Washington in the eye of the storm
A carefully crafted and roadmap that takes the Korean Peninsula back from the brink must be charted, writes Glyn Ford
The United States continues to see the 2018 PyeonChang Winter Olympics and all the associated political manoeuvring as more pause than pivot in the eye of the storm. The media frenzy around Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, and the crabbed performance of Vice-President Mike Pence doesn’t change the underlying reality. Pence, while authorised by President Donald Trump to speak to Kim Yo-jong, choose to play dumb after being warned that pictures of the two together would play badly during the 2020 presidential primaries.
The very notion of engagement with Pyongyang is, outside of the US State Department, a dirty word. It might be necessary from a public relations perspective for Washington to have some exploratory meetings between the two sides, but painful long drawn out negotiations over month after month has few takers. There is an expectation that before the end of March after the visit to Pyongyang by South Korea’s special envoy that the North will offer talks –- using Seoul as its intermediary. South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in’s entreaties to further pause the Joint military exercises, now due to start on April 1, will be forcefully resisted. The best that might be on offer, as a gesture more for civil society in the South than the regime in the North, would be some – notional – reduction in size and duration and more conciliatory language substituting “training” for “decapitation”. The expectation is Moon Jae-in will ultimately bend while Pyongyang will break leaving the North sharing the blame with Washington.
The White House policy is to pursue “maximum pressure” with hard deterrence and yet tougher sanctions verging on “total containment” to drive Pyongyang either to the negotiating table nuclear weapons in hand or collapse. The price of peace is a de facto unconditional surrender. The argument is that Pyongyang has previously bowed to pressure in 1993, 2004 and 2006 albeit in very different circumstances. The US is fighting the last war rather than the next refusing to acknowledge that the price has gone up. The situation is getting worse with the two sides farther apart now than six to nine months ago. The North’s major technological advances have been matched by iconoclastic attacks on Kim Jong-un all making it a hard road to talks. The old canard used to -– fortunately unsuccessfully – to argue for preventive strikes against both the Soviet Union and China when they first acquired nuclear weapons is off the lease again and further spurred on by claims that Pyongyang will blackmail Seoul into a forced unification with its nuclear threat.
Washington has a surfeit of proposed mediators and bridge builders between President Trump and Kim Jong-un ranging from utilising Ivanka Trump at the Paralympics as the US’s own Kim Yo-jong to France’s President Emmanuel Macron, the Mongolians and “The Elders”.
Now, compared even to 2006, it is a different world with Pyongyang possessing nuclear weapons and credible short and medium range delivery systems, even if their capacity to target the mainland US with a nuclear -tipped inter-continental ballistic missile remains unproven. For Pyongyang to demonstrate such a capability would be to trample across one of Washington’s “red lines”. The North might even stumble across with a satellite launch demonstrating the payload capacity to carry a nuclear weapon. The North has long, as a matter of principle, made a sharp distinction between its nuclear deterrence and space programmes. This standpoint is not shared by Washington or the UN. Any test – if an opening to the US fails – is unlikely before middle to late May and more likely coinciding with an auspicious anniversary in July or September.
One concern in Washington is that a nuclear weapon detonated high above the atmosphere would generate an electromagnetic pulse disabling both all electronic communications and the electricity grid. One highly imaginative CIA report suggested that the consequences would kill 90 per cent of Americans – but fails to explain why during the Cold War Moscow seemingly didn’t pose the same threat. This in itself is one of the problems. It is not clear who is the horse and who is the rider, but CIA Director Mike Pompeo – rumoured to be Trump’s choice to replace Rex Tillerson as US Secretary of State when the latter falls on his wallet – and the Agency as a whole are the tip of the spear in the rush to balance past failures to anticipate Pyongyang’s progress with lurid prophecies of imminent Armageddon.
The Pentagon and the intelligence agencies are thus working up a series of credible military and non-military options. While the “bloody-nose” option is a “complete fiction”, other “kinetic” options are still in play, especially if North Korea restarts testing or engages in provocative military moves. In the meantime, reflecting the lack of intelligence the most likely early interventions will be covert action promoting internal subversion and an active search for divisions amongst the leadership and any “left opposition’. The other option is to build on their cyber-warfare successes with respect to the North’s missile programme and take the grid offline. The question there might be whether anyone – outside of central Pyongyang –- would notice as electricity supplies are erratic.
Washington continues to assemble a “coalition of the willing”. The British have signalled further participation in joint exercises on the Peninsula and London has seemingly agreed to host the next meeting after January’s Vancouver Summit of the United Nations command states that fought the Korean War plus South Korea and Japan, but very much minus China and Russia, the UN and EU. This time around it would be defence ministers rather than foreign ministers with troop deployments not diplomacy the order of the day.
There are three roads to war and only one to peace with the only difference being the pace of march. Military action is the short cut, but an effective trade embargo or covert action and cyber warfare likely leaves the Peninsula in the same spot. Iraq and Iran, Libya and Syria had little option but to sit out “smart” – and not so smart – targeting and sanctions and only respond to covert action by savage internal repression. But North Korea is different in that unlike them it has nuclear weapons. Kim and his advisors’ instincts are “fight not flight” when the tipping point is reached. It will be a pyrrhic victory for Washington that will never be forgotten or forgiven. The only alternative is a carefully crafted and controlled roadmap that step by step takes the Korean Peninsula back from the brink and to a wary mutual co-existence.