The North Korean-US stand-off: Will Trump 'make deal' with Kim?

Muhammad Mahmood | Published: January 06, 2018 20:28:57 | Updated: January 11, 2018 20:11:16

Protesters call for peaceful negotiations with North Korea in front of the White House, Washington, DC on August 09, 2017. —Photo: Reuters

North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un in his new year address claimed that the USA was within the reach his country's nuclear missiles but those weapons would be used "only if our security is threatened''. To further emphasise his claim he said "a nuclear button is always on my table''. But at the same time he also offered an olive branch to South Korea suggesting  it was imperative to lower tension in the Korean Peninsula and improve relations between North and South Korea and he was "open to dialogue''. He also indicated the possibility of sending a team to the Winter Olympics in Seoul. South Korea has responded already by agreeing to open dialogue,  including  North Korea's participation in the Winter Olympics. The hotline between Pyongyang and Seoul has already become operational and a meeting between North and South Korea is scheduled to held on January 09, 2018.

But US president Trump has now responded and claimed his nuclear button is much bigger and powerful than the one North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has, but it also works. Such fiery rhetoric on both sides do not augur well for South Korea which will be on the frontline of war if hostilities do breakout. South Korean president Moon Jae-in has championed dialogue with the North since he assumed the presidency, even when Trump has threatened North Korea with "fire and fury''.  While President Moon positively responded to the overtures from the North, he also further added that improving inter-Korean relations and resolving the North Korean nuclear issue are not separate from each other. He further added that any talks must be closely co-ordinated with South Korea's allies and the international community. That comment puts into question to what extent the South Korean president has any freedom let alone control over dealing with North Korea. Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the UN, said that North Korea could talk to any one they like but that did not change the US stand on North Korea, reinforcing that North Korea must agree to denuclearise and stop missile testing before any talks could take place. She even threatened North Korea of utter destruction.

China, on the other hand, welcomed the push for talks and called on South and North Korea to take this opportunity to improve ties.

North Korean leader appears to feel embolden by his recently enhanced missile capability to strike at the USA. His message to South Korea is also possibly a sign that as he is not getting anywhere with the USA, he wants to start talk with the South first and then take it from there. And if he succeeds in getting on the side of the South, that will also likely to drive a wedge between the US and the South. But given the US response to Kim's overtures, South Korea  possibly can only hope (and that's a hope) through the bilateral negotiation to ensure North Korean winter Olympic team's participation in the Olympics,  beyond that it is anybody's guess. This is because South Korea as a strategic client state of the USA has very limited capacity to deal with North Korea in its own right.

North Korea's drive to acquire a nuclear weapon can be traced back to the Korean War. Their nuclear weapons programme has always been geared towards deterring any US attack. This fear was not unfounded. President Harry Truman in 1950 said that using atomic bomb in the Korean conflict was under his "active consideration''.  To many North Korea's current enhanced nuclear and missile development programmes might be seen as irrational but if one looks from the North Korean perspective, they are very rational. North Korea has repeatedly said its weapons programmes are necessary defence against US plans to invade. The US has currently 28,500 troops in South Korea.

Since September, 2017 both President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have been locked in an exchange of an escalating verbal attacks. Overall, enhanced sanctions over time against North Korea, on the one hand, and continuing nuclear and missile tests by North Korea against the explicit wishes of the USA, on the other, has been the norm in the US-North Korea relations. The US efforts have been directed towards compelling North Korea to stop developing its nuclear and missile programmes. But now the situation has progressed to a stage where the USA is more concerned in deterring their use as North Korea has been talking up missile capabilities over the last one year. Kim also stressed that his country had mastered the nuclear deterrence capability which would prevent the USA from starting a war on the Korean Peninsula.

The Trump administration seems to be in a quandary how best to deal with the North Korean situation. That is reflected in conflicting signals coming from various members of the administration. Even President Trump floated the idea of friendship with Kim Jong-un describing him as a "smart cookie'' and called on him to "make deal'' on North Korea's missile and nuclear programmes. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also suggested to talk with North Korea without preconditions. To smooth the process he even said it was "not realistic to say we are only going to talk if you come to the able ready to give up your programme. They have too much invested in it''. Tillerson also indicated he had several lines of communication open to the North Korean leadership. Immediately thereafter the White House scoffed at the whole idea and  Tillerson then declared "We simply can not continue to accept the progress of North Korea's programme". 

Rex Tillerson has even fumed against China and Russia for not doing more by going beyond the full implementation of the UN Security Council resolutions. But the National Security Strategy Document of the USA (December, 2017) goes on to declare "China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity''.  Such a public policy stand taken by USA will lead to stronger long-term Sino-Russian alliance. And this time around both China and Russia are significantly  far more stronger to face the challenges posed by  the alliance the USA is building up with India, Japan and South Korea to counter China in the Asia-Pacific region or its European alliance against Russia.  Both the alliances have already developed numerous holes in them. In effect the USA is asking its clearly identified enemies to salvage it from the mess it has created in the first place by refusing to sign the peace treaty with North Korea.

The USA is engaged in a number of ongoing wars in countries such  as Afghanistan, Iraq,  Yemen and Syria, including low intensity wars in many other countries, besides its long-running "war on terror''.  It is also creating now conditions for starting new wars in the Middle East and Iran. But nothing has  acquired such a  heightened degree of apparent inevitability of a big conflagration than it is with North Korea if one goes by President Trump's public declarations. Similarly, North Korea is upping the ante and has announced that war is "an established fact'' in the wake of the latest US-South Korea military exercises in the region.

Whatever threats that Washington issued in the past months, including sanctions and oil cut-offs, have failed to deter Pyongyang in pursuing its nuclear and missile programmes. Kim also appears to be far more ambitious than his father and grandfather.  The history of past 70 years shows that dealing with North Korea is much more complex than it is with others. The war hawks in the Trump Administration also need to read The Tree Trillion Dollar War by Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes before they embark on any military adventure against North Korea. They later provided even a higher estimate to US$ 5.0 trillion. Moreover, the US is facing direct challenge from Russia in Ukraine; the latter has also displaced it in Iraq and Syria. In addition to all this, China's One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative will cause push back for the US in the Asia-Pacific region.

The reality is rather very stark, the Trump administration can not do much about North Korea. Any armed conflict would not only be catastrophic in human terms but would also decimate Japan and South Korea economically. Any armed conflict with North Korea would necessarily require deployment of US ground troops in the Korean Peninsula, which would mean that the casualties would not just be Koreans and the war will also not be just confined to the peninsula. The realistic option now open to the USA is to work through China and Russia to diffuse the stand-off. President Trump also at the same time can renew his offer to the North Korean Leader to "make deal'' and he might find doing business with North Korea can indeed be a very profitable deal.

The writer is an independent economic and political analyst.

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