On August 14, the Korean Central News Agency issued a surprising statement from North Korea’s 33-year-old dictator, Kim Jong-un. The “Respected Supreme Leader,” KCNA said, had decided to “watch a little more” the conduct of the United States before proceeding on a vow to fire missiles near the Pacific island of Guam to create “an enveloping fire.”
A few hours later, The Wall Street Journal reported that North Korea “had pulled back its threat to attack a U.S. territory.” In response, President Trump triumphantly took to Twitter to praise Kim’s “very wise and well reasoned decision.” The exchange eased—temporarily, at least—a nuclear-war scare that began a week earlier, when Trump threatened to rain “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea if it didn’t mend its ways.
So what’s next? Just days before Kim’s pullback, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis took to the pages of the Journal to lay out the terms of the “diplomacy” they have promised as a way to defuse the crisis. While the United States has no interest in regime change, they asserted, North Korea’s “long record” of “dishonesty” made it “incumbent upon the [Kim] regime to signal its desire to negotiate in good faith” by first ceasing its nuclear tests and missile launches.
This was clearly a rejection of the recent Chinese and Russian “freeze-for-freeze” proposal, which would exchange a cessation of Pyongyang’s tests for a moratorium or scaling back of Washington’s massive war games with South Korea, including the Ulchi–Freedom Guardian exercises that began on August 21. Moreover, the Tillerson-Mattis assurances were undercut by comments from H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national-security adviser, that the United States is fully prepared for a “preventive war” to stop North Korea “from threatening the United States with a nuclear weapon.”
As the North Koreans well know, those plans are highly advanced. Two days before Trump declared that US forces in South Korea were “locked and loaded,” NBC News broadcast a detailed report that the Pentagon had plans to strike some “two dozen North Korean missile-launch sites, testing grounds and support facilities” using B-1B heavy bombers stationed at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. The NBC report added that the B-1s could fire their missiles from outside Korean airspace, thus making it possible to launch unilateral strikes—a major concern to South Korea.
What happened next was hardly surprising. North Korea declared that it was “carefully examining” plans to launch missiles toward Guam. As historian Bruce Cumings noted in The Guardian, North Korea’s statements had “a concrete, predictable nature,” especially when compared with the Trump administration’s more general threats that North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons could, in Mattis’s words, “lead to the end of the regime and destruction of its people.”
Yet even as he backed down, Kim issued a warning: “In order to defuse the tensions” and prevent a war, the United States should stop its “arrogant provocations” and “unilateral demands” and “not provoke [us] any longer.” Over the weekend, Kim responded to McMaster’s new tack by declaring that the Korean People’s Army “will take resolute steps the moment even a slight sign of the preventive war is spotted.”
As a wide range of American experts and former policy-makers have argued, if the United States is serious about negotiations, it must respond to Pyongyang’s fears by offering an “off-ramp” with something in return. The dual-freeze proposal “could lead to a breakthrough in the impasse, but this would require Washington to seriously consider its own responsibility for resolving the nuclear problem,” wrote John Merrill, the former chief of the Northeast Asia division of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the State Department, in a recent op-ed for the Japanese newspaper Nikkei Asian Review.
Specifically, that means addressing North Korea’s concerns, including its belief that nuclear weapons are its only defense against a United States that turned the country into ashes during the Korean War and is threatening to do so again. The North is also (understandably) worried about the war games, in which thousands of US and South Korean soldiers train for nuclear strikes as well as “decapitation” operations that would eliminate North Korea’s leadership. And therein lies the way out.
North Korea says that it will not negotiate until the United States formally ends the state of enmity that exists between the two nations—steps that both sides agreed to take during the only successful round of US–North Korean negotiations, in the late 1990s. It restated that formula in August, when Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho told a forum of Asian diplomats that the North would not put its nukes and missiles on the bargaining table “unless the hostile policy and nuclear threat of the U.S. against the [North] are fundamentally eliminated.”
Washington should see that as an opening and consider concrete steps to convince North Korea—as well as the South—that it wants to resolve this conflict without a war. Number one on that list should be an offer to curtail the military exercises that began in late August and will pick up again—with a far greater number of troops—next spring. But there’s only one way to know if this approach will work: Send Secretary Tillerson to Pyongyang, and start talking. Judging by his recent compliments to Kim’s “restraint,” that may be about to happen.