By: Aadhavaarasan Raviarasan
In the past 2 years, tensions with North Korea have only escalated. North Korea has blamed these tensions on military drills, whereas the US has blamed these tensions on missile tests. However, in the past months, something has changed. North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un has met with South Korean President Moon Jae - in, and a summit is being planned for a similar meeting between US president Trump and Kim. The problem is that, ever since 1985, the US and North Korea have followed a cycle of failed diplomacy and hostility. For example, talks about denuclearization in 1994 failed after the US increased military drills, and the Sunshine policy (a policy guideline between the Koreas on openness and integration) failed due to US deployment of missile defense. However, there are 2 key steps the United States must take to avoid complications and make sure that this time will be the time that succeeds.
Historically, at every single North Korea - US period of diplomacy, the US has always demanded denuclearization. Indeed, ever since North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon, US policy has always been that nuclear North Korea is unacceptable. However, this is unacceptable to North Korea. This is because North Korea’s highest priority has always been survival, and in Kim Jong Un's eyes, the only way to ensure that survival is to have a credible nuclear force that would deter the US and South Korea from ever striking them.
Kim Jong-un sees this as the non-negotiable safeguard against suffering the same fate as Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, who gave up his nukes only to be toppled by the US afterwards. As a result, when Trump demanded that North Korea denuclearize, the regime refused, almost leading to the cancellation of the summit. Thus, in order to avoid complications in negotiations with North Korea, it would be beneficial for the US to be pragmatic and stop demanding denuclearization.
Every year now, the US and South Korea have been conducting live fire military drills, which North Korea is extremely against. The problem with this is that live-fire military drills near the border could convince Kim that such a strike is coming and trigger a North Korean response.
Kim’s reasoning is simple, he sees military drills as the US planning a strike, so if a strike is coming, he might as well become more aggressive or even attack first. Consequently, when the US began military drills this year, North Korea suspended talks with South Korea, and threatened to cancel the meeting between Trump and Kim. Furthermore, last year, in order to protest US - ROK military drills, North Korea launched a barrage of missile tests. If the US wants diplomacy to be successful, it is in our best possible interest to suspend threatening activities like military drills.
Missile defense is seen by North Korea as the ultimate act of US hostility because it undermines its aforementioned nuclear deterrent. Indeed, North Korea sees the deployment of missile defense as the US positioning itself to protect its strategic assets, and in North Korea’s mind the only reason the US would need to do that is if it were preparing to attack.
This is viewed as a real threat as North Korean government newspapers said specifically in 2006 “What the U.S. is after is to freely carry into action its preemptive strike strategy after setting up a colossal missile defense system at every strategic vantage and binding other countries hand and foot to neutralize North Korea’s means of retaliation.” Furthermore, an overwhelming trust in the effectiveness of missile defense allows the US to be more militaristic and aggressive and less diplomatic. All in all, the best path forward to ensure that diplomacy does not fail is by withdrawing our missile defense systems from the area.
The Summit between Trump and Kim must go well as Nyshka Chandran from CNBC notes that “If the North Korea-U.S. summit fails to conclude in an agreement, war risks will increase, exceeding previous levels, because of another failure of diplomacy.” The reasoning is simple: peace processes are generally seen as a test for diplomacy, so when they fail, it is not just the specific peace process that has failed, it represents diplomacy as a strategy that has failed.
Furthermore, diplomacy must be successful for South Korea to establish a hotline for direct communication which would open the door for a reduction in the chance of miscalculation and finally bring stability to the region.
This is possible, as under the sunshine policy, which was the last period of friendliness in the region, Presidents from both countries met during this time and North Korea agreed to the removal of its nuclear arsenal, which genuinely gave the first shot at true peace.
Ultimately, a more pragmatic and diplomatic US will enhance the probability of diplomacy with North Korea being successful. If the US decides to pursue the path of militarism and maintains a hardline stance, it risks war on the peninsula, and will most certainly result in a diplomatic failure, only continuing the 7 decades of tension.