by the International Crisis Group
The risk of catastrophic war on the Korean peninsula is higher than at any time in recent history. The “maximum pressure” strategy the U.S. has pursued in response to North Korea’s weapons tests could badly backfire. Its first track, economic pressure through sanctions, will not, on its own, prompt Pyongyang to slow down its weapons program within a reasonable timeframe, and could cause considerable harm to its people. The second, threatening or, worse, carrying out military action, risks uncontrolled escalation. Both tracks are hobbled by Washington’s objective – North Korea’s denuclearization – which, while desirable, is unrealistic for the foreseeable future.
Instead, the U.S. should use the reprieve provided by the February 2018 Winter Olympics, as well as Pyongyang’s need to improve the economy in 2018, North Korea’s 70th anniversary year, to explore resuming bilateral U.S.-North Korean talks. These would seek a more sustainable de-escalatory deal, whereby North Korea freezes its most sensitive tests and the U.S. some military exercises and deployments, while fudging the issue of Pyongyang’s nuclear status. This could presage negotiations aimed at a more durable solution. All of this requires the U.S. and regional powers, chiefly China, to work closely together.
Since 2016, the quickening pace of North Korea’s nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests has confirmed both its determination to achieve nuclear deterrence and significant advances in its arsenal. A new missile, tested in November 2017, in principle could strike U.S. cities, though most credible estimates say Pyongyang will not perfect the missiles’ re-entry systems or master the technology to reliably deliver nuclear warheads atop those missiles until one to five years from now. Top U.S. officials fear Pyongyang’s progress will shift the strategic balance in North Korea’s favour and limit U.S. options. Determined to prevent that, Washington has adopted a “maximum pressure” strategy, involving economic sanctions, diplomatic pressure on states with ties to North Korea and, most visibly, combative rhetoric that, together with military exercises, overflights and posturing, aims to signal Washington’s willingness to take preventive military action. U.S. officials cite China’s acceptance of harsher sanctions as evidence the strategy is working.
Maybe so, but maximum pressure is unlikely to bring much more than that and could provoke much worse. Sanctions have limited effect and will take time to bite, as U.S. officials themselves recognise. Recent UN sanctions – the Security Council’s toughest yet – will seriously hurt the North Korean populace long before they threaten the regime and are unlikely to keep pace with its weapons tests. More importantly, even the harshest sanctions will not induce North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to surrender a nuclear program he views as critical to his survival.
If economic pressure has limits, bellicosity carries considerable risk. Some U.S. officials float a “bloody nose” theory: a targeted U.S. strike, they argue, could curb the regime’s nuclear ambitions or set back its program without prompting retaliation. They might well be wrong, and that would be an error with incalculable consequence. Kim could decide to hit back: to signal that the U.S. cannot strike at will, to avoid seeming weak to his generals or because he believes that his retaliation, in turn, would not elicit a U.S. response. Even an asymmetric counter-strike would force the U.S. to either back off and nurse its own bloody nose, thus eroding its deterrence, or respond to Kim’s response and spark an unpredictable and uncontrollable escalation.
Even if belligerence is a bluff, designed to spook China to exert greater pressure on North Korea, or to push North Korea to change its own calculations, it is a dangerous one. Raising the temperature risks either side mistaking a test or exercise for the real thing. Brinkmanship has a shelf life: the longer threats are followed by inaction, the hollower they seem and the greater the pressure to make good on them. North Korea will participate in the Winter Olympics, but – absent an understanding with the U.S. – after those Games, its tests will likely resume, perhaps coinciding with joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises and putting pressure on the U.S. to respond.
That is a terrifying prospect. Estimating precise costs of war on the Korean peninsula is impossible, but even conservative projections are staggering. A conventional North Korean attack on Seoul could kill hundreds of thousands in days. Add to that the risk that the regime fires missiles at heavily populated Japanese cities or launches a chemical, biological or even – were it to sense its demise – nuclear attack. Displacement would be massive. Reconstruction would take a generation. Any conflict could draw in China. Even if a war damaging the world’s largest economies did not prompt a global economic crisis, its effects would reverberate for years. North East Asia would be hit hardest, but the U.S. would not be spared: tens of thousands of civilians endangered, the military stretched, coffers emptied, commerce disrupted, credibility shattered and influence diminished. Thus far, the Trump administration has not prepared the country for such a war, and the U.S. people appear broadly unaware of both risks and costs.
The limits of sanctions, perils of bellicosity and horrific toll of confrontation are compelling reasons for all parties to seek an off-ramp. An opportunity exists: the forthcoming Winter Games have prompted both sides toward parallel de-escalation. This window should be used to enable the U.S and North Korea to resume bilateral talks aimed at prolonging and formalising a freeze-for-freeze understanding. The following sequence could be used to achieve that goal and pave the way for a more ambitious bilateral diplomatic process:
- An informal halt to provocations: The thaw in Pyongyang’s relations with Seoul suggests more weapons tests are unlikely before or during the Olympics. U.S. President Donald Trump and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in already have suspended joint military exercises until after the Games. This first step requires only that both sides stick to the script, refraining from provocative acts and muting belligerent rhetoric.
- Developing a “freeze-for-freeze” deal: Meanwhile, the U.S. and regional parties – notably China and South Korea, but also optimally Japan and Russia – would coordinate their positions on a formal U.S.-North Korean understanding expanding upon the informal one. This arrangement likely would include North Korea freezing all nuclear tests and intercontinental and intermediate-range missile tests that extend their capability of striking the mainland U.S. and U.S. territories in the Pacific, as well as desisting from overflying other countries’ airspace. For its part, the U.S. would redesign its joint exercises with South Korea: freezing those that particularly rankle Pyongyang (such as “decapitation drills” aimed at Kim and exercises whose timing Pyongyang finds particularly insulting, such as during national days, planting or harvest seasons); and scaling back some regular exercises; while freezing the deployment of some strategic assets to South Korea.
- A role for China: Beijing, which has mooted a freeze-for-freeze since last summer, will have to play an important facilitation role, despite its reluctance to do so. As a regional and global power, and North Korea’s economic lynchpin, it could sweeten the proposed deal for Pyongyang and Washington, offering the former incentives for accepting it and promising the latter to hold the Kim regime accountable for any rejection or violation. Here Beijing could work with Moscow (which largely shares its view of the crisis): Pyongyang’s relations with Beijing have soured but it still needs China and welcomes Russian diplomats.
- Launch of formal bilateral talks: After the Olympics, the informal freeze would continue and formal U.S.-North Korean talks commence. These talks would first seek to reach agreement on the freeze-for-freeze deal described above before moving to broader issues concerning the nuclear program and its safety. In entering these talks, the U.S. would stand by its position that the ultimate outcome must be denuclearisation of the peninsula, a view with which North Korea would disagree.
Such a deal would be imperfect. All sides would sacrifice something. But they would gain, too. Kim would stop tests, but could claim to have achieved his goals and pivot to fulfilling economic pledges equally critical for his legitimacy at home. President Trump could claim he had significantly slowed development of nuclear-tipped missiles able to hit the U.S. homeland – arguably a better score sheet than his predecessor, all the more so if subsequent negotiations succeed. For South Korea, Japan and Russia, de-escalation would reduce the risks inherent to both U.S. military action and Pyongyang’s tests. Beijing risks further fueling Pyongyang’s hostility but gets to de-escalate the crisis, preserve a status quo that works to its benefit and burnish its claims of global leadership. All would lower the threat of a war that could devastate the region and its people and provoke dreadful geopolitical upheaval.