nonproliferation, but think again. North Korea has become a presumptive nuclear weapons state, though it would be truer to say that the denuclearization process has broken down. A “soft recognition” of North Korea as a nuclear weapons state would be dramatically made amid South Korea’s fuzzy position between Washington and Beijing.

To be sure, given that nuclear deterrence is fundamentally based on the threat of retaliation, North Korea’s deterrence strategy now appears successful in that the rogue state has allegedly obtained the ability to inflict unacceptable damage on the United States.

While it’s uncertain that Pyongyang can be perfectly prepared for three basic ways — hardening, concealment and redundancy — to protect its nuclear forces from America’s first attack, there is no doubt that the regime could survive the first attack, thanks in large measure to its deeply-dug tunnels in remote mountains and nuclear missile silos widely dispersed in secret locations throughout the country. It means the United States cannot completely wipe out North Korea’s military apparatus. That is a fair judgment.

All pressure and sanctions failed to end North Korea’s die-hard nuclear ambitions. If the possession of nuclear weapons is the main criterion for victory, the intractable regime is the clear winner in the latest confrontation with the United States, which has kept the door open for diplomacy. Much more important, however, is assessing what the hopeless regime has actually achieved. Seen in this light, North Korea is the clear loser.

The conventional wisdom is that North Korea has regarded nuclear weapons as its Excalibur, while South Korea still clings onto the myth of a nuclear-free world. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s brute force has served him well militarily and diplomatically, but it’s difficult to picture how the Excalibur will be used. North Korea’s ultimate goal — regime survival — has become more dangerous than before, despite immense efforts by the young leader to develop its intercontinental ballistic missiles aimed at the U.S. mainland.

Regardless of North Korea’s procurement of key technologies needed to build ballistic missiles, it seems apparent that the Trump administration will never allow “Little Rocket Man” to assume the status of a nuclear state, which is unimaginable to South Korea and Japan. In retrospect, denuclearization of the peninsula was the fruit of a concerted effort to draw lessons from the end of the Cold War.

In December 1991, South Korea announced that all American nuclear arms had been removed from the country, a longtime demand of North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, and invited North Korea to inspect any sites in the South, including American military installations.

One month later, the Bush administration immediately switched from stick to carrot, announcing that if the inspections occurred, they would quickly cancel the annual “Team Spirit” exercises that North Korea often criticized as practice for a nuclear attack.

Twenty-five years have passed, and the denuclearization pact between the two Koreas is now dead. No matter who pulls the trigger first, war on the peninsula will dwarf the 1950-53 Korean War. There should be no doubt that North Korea will focus on hitting Seoul and a few U.S. military bases in the event of another full-scale war.

The painful fact remains that Pyongyang will no longer be safe. Put another way, any war would begin with the city’s complete destruction in immense aerial bombardment, though the regime has invested in a vast maze of tunnels that would allow Kim and his family to escape into Chinese territory.

At this time of crisis, we need to resume dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang, and prevent each side’s military from going back to the drawing board to trigger an Armageddon in Northeast Asia.

Speaking at a United Nations Security Council session on Dec. 15, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson backpedaled from a surprisingly conciliatory position he outlined on Dec. 12. He did not repeat an assertion made days earlier that the United States had no preconditions for starting talks with North Korea. It demonstrated that Tillerson has been virtually marginalized.

It is thus no longer rational to say that keeping the military option on the table is mainly a ploy to increase pressure on North Korea for a possible deal, assuming that the doves in the Trump administration will be forced to leave soon. In reality, they are closer to a military solution on the North Korean problem, and I do not believe that is mere strategic bluff.

Most recently, top officials in the Central Intelligence Agency reportedly told Trump that he had a “three-month window” in which to act on North Korea’s weapons program, after which the Kim regime will have the ability to hit American cities, including Washington, with a nuclear payload.

And with speculation rife that Mike Pompeo, director of the CIA, might replace Tillerson as secretary of state, the stalemate seems highly likely to intensify because unlike Tillerson, who carried the torch for engagement, Pompeo has an even harder line on the regime.

However, the apparent March deadline should not be formulated in a way that could be used as an excuse for military action against North Korea’s nuclear and missile installations. Like the rest of the world, South Korea watched the beginning of the Trump administration with deep concern.

A pre-emptive strike, albeit a modest one to eviscerate the Kim regime’s political credibility, is not what we want. Politicians, military and business leaders, think tank experts and journalists have started suspecting that something else between Washington and Beijing is seriously being discussed, less visibly but at the foundation. Washington has to understand that it comes at the cost of losing a crucial regional security ally in the long run.

As long as there is no perfect impossibility that North Korea will collapse under its own weight, the sweet spot for denuclearization of the peninsula is strong diplomacy based on careful management of weapons of mass destruction, and controlling the future proliferation of nuclear materials and weapons from North Korea.

President Trump has one thing that “Little Rocket Man” can never take: a fatalistic sense of responsibility to maintain some sort of world order. Given this, “sincere and meaningful actions toward denuclearization” could be discussed during talks, but not as preconditions for talks. The Kim regime has entered a period in which others believe it has become more powerful and unpredictable than before.

Ultimately, President Trump, as a shaper of world affairs, will need to decide whether he wants to be a military strongman or top-notch negotiator to end the deadlock. He can be one or the other, but not both.

*The author is vice president of the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul.

Lee Byong-chul