Published in partnership with India’s Sunday Guardian:
In April 1969 a drunk Richard Nixon, furious over the downing of a US spy plane, ordered the dropping of a 330-kiloton nuclear bomb on North Korea. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger told the military that, instead of following the formal procedure to carry out the President’s order, they should wait until the morning when Nixon had sobered up.
The episode is a reminder that we have been at the precipice before in the US-North Korean confrontation. Nixon may have been much smarter than Donald Trump, but at times he was no more stable, and the North Korean regime — then led by Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of the current ruler Kim Jong-un — was just as intransigent a challenge for the international community as well as Washington. Only a year before, Pyongyang sparked a crisis with the seizure of the USS Pueblo and its crew, and several years later, Pyongyang tested Washington with the killing of two US Army officers who were in a crew cutting down a poplar tree in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.
Of course, there are also vital difference in 2017. This time, North Korea is nuclear-capable, with missile tests demonstrating the potential of crossing the Pacific to reach the US, as well as covering the region. The diplomatic chairs have been rearranged, with both a post-Soviet Russia and a China no longer implacably tied to Communist unity with the troublesome Pyongyang. The speed and score of electronic and social media is a 24/7 destablizer, with a Trump tweet or the boast of North Korea’s State news agency altering terrain for conflict or negotiation within a few minutes.
But the fundamental task remains: just as the inebriated Nixon was brought back from the button in 1969, so the teetotaler Trump and a sober North Korean elite have to be contained now.
Alpha-Male Posturing on the Korean Peninsula
On at least three occasions in 2017, Trump and Kim Jong-un’s team have been partners in crisis-mongering. Trump has shouted via Twitter and ad hoc statements about a US “armada” en route to the Korean Peninsula — as the warships were moving in the opposite direction — and about the unleashing of “fire and fury”. Undeterred, North Korea has acclerated its testing, culminating in the first ballistic missile overflight of Japan and the explosion of a nuclear device ten times more powereful than any they have detonated before. Like two agitated men in a bar, Trump and Kim have yelled and poked each other in the chest until they have separated themselves — or been separated by others — before they could tear the place apart.
Last Tuesday Trump threatened a fourth round, asserting that just-passed UN sanctions — the most stringent to date, including limits on North Korea’s oil imports — pale in comparison to “what ultimately will have to happen”. But the saving, if far from reassuring, grace is that the 45th President is close to a figurehead, with others leading US policy and trying to keep him out of the war room. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have been the adults in the playgournd, both in private deliberations and in public signals.
Meanwhile, North Korea faces the deterrent that any first strike would be regime suicide as well as the death knell for many of its subjects. Pyongyang’s artillery and rockets, with the South Korean capital Seoul 35 miles away, are a more-than-sufficient answer to Trump’s bluster, but they are far less effective as an offensive threat. As Mattis made clear in August’s crisis moment, “We are not looking to the total annihilation of a country, namely North Korea, but…we have many options to do so.”
The danger is war-by-error. Had the North Korean missile fallen short and struck the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, an American response would have been inevitable. A US warplane or ship that crosses the line, for North Korea, from annoying to provocative could bring sudden escalation.
So the essential, even if neither Trump nor Kim Jong-un will say this, is acceptance followed by negotiation. The international community will have to accept, and indeed many already have discreetly, that North Korea is a nuclear power: there is no way to put the genie back in the bottle. Even the hawks will have to acknowledge that regime change through force or economic warfare is not possible. In return, Pyongyang will have to accept that, if it is ever to come in from near-isolation with the restoration of vital economic links, then limits will have to be placed on its nuclear capabilities.
In the distant time of 1994, that is where we were when the Agreed Framework was adopted by North Korea and the US. The process for the containment of the nuclear program, in return for an assured energy supply for the North Koreans, fell apart because of Pyongyang’s maneuvers and the aggressive approach of the George W. Bush Administration, but that failure — given the legacy of the next 16 years — only highlights the need for revival.
But this time the revival may not be Washington leads and others follow. To ensure the containment of both Trump and Team Kim, as well as to reflect shifts in the region and beyond, China will have to be at the center — even if that offends US hawks, like former White House chief strategist Steven Bannon, who see Beijing as the greatest enemy. OTher regional stakeholders will have to be in the process. And North Korea will have to be at the table as an acknowledged equal, not as a defendant to receive a sentence.
This approach will take time. Because no one will want to lose face or give away a position, it will have to start with back-channel contacts for both direct and indirect exchanges. The contacts will have to be calibrated with the build-up of pressure through multilateral sanctions: too little and North Korea may not see the need to dial back its tests and rhetoric, too much and Pyongyang may resist out of anger whle countries and companies see profits from sanctions-busting.
But as with Kissinger’s intervention to block Nixon in 1969, there is no alternative. The costs of allowing either a Trump or a Kim to go unchecked cannot be borne — by Koreans on both sides of the DMZ, by the region, and by the rest of the world.