A few weeks ago, there was concern that there could be conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Reacting to North Korea’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) launches on July 4 and July 28, and the vitriolic statements from North Korea, to include YouTube simulated nuclear attacks on New York and Washington, President Donald Trump said the U.S. would respond to the North Korean threat with “fire and fury the world has never seen.”
Kim Jong-un responded by threatening to land four missiles near Guam, inciting President Trump to say the U.S. was “locked and loaded if North Korea acted unwisely.” North Korea acted wisely, with a public statement that Kim Jong-un delayed a decision on firing missiles toward Guam while he watched U.S. action a little longer.
It is likely North Korea will launch, as they did on Aug. 26 and Aug. 29, additional ballistic missiles during the annual joint U.S.-South Korea military exercise, Ulchi “Freedom Guardian,” which started Aug. 21 and concludes at the end of the month.
Indeed, North Korea should refrain from escalating tension by launching ballistic missiles that threaten the U.S., South Korea and Japan after this defensive military exercise. If North Korea launched a ballistic missile, possibly armed with a nuclear warhead, that could be targeted at the U.S. or its allies in South Korea and Japan, the launch likely would trigger preemptive action to intercept and destroy the missile. There should be no ambiguity about such a response to a missile launch from North Korea that could pose an “imminent threat” to the U.S. or its allies. Even in my unofficial meetings with North Korea’s vice foreign minister in October 2016, this message was clearly articulated.
We are now at a critical inflection point with North Korea. Although all indications are that Kim Jong-un will continue to launch missiles and conduct nuclear tests as they pursue a viable and deployable nuclear threat to the U.S., it is possible that recent constructive statements from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to include the need for a negotiated settlement of issues with North Korea, may have convinced Kim Jong-un that it’s time to return to unconditional negotiations. North Korea knows that the Sept. 19, 2005 Joint Statement — that Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, endorsed — would have provided North Korea with security assurances, a peace treaty, economic development assistance, the provision of Light Water Reactors when North Korea returned to the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapons state, and, ultimately, normal diplomatic relations. On the principle of “action for action,” as North Korea commenced with the dismantlement of its nuclear program, these benefits would have accrued to them, with the ultimate goal of complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Unfortunately, in 2008, when North Korea refused to sign a verification and monitoring agreement that would have permitted nuclear monitors to visit and collect samples from sites outside of the Yongbyon nuclear complex, the Joint Statement was discarded.
Our task now should be twofold: Getting Kim Jong-un to halt all missile launches and nuclear tests and return to exploratory discussions with the U.S., followed by reconstituting a multilateral negotiation process to resolve all extant issues with North Korea (with the goal of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula) in return for a North Korea that has a more normal relationship with the U.S., to include initially, the establishment of interest sections or liaison offices in our respective capitals. This was the goal of the 2005 Joint Statement. The failure to comprehensively implement the Joint Statement should not be an impediment to moving forward with North Korea. Rather, we should learn from some of the mistakes we made with the Joint Statement.
Given North Korea’s past behavior, it’s fair to assume that there will be more nuclear tests and missile launches. And even if we have exploratory talks with North Korea, it’s also fair to assume that their demands will be such that it will prove impossible to restart viable follow-on formal denuclearization negotiations. If that unfortunately develops, the U.S. and its allies, South Korea and Japan, should enhance regional missile defense capabilities and upgrade joint military exercises, ideally to include Japan and other allies, while the United Nations imposes additional sanctions on North Korea in response to nuclear tests and missile launches. In short, there are tools available to respond to any continuation of North Korea’s threatening and provocative behavior.
Ideally, that approach will not be necessary. It is possible Kim Jong-un will seize the current opportunity to enter unconditional talks with the U.S. while refraining from nuclear tests and missile launches. Exploratory talks with North Korea will be difficult, however, mainly because they want to retain their nuclear weapons and because they are convinced U.S. policy toward North Korea is regime change. This is the constant refrain I hear from those senior North Korean officials I’ve been meeting for the past decade. They cite the fate of Moammar Gadhafi of Libya as proof that abandoning nuclear weapons is a path to self-destruction. Thus, our task will be to convince Kim Jong-un that abandoning nuclear weapons is a path to a peace treaty and survival, a path to becoming a legitimate sovereign state interacting with the international community and international financial institutions. Most important, it’s a path to normal diplomatic relations with the U.S.
• Ambassador Joseph R. DeTrani was the former Special Envoy for Negotiations with North Korea. The views are the author’s and not any government department or agency.
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