When, soon after the election, President Barack Obama invited Donald Trump to the White House we didn’t learn much about their conversation. But we were briefed on one thing: Obama had told Trump that North Korea would be the most pressing and difficult issue on his agenda.
How right that was. But the Americans have missed the boat. It’s as simple as that. What’s done is done. While Washington has dithered and dithered through three successive presidencies, missing opportunity after opportunity, North Korea has gone from zero nuclear weapons to an arsenal of at least 20. Its test last week of an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile is said to be capable of striking the US. It doesn’t have a nuclear tip yet but that will come sometime in the next two or three years.
Just before he left office President Bill Clinton believed he was on the cusp of a deal. His secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, went to Pyongyang to prepare the way for Clinton’s own visit during which, it was believed, a deal would be cemented. But then right at the end of his presidency Clinton got diverted by crucial Arab/Israeli negotiations that seemed like they would bring peace to Palestine. At the same time Republicans in Congress never stopped drilling holes into what had been already agreed with North Korea.
Today we now have a serious clash between presidents Trump and Kim Jong-un, both volatile personalities. What constraints they operate under are debated. Can either of them, despite their supposed omnipotence in the decision to use nuclear weapons, by-pass their military’s doubts? The American military know that if the US fired nuclear weapons North Korea would aim south its arsenal of conventionally armed rockets and destroy Seoul. For its part the North Korean military knows that a majority of American public opinion would back a retaliatory nuclear attack if, in 2-3 years’ time when the North has mastered putting a nuclear weapon on top of a long range rocket, it decided to use them.
This gives the military brass on both sides pause. After all they have families that would be destroyed in any attack. They would end up with uninhabitable cities.
In this situation they would probably conclude that their president has no sense of responsibility and that, volatile to begin with, he’d lost his judgement under the pressure of events. No missile can be fired, even if the button is pressed, without it passing through the military’s computers.
Of course there are always unknowables in any nuclear standoff. In the Cold War there were false alarms on both sides when it looked for some minutes that an attack by the adversary was underway. The US has found that some of its rocket crews were taking drugs or drinking too much.
Nuclear disarmament by both sides is an imperative. However, realistically, this is not going to happen as long as the US believes it must have a massive arsenal.
We are compelled to live with some degree of uncertainty just as we did through all the years of the Cold War. But, as with the Cold War, we need to be in touch with the other side, not ignoring it, not isolating it, not squeezing it till it begs for mercy.
This was never part of the plan in Clinton’s “Agreed Framework”. The US started to build in the North nuclear light-water reactors that could only manufacture electricity. For a time North Korea was the major receiver of American economic aid in Asia. Clinton sent his secretary of state, Madeline Albright, to Pyongyang where she was received with honours. North Korea softened its attitude.
But then the next American president, George W. Bush, kicked this all aside, despite the views of his secretary of state and former military chief, Colin Powell and most of the academic political science and international relations community. (This was a worse mistake than going to war with Iraq.) North Korea then decided, and only then, to complete its work on building a nuclear bomb.
We can’t wind the clock back to Clinton’s “Agreed Framework” but we can create another- slowly. But first the North has to be “warmed up”- with some of the same techniques that in the end helped undermine the Soviet Union- cultural, educational and sporting exchanges- regular visits of US soccer teams, the New York City Ballet, building a branch campus of Harvard that teaches mathematics and also political science and human rights (which is done by Westerners in some Chinese universities).
Then the US must agree to two things Pyongyang really wants: to open talks on a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War which terminated with only an armistice in 1953. Second, to limit American military exercises around the Korean peninsula.
We need no more bluster. We need to get on with searching for a peaceful solution.