Recent weeks have been marked by some interesting turns in the North Korean nuclear and missile drama.
These events may just offer the first glimmer of hope for de-escalation after several months of dangerous developments in and around Korea.
Among the major events, one should, of course, mention the November 28 launch of the Hwasong-15 ICBM, which took place after a two and a half month pause in missile testing.
The North Korean government immediately followed the launch with a statement which said that the country had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.” Domestic propaganda heavily emphasized and celebrated the statement.
Finally, last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told his American counterpart Rex Tillerson in Vienna that North Korea is now willing to engage in negotiations with the United States.
Might all these developments be related?
Recent events may just offer the first glimmer of hope for de-escalation after several months of dangerous developments
There are numerous ways to interpret North Korea’s claim about the “completion of its nuclear program,” and history has taught us to approach the North’s official statements with skepticism.
Nonetheless, the most logical explanation is that North Korea believes it has achieved its major strategic goal and therefore will probably see no reason to conduct further nuclear tests and missile launches – at least for the time being.
This may sound strange, since the successful launch of the Hwasong-15, despite being an impressive technological achievement, does not achieve what has clearly been the North Korean government’s goal in recent years: to prove its ability to hit the continental United States with a nuclear warhead.
The Hwasong-15 might be theoretically capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the continental U.S., but it has been tested only once and hence cannot be viewed as completely reliable.
The most logical explanation is that North Korea believes it has achieved its major strategic goal and therefore will probably see no reason to conduct further nuclear tests and missile launches
Furthermore, some experts have expressed doubts about whether the Hwasong-15 is currently capable of delivering a heavy payload to its intended target. North Korea appears to have tested a mere working prototype on November 28, a missile which they can’t yet arm with a real nuclear warhead.
This normally means that one would expect North Korea to conduct additional tests. But if that were the case, why did the government issue its ‘mission accomplished’ statement?
PRELUDE TO NEGOTIATIONS?
North Korea’s leaders have a reasonably good understanding of the current international political situation, one which is remarkably different from those they have dealt with in the past.
The major new factor is, of course, the aging real estate tycoon currently residing in the White House. All contacts with North Koreans indicate that decision makers in Pyongyang understand that, this time, they are dealing with an unusual opponent whose actions could prove risky and unpredictable.
The bellicose threats and dangerous hints so generously made by President Trump in recent months have hardly gone unnoticed in Pyongyang. Given that Trump’s statements raised tensions in other capitals, including in countries at a safe remove from the area of possible military conflict, one can imagine how North Koreans have reacted to the threats which have emanated from the White House.
Of course, it is possible that President Trump has been bluffing all this time. But even if that’s the case, North Korean decision makers still have valid reasons not to attempt to call his bluff.
It is quite logical, after all, for North Korea to look for ways to alter its dangerous trajectory, albeit without doing so too openly and risking a massive loss of face.
The fact that the Hwasong-15 is probably not fully battle-ready might provide a negotiation tool in future deliberations with the United States
The launch of the Hwasong-15 might be a good way to start this course correction.
The new missile is powerful enough to be presented domestically and internationally as a credible new threat to the United States, so nobody can say that the North Koreans gave in to U.S. blackmail and backed down. But the fact that the Hwasong-15 is probably not fully battle-ready might provide a negotiation tool in future deliberations with the United States.
This interpretation might explain the recent exchange between Lavrov and Tillerson in Vienna. Not much is actually known about Lavrov’s remarks, but in recent months, there have been noticeable diplomatic movements – official, semi-official, and completely unofficial – in the Washington-Pyongyang-Moscow triangle.
Right now, Russia is well-positioned to be an intermediary in dealing with the crisis. While it would be a mistake to say that North Korean leaders trust Russia – they don’t – they mistrust Russia less than any other major international player, including, of course, China.
AWAITING THE U.S. RESPONSE
If this interpretation of recent events is correct, then the ball is now in the United States’ court, and the outcome will largely hinge on the U.S. reaction to the new situation.
Unfortunately, the initial response was not encouraging: Rex Tillerson said that the United States is not interested in any negotiations which are not predicated on North Korea’s willingness to surrender its nuclear weapons. Such a demand is clearly a non-starter. If U.S. diplomacy is going to insist on denuclearization as the only acceptable starting point, the negotiations will not take place and a slide towards a massive land war will continue uninterrupted.
Indeed, it is possible that a North Korean retreat, no matter how well-equipped with face-saving measures, could even encourage hawks in Washington, who will view it as proof that pressure is finally working and react by increasing pressure even more.
Compromise will not solve the problem, but at least it will stop the march toward large-scale war in East Asia
However, that is a very risky idea. If North Korean decision makers see that the U.S. has rejected its gesture toward compromise, how will they react?
It is possible, of course, that such a rejection, combined with the hostile noises and thinly-veiled threats coming from the White House, will make North Korea even more willing to make concessions – even though the idea of denuclearization as the only starting point would remain completely unrealistic.
It is more likely, though, that such a rejection would push North Korea’s elite toward an even harder stance. Instead of starting negotiations, they would raise the stakes once again, making an already dangerous situation even more precarious.
One can only hope that the explanation described above is correct and that North Korea is in fact hinting at the possibility of negotiations. One should also hope that the United States will accept those signals.
Compromise will not solve the problem, but at least it will stop the march toward large-scale war in East Asia that we have witnessed in the past year or so.
Edited by Bryan Betts
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