White House unresolved on possible North Korea talks

By Robert A. Manning Source:Global Times Published: 2017/12/18 20:43:39

Conflicting signals from the US about whether and under what circumstances Washington is willing to open talks with Pyongyang underscore the heightened tensions likely to make 2018 a decisive and dangerous time for the vexing North Korean nuclear problem.

There was no ambiguity in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's remarks last Wednesday. "We're ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk, and we're ready to have the first meeting without precondition. Let's just meet and let's - we can talk about the weather if you want."

But no sooner had Tillerson made the offer to meet with North Korea "without preconditions," did the Trump administration - and even Tillerson's own spokesperson begin to walk it back. The White House said there was "no change in policy." And by Friday, Tillerson himself said that Pyongyang has to "earn the right" to talks by suspending missile and nuclear tests.

Some analysts see a narrow window of opportunity opening up for reinstatement of talks after Kim Jong-un announced that his nuclear weapons program was "completed," and UN Under-Secretary-General Jeffrey Feltman went on a diplomatic mission to Pyongyang earlier this month. With South Korea set to host the Winter Olympics in February and no major US-South Korea military exercises yet scheduled for 2018, if there is a period of quiet, as Tillerson hoped for, an exploratory round of diplomacy might not be out of the question.

Tillerson's hint of flexibility did not, however, reflect any change in the basic US policy of "maximum pressure and dialogue." Indeed, during a UN Security Council session on December 15, Tillerson called on China and Russia to apply more pressure "beyond UN sanctions."

Senior Trump officials, troubled by some 23 missile and nuclear tests Pyongyang has conducted this year, frequently argue that "time is running out" for diplomacy, holding out the threat of military force. Trump's National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster has said on several occasions that if and when North Korea obtains the capability to hit the US mainland with a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), deterrence would no longer be adequate. On a recent occasion, McMaster has spoken of "preventive war," in language similar to that used by the Bush administration before it launched the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

This language is curious. US deterrence has prevented war on the Korean Peninsula since 1953, as well as direct armed conflict with a Soviet Union armed with 30,000 nuclear warheads, and since 1964, China's nuclear arsenal. Few analysts would argue with the point that Pyongyang's top priority is the survival of the regime and Kim Jong-un. A preemptive strike on the US or its allies by Pyongyang would be a threat to both as US officials have repeatedly said over several different administrations that any North Korean attack would result in a swift and overwhelming military response.

Nonetheless, after major policy reviews, the Trump administration appears to view the possession of an operational ICBM as a red line, the crossing of which would trigger US military action regardless of the fact that a preemptive US strike would almost certainly trigger a North Korean military response and risk of escalation that could result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Pyongyang has thousands of long-range artillery within range of Seoul, just 35 miles away.

It is not clear that Secretary of Defense James Mattis agrees with this view. He has spoken of a US use of force in response to any North Korean attack but disputed Pyongyang's ability to threaten the US, saying that its ICBM, "has not yet shown to be a capable threat against us now."

This skepticism about North Korea's ICBM capability is also held by a number of technical analysts who argue that Pyongyang has not yet demonstrated a re-entry vehicle able to survive the heat, pressure and thrust of re-entering the atmosphere with a nuclear warhead, nor a guidance system able to hit a target. Its most recent Hwasong-15 missile test was fired straight up, so its range with the added weight of a nuclear warhead is unknown.

In any case, among US Asian security analysts the dominant view is that the least bad policy response to a nuclear North Korea, even with an ICBM, would be enhanced containment and strengthened deterrence. 

Moreover, many analysts argue that the comprehensive UN economic sanctions have only recently been implemented and have yet to have an adverse effect on North Korea to the degree that it might change its behavior.  There is growing fear that in haste to "solve" the nuclear problem, the Trump administration may take action with catastrophic results.

The hope is that diplomacy will emerge from current tensions. But one way or another, 2018 may prove to be the year of decision on the Korean Peninsula.

The author is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Strategic Foresight Initiative. Follow him on Twitter @RManning4. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn


Newspaper headline: White House unresolved on possible NK talks


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