The great game in Northeast Asia

By Daniel DePetris

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi described the current turmoil between the U.S. and North Korea as two trains barreling toward each other on the same track—the metaphor isn’t far off.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has demonstrated he isn’t intimidated by threats from anyone. On March 7, Pyongyang launched four ballistic missiles simultaneously that landed in the Sea of Japan after traveling a total of 620 miles — a direct signal to Washington and Seoul that any thought they may have of attacking North Korea will be met with a ferocious response.

The North Korea of 2017 is now a de-facto nuclear weapons state that continues to improve its offensive military capability. It is inconceivable the situation on the Korean Peninsula will change if U.S. officials continue to rely on the same old policy tools that have failed to date: the passing of more economic sanctions that won’t be properly enforced; a negotiating process that can only get off the ground if Pyongyang accepts preconditions it isn’t willing to meet; and massive war drills that the North Koreans understandably view as preparation for an invasion.

It’s time for a big, bold, historical break from the cyclical failure of our North Korea policy, one that deals with the region’s politics as they stand today could help bring about. If denuclearization is still a possibility, and that’s a big if, diplomacy is the only way to get there without risking another Korean War even deadlier than the first.

The North Korea question has never been easy, and not only because of the Kim dynasty. Northeast Asia is dominated by rivalries that have lasted for centuries. The crimes of World War II are still very much part of the regional psyche. Ties between South Korea and China have suffered ever since Seoul announced that the U.S.-manufactured THAAD anti-missile defense system would be deployed on its soil (something China views as a direct threat to its sovereignty). The region seems ripe for endless turmoil. And yet it need not be if a little unconventional, out-of the-box diplomacy is authorized by a man in President Trump who views unpredictability and unconventionality as virtues.

The good news is that first step on the road to transactional diplomacy has already been met: All of the players in the game desperately want something.

For decades, North Korea has wanted the U.S. and South Korea to terminate the joint military drills that occur like clockwork every year on air, land, and sea. China wants a South Korea that isn’t so wedded to the United States that it becomes a vassal state for Uncle Sam to maintain a permanent foothold in Beijing’s backyard. South Korea aspires for a healthy, productive, and growing economic relationship with China — Beijing is Seoul’s largest trading partner — which today is suffering over the dispute about THAAD deployment. And the U.S. wants a Northeast Asia that is stable, economically vibrant and diversified, and one that won’t explode into a nuclear confrontation.

Deals exist which could meet every country’s interests, if sequenced properly, and just might lead to comprehensive nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea.

One arrangement concerns China and the THAAD anti-missile defense system. The Chinese view THAAD as such a concern to their offensive military capability and defense doctrine that the Trump administration could use it as leverage to extract Beijing’s cooperation on the North Korea file. Washington could approach the Chinese and suggest it would be willing to hold off on the final assembling of the THAAD system if Beijing were willing to enforce Security Council sanctions without equivocation..

Enforcement would mean aggressive Chinese action in shutting down procurement networks; closing financial institutions and commercial subsidiaries on Chinese soil that bank, trade, or peddle on Pyongyang’s behalf; and prosecute companies, individuals, and other entities not abiding by Security Council resolutions. These activities would have enough of an impact that the U.S. could put THAAD on the table — an anti-missile system that to date hasn’t been mobilized yet.

The Trump administration should simultaneously reach out to the North Korean leadership through covert channels and send them an unmistakable message: if Pyongyang is open to suspending their nuclear and ballistic missile programs, place an indefinite moratorium on any more nuclear and missile tests, and re-admit international nuclear inspectors into their country, the United States would be disposed to severely downsizing — perhaps even suspending — the annual Foal Eagle exercises Washington conducts with Seoul. The restrictions on military drills would occur only if North Korea maintained a cap on its nuclear and missile programs.  An arrangement such as this that would be fair to both sides and allow Washington and Pyongyang to test one another’s seriousness, a central preclude to the launching of more comprehensive nuclear talks in the future..  

Beijing’s Foreign Minister proposed a suspension-for-suspension scheme just this week. It took the White House less than 24 hours to reject that suggestion, but it’s one that should get a second review if it holds the potential to open the door to an actual discussion on North Korea’s weapons development.

The domestic politics of these proposals is incredibly difficult. Talking tough and passing more economic sanctions on Pyongyang happens so often in Washington, one could be forgiven for thinking it was a political ritual.

But what has the ritual achieved over the past quarter-century, other than a more nuclear-capable Kim dynasty, a region that is increasingly close to a nuclear standoff, and a circumstance where preemptive U.S. military force is now being viewed as a serious policy option?

President Trump was elected due to his ability to shake things up, challenge the conventional wisdom, and do what other presidents couldn’t. What better way for Trump to prove it than by resolving one of the most critically important security problems that the international community faces?

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by Business Insider on March 13, 2017. Read more HERE.