North Korea’s latest apparent intercontinental ballistic missile test after a two-month lull raises a troubling question: Is this the end of “the calm before the storm” the president referred to in October after a meeting with top military brass? One way or another, a storm is coming. Only time will tell whether it heralds a surge of diplomacy or bloodshed. As the president ominously put it, “you’ll find out.”
Trump Needs Real Diplomacy with North Korea
This article was originally published on U.S. News and World Report.
The storm’s first rains picked up after President Donald Trump decided to add North Korea to a list of state sponsors of terrorism last week. Announcing the decision, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reassured the press pool that “we still hope for diplomacy.” Tillerson argued that the designation “continues to tighten the pressure on the Kim regime all with an intention to have him understand, this is only going to get worse until you’re ready to come and talk.”
This latest missile test demonstrates the folly of that thinking. Tightening the screws on Pyongyang has not advanced prospects for diplomacy, nor has it slowed North Korea’s progress on a more advanced nuclear weapons program. On the contrary, the administration’s hyperfocus on the “pressure campaign” has squandered yet another opening for negotiations.
Some have argued North Korea’s pause in missile testing was not a sign that the North was ready to talk, but was rather a pause driven by preparations for more launches during the upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea, by poor weather conditions and by resources being diverted for the harvest season. These factors may have contributed to the pause, but numerous signs indicate that the assumption that North Korea has not been ready to talk is flawed.
In June, North Korea’s ambassador to India Kye Chun Yong told reporters that North Korea was willing to consider a “freeze for freeze” agreement, under which the U.S. and South Korea would pause their joint military exercises in exchange for North Korea pausing its nuclear and ballistic missile testing. Such an agreement would drastically reduce tensions and decrease the risk of a miscalculation leading to war. It could also pave the way for further negotiations to roll back North Korea’s nuclear program in exchange for economic incentives and security assurances from the U.S.
Nuclear and foreign policy experts around the world including former Secretary of Defense William Perry support the “freeze for freeze” approach. The South Korean government also recently voiced tacit support for it, suggesting a delay in upcoming U.S.-South Korean military exercises. The U.S. has repeatedly rejected the approach.
Of course, North Korea’s actions have not been conducive to the diplomatic process either, this most recent ICBM test serving as the latest example of its counterproductive behavior. But meeting North Korea’s missile test with another round of threats, insults and provocative military exercises would be a mistake. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and in this case, they would bring us one step closer to a catastrophic war.
Instead of responding in kind, the Trump administration should take South Korea up on its suggestion of a delay in joint military exercises and give the “freeze for freeze” approach a second look. Taking the first step toward de-escalation by delaying or suspending the military exercises would not be a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of true leadership.
With North Korea closing in on an ICBM capable of reliably striking the U.S. mainland, a threshold the administration has said would be “intolerable,” there’s a strong case to be made for accelerating the pursuit of negotiations. For one, the more advanced North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is when negotiations begin, the more leverage it will have at the negotiating table. But more importantly, if we don’t begin negotiations before North Korea crosses that threshold, it’s unclear whether or not the president would decide to launch a preemptive war.
Thankfully, legislation before Congress would address both of these concerns. The “No Unconstitutional Strike Against North Korea Act of 2017” would prevent funds from being used for any preemptive strike against North Korea without congressional authorization. It would also call on the president to “pursue every feasible opportunity to engage in talks” with North Korea to reduce tensions and advance the goals of denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula. While the administration may “still hope for diplomacy,” hope is not enough. Congress has the power to remind the administration that any preemptive war must be authorized, and that this crisis demands more than hope – it demands an unbridled pursuit of negotiations. It should exercise it.