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A way out of North Korean nuclear crisis

On September 15th news broke that North Korea had test-fired two ballistic missiles off its east coast. On the same day South Korea announced it had successfully tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile. The dangerous arms race between the contestants in what is in effect a civil war was wound up a few more notches. It has been going on for decades. Peacemaking initiatives have been and gone. The Biden Administration and its partner (erstwhile?) in this endeavour, the Chinese government, appears to be treading water.

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. It remains so.

But the Americans have seemingly 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 30. (Admittedly, President Donald Trump made some flamboyant gestures of reconciliation that came to nothing.) North Korea now has a few intercontinental ballistic missiles said to be capable of striking the US. Some experts believe it has miniaturised a nuclear warhead that can be fitted into the cone of these rockets. One thing is certain: North Korea would never have become a nuclear-bomb-possessing nation if the US had honoured its early agreements.

The Clinton Administration negotiated what it called an “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, Madeleine Albright, to Pyongyang where she was received with honours. North Korea softened its attitude.

Just before he left office President Bill Clinton believed he was on the cusp of a deal. 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. (In the event, it did not happen.) At the same time Republicans in Congress never stopped drilling holes into what had been already agreed with North Korea. Promises made by the US government to the North Koreans were sabotaged and undermined by the Republicans.

The stand-off between the US and North Korea is a precarious one. The American military know that if the US fired its weapons North Korea would aim south its arsenal of conventionally armed rockets and destroy Seoul, only a couple of minutes of flying time away. For its part, the North Korean military knows that a (thin) majority of American public opinion, according to polls, would back a large-scale retaliatory nuclear attack if the North Koreans launched even one rocket armed with a nuclear warhead.

The next American president, George W. Bush, kicked Clinton’s good work 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, who thought 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, Broadway musicals, and building a branch campus of Harvard that teaches mathematics, and also political science and human rights (which is done by Western universities’ outreach programs 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. The US needs to get on with searching for a peaceful solution. Being positive is not easy but in the end, after tortuous years of progress followed by retrenchment, it’s informed optimism that counts. Where there’s a will surely there’s a way. And now after many missteps we do know the way to go.


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