In October 1939, when World War II was just beginning, Winston Churchill, in a radio broadcast, described Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. Today, the same can be said of North Korea, which continues to defy the world with its nuclear and missile programs, despite biting United Nations sanctions.
Churchill went on to say, “perhaps there is a key – that key is Russian national interest”.
The same applies today to North Korea. From its leaders’ standpoint, the nation’s very survival is at stake. They can do without food, but they cannot do without nuclear weapons.
That is why, despite sanctions, North Korea has made impressive progress on its program to develop nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them to their targets.
Earlier this month, North Korea fired four ballistic missiles, three of which landed in Japanese territorial waters. This set alarm bells ringing. Last week, Japan for the first time conducted evacuation drills to prepare for a North Korea attack.
American bases in Japan are natural targets. So alarmed is the US that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week traveled to Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing for talks on North Korea, warning of an “imminent threat”.
While in Japan, Tillerson disparaged policies of the last two decades as a “failed approach” and signaled a tougher US stance, saying that “all options are on the table”, including a preemptive strike, all the time saying that North Koreans have nothing to fear from the US.
As for talks with North Korea, Tillerson said in South Korea that negotiations “can only be achieved by denuclearization, giving up their weapons of mass destruction. Only then will we be prepared to engage them in talks”.
Previous negotiations had seen North Korea commit itself to denuclearization, only to violate its commitments. That is why, it seems, Tillerson considers negotiations to be part of the “failed approach”.
Even before arriving in China, Tillerson said that Beijing’s proposal for North Korea to freeze its nuclear and missile programs in return for a halt to US-South Korean military exercises was unacceptable because it would leave the North with “significant capabilities” that could threaten the region and US forces.
At a joint press conference in Beijing after talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Tillerson refrained from publicly calling on China to tighten sanctions but said that both countries had a “certain sense of urgency” and would work together “to bring North Korea to a different place where we are hopeful we can then begin a dialogue”.
Self-interest may also spur China to greater efforts. It fears that Japan and South Korea will develop nuclear weapons if North Korea continues its programs.
Foreign Minister Wang, however, said all parties were obliged “to implement the sanctions and restart the talks at the same time”, chastising the US for refusing to resume negotiations with North Korea.
While these are early days in the Trump administration’s review of North Korea policy, time doesn’t favor the US. North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, said in a New Year’s Day address that his country was close to testing an intercontinental ballistic missile, which would bring the US within range.
The US should realize that what is driving the North Korean nuclear effort is precisely fear of a military attack. Threatening such an attack is unlikely to cause Pyongyang to abandon its efforts but rather have the opposite effect.
Instead, what is needed is for the US to persuade North Korea that its existence is not threatened and thus there is no need to develop nuclear weapons. To deliver this message, negotiations are needed. Saying that negotiations won’t start until North Korea abandons its nuclear weapons program is to put the cart before the horse.
Convincing Pyongyang will be difficult. After all, in 2003, the then Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, gave up his nuclear program. But, some years later when the Arab Spring broke out, the US and its European allies deposed him and he was executed by Libyan rebels.
North Korea’s leaders have taken this lesson to heart. It won’t be easy to convince them that they can safely give up their nuclear weapons.
A freeze, as proposed by China, may be the best available solution. But even to get the North Koreans to agree to that, the US will have to convince them through negotiations.
As Churchill told the White House in 1954, “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war”.
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