North Korea’s latest successful missile test flew for 45 minutes on July 28, 2017 have put North Korea one step closer to deploying a reliable nuclear arsenal that can reliably reach targets anywhere in the United States.
General Mark A. Milley warned that “We are at a point in time when choices will have to be made one way or the other, none of these choices are particularly palatable.”
But do we have the information about North Korea’s motives to make a good choice?
Time and time again, DPRK have flummoxed analysts who failed to see the obvious in front of them: North Korea is deliberately holding back on technical demonstrations to buy one or two years time needed to perfect and deploy a sizable nuclear arsenal.
And not just any arsenal, but a thermonuclear nuclear missile arsenal capable of reaching any point in the USA. A successful thermonuclear attack on the US will at a minimum, cause tens of millions of casualties and perhaps much more.
At the rate DPRK is developing enhancements like penetration aids and growing their arsenal, missile defense, an iffy prospect at best, is becoming increasingly doubtful.
Military options that are on the table all involve substantial risks to the US and particularly allies like South Korea and Japan. It is a foregone conclusion that DPRK will respond to a major conventional military buildup with a nuclear first strike, or Launch on Warning / Launch under Attack, making it risky to rely on overwhelming conventional force.
Diplomatic options, are limited now that Beijing China have proven to be either ineffective or unwilling to do whatever it takes to remove DPRK’s nuclear and missile capability.
Six prominent experts including former Defense Secretary Perry have called for the Trump Administration to open communication with DPRK to “to avoid a nuclear catastrophe.”
This perspective is stridently opposed by Joseph Bosco who argue that it will be viewed by DPRK as a reward or concession and a signal to Beijing-China, Moscow, “collaborators (Iran, Syria, Pakistan) and other rogue states and parties who defy and undermine the international order (Cuba, Hamas, Hezbollah et al.)” to follow in DPRK’s footsteps.
DPRK have made clear that denuclearization is out of the question, a change from their stance in 1994 and 2006 (Agreed Framework and Six Party Talks). DPRK is not the starving, desperate regime of 1994 or 2006, but an incumbent nuclear weapons power with a vibrant economy that sanctions have had little impact on.
Thus, it is implausible that any talks with the US can be conditioned on negotiations about denuclearization.
Why open talks then?
War on the Korean peninsula will not be a small, or slow motion war.
However it turns out, it will have greater impact than the Korean “police action” of 1950-53, Vietnam or the Gulf wars.
The US homeland will be at risk of nuclear attack: If successful, a cataclysmic event greater than Pearl Harbor, 9/11, or the US Civil war.
Unless North Korea struck first, no American Administration and Congress can break the armistice without being satisfied that every peaceful pathway have been tried and exhausted. The American public, not just Congress, have to recognize there is no other choice.
This, in and of itself, is the strongest case for talks with DPRK by the US.
US Talks with DPRK serve another purpose.
Previously, the intermediation of other parties like Beijing-China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, muddled DPRK’s message to the US. Direct talks will, for the first time, allow the US to listen carefully and tease out DPRK’s demands, longer term objectives and motives.
DPRK’s motives and long term goals need to be either verified or falsified as the dominant perception of North Korea by Western analysts is that it is a regime no different from any other nuclear power: that DPRK acquired nuclear weapons as an insurance policy to guarantee regime survival, but know it cannot be used without massive retaliation. Is this wishful thinking?
If North Korea is no different from Pakistan, Israel, India, UK, France, Soviet Union/Russia, PR China, then it leads to the possibility that DPRK can become a benign nuclear power whose primary purpose for their arsenal is defensive, or deterrence. Most western observers instinctively assume this and uses terms like “North Korean nuclear deterrent” without even thinking that they are projecting their own ideals.
But if other factors are involved: “Passion, hatred, hysteria” as Professor Paul Bracken observed, are excluded from the first nuclear age and all nuclear weapons powers before North Korea.
Past negotiations with North Korea conduct by seasoned diplomats like Christopher Hill, whom in the western “first nuclear age” tradition, was cool, rational, conservative and frowned on “passion, hatred, hysteria” that was routinely exhibited by their DPRK counterparts whose rhetoric was automatically dismissed as balderdash. Few western analysts have gone to the trouble of taking DPRK propaganda seriously.
When North Korean propaganda, particularly the ones produced for domestic consumption is taken at face value, it paints a dangerous picture of a regime that demands “a “blood reckoning” with the Yankee enemy.” (B. R. Meyers, 2012) “The Korean people are too pure blooded, and therefore too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader.”
That begs the question of where the great parental leader Kim Jong Un is leading North Koreans to?
The gravest existential threat to DPRK is not from the military posture of the US, ROK, and Japan. But from North Koreans realizing that their brethren living in South Korea are doing very well and generally satisfied with ROK and reject DPRK rule. (B.R. Myers 2012) To head off this legitimation crisis, the great parental leader Kim Jong Un must steadily raise the wellbeing and welfare of his most crucial constituents in the defense and military sector — that have only benefited to a limited extent from the “market opening” reforms.
But in order to do this, the WMD programs have to turn a profit.
The question is how?
During past negotiations for the Agreed Framework and Six Party Talks, DPRK made outlandish demands to the US negotiators, who brushed them off as “missile blackmail” when they (e.g. demanded USD $500 million to cease missile tests) without considering the deeper meaning — of the North Korean though process that led to those demands. The NORKs arrived at that figure by estimating how much profit they forego by stopping their missile programs, and insisted to be so compensated.
Did their behavior change since Kim Jong Un?
The only way to find out is to open talks with Kim Jong Un.
It is known that their demands will include a peace treaty between the US and DPRK, withdraw of US from ROK and termination of the ROK-US mutual defense pact, to start.
But what is not known, and can only be known if the US opened talks with DPRK is what else they require beyond the peace treaty?
If DPRK is true to form, it is almost certain that Kim Jong Un will be demanding a substantial war indemnity from the US, and indeed, all “UN” forces. From the perspective of North Korean (and PRC) propaganda, they won the Korean War. Note that the demand will be for an indemnity, as opposed to war reparations. In other words, DPRK will seek to make a profit from the Korean war.
What might be the size of the indemnity demanded from the US and “UN” forces?
The opening demand will likely be in the USD hundreds of billions or more. Enough of a profit to sustain the regime for a decade while they plot their next move, which will be the subversion of ROK leading to “protection money” being paid for the DPRK provided nuclear arsenal.
Without the US talking to DPRK directly, there will be no way to validate this hypothesis or to ascertain their long term intent.
The question is how while minimizing the “fallout” that Joseph Bosco warned about?
There is a long tradition of using “unofficial” channels in diplomacy. Ping-Pong diplomacy was successfully used to open a channel to the PRC in 1971. The equivalent for US and DPRK will be basketball diplomacy.
The United States can (unofficially) encourage Dennis Rodman to lead a team of basketball players to DPRK.
The players can be persons with expertise in crucial areas including diplomacy, ABC WMDs, etc. and informally conduct talks with their DPRK counterparts in between games.
Let’s hear what DPRK have to say.
Let them reveal their intent and motives to us.
Then we can in good conscience, know we are making a decision (whether for peace or war) having tried our best to avoid war.