Quieting the language of war

Diplomacy struggles as Washington and Pyongyang ramp up the rhetoric

Stephen R Nagy

International relations, National security | Asia, East Asia, The World

16 August 2017

Hyperbole from the US and North Korea is making a bad situation worse. Cool heads and clarity need to prevail to prevent a regional escalation, Stephen Nagy writes.

President Trump’s move away from his predecessors’ approaches to North Korea should be applauded.

Both Obama’s “Strategic Patience” and Bush’s “pragmatic engagement coupled with credible deterrence” were failed strategies, which did little to arrest the country’s nuclear and missile development and did not result in a decrease in the number of missile and nuclear tests.

According to the RAND Corporation, this failure has led to North Korea having “enough fissile material to build between 13 and 21 nuclear weapons; by 2020, it could possess enough for 50 to 100.” More disconcerting is the projected development of long-range nuclear-capable missile systems that can be deployed on submarine and road-mobile platforms.

Efforts to step up pressure on Pyongyang to stop its missile program by recruiting and coercing China have been noteworthy. The suspension of coal imports in February 2017, the turning back of coal-carrying vessels at Chinese ports, and critical editorials on North Korea in party mouthpieces such as the Global Times, are evidence that China may be responding to US demands by sending messages to Pyongyang that there are limits to Chinese support. While still insufficient, more cooperation between Beijing and Washington in dealing with Pyongyang is certain to yield more positive results in eliminating or limiting the North’s weapons development.

On the side of diplomacy, the Trump Administration successfully brought together the United Nations Security Council to adopt five new major sanctions on North Korea in response to the country’s nuclear and missile activities. The unanimous decision condemning North Korea’s missile and nuclear development is evidence that the US under Trump has not forgone diplomacy altogether in its efforts to stop the North’s nuclear ambitions.

More on this: Time for a different approach to North Korea

Whereas the shift away from the failed policies of previous administrations is praiseworthy, Trump’s tweet diplomacy, fiery rhetoric, and contradictory messages have increased the tension between Pyongyang and Washington to dangerous levels. This is highly problematic as it hamstrings diplomacy, leaving policymakers without the political space away from the spotlight to iron out a compromise or find face-saving concessions.

This downward spiral of ever intensifying belligerent threats is magnified as the mass media endlessly recycles incendiary sound bites and pushes “crisis narratives”. For instance, media organisations from around the world report on the still-unreliable capabilities of the North Korean arsenal without realistic assessments on missile accuracy, miniaturisation of nuclear weapons, and even the accompanying technologies that are required to launch and track a missile or accurately locate and hit a target.

Mass media hyperbole is contrasted by reputable, nonpartisan research organisations such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)’s Missile Threat Project which stresses that while North Korea is developing missile systems rapidly, many of these systems are still either not operational or that the threat of a nuclear attack is complicated by technologies with an unproven ability to accurately deliver a nuclear weapon.

More salient to the problematic nature of mass media coverage of North Korean-US tensions are news reports that the US would retaliate if the North launched an attack – without the crucial clarification that Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities are not offensive in nature, but rather defensive. The key question not asked is this: why would a regime so bent on survival use a weapon on the US, South Korea or Japan if it meant their own extermination?

More on this: Beware the Guns of August

Hyperbole has made the situation more mercurial and menacing than it should be.

Further aggravating the situation is the rhetoric coming out of Washington which is causing instability in the region in at least two ways. First, Trump’s unilateral rhetoric concerning a potential strike on North Korea is deeply distressing. It disregards the devastating consequences a strike would have for South Korea and potentially Japan, as they would be bystanders in a retaliatory attack by Pyongyang.

Policymakers in Seoul and Tokyo see unilateral action by the Trump Administration as irresponsible and not befitting an alliance partner.

Trump’s reported comment to Senator Lyndsey Graham that “If there’s going to be a war to stop [Kim Jong-un], it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here. And he has told me that to my face” has sent policymakers in Tokyo and Seoul a strong message that Trump views his alliance partners as expendable in an era of America First.

Secondly, Trump’s suggestions of a pre-emptive strike without consideration of longstanding allies tests US-South Korean and US-Japan alliances. What good is an expensive alliance when your alliance partner is promoting a unilateral military option on Pyongyang that would bring destructive consequences to your country?

The results of Trump’s rhetoric already reverberate in Seoul and Tokyo. Both capitals have begun to debate whether they should acquire their own pre-emptive strike capabilities. On the South Korean side, conservative politicians have even suggested that a nuclear South Korea would be the best way to deter an aggressive North Korea.

More on this: North Korea is the litmus test for a nuclear weapons ban

While understandable in the face of nuclear belligerence from Pyongyang, the effect of South Korea acquiring a nuclear capability, let alone a pre-emptive strike ability, could mean Japan and potentially Taiwan acquire a nuclear deterrence as well. This would be a direct affront to China’s core interests. It would sound alarm bells in an already security-obsessed Beijing that the US is building a coalition of nuclear-armed states to contain China. China would not stand idly by. We would see Beijing’s military spending increase accordingly, eliciting a destabilising arms race in the world’s economic engine.

Appeasement is not the way to deal with North Korea. A coordinated, forceful stance needs to be taken to deal with the regime. Unilateral action by the US and inflammatory rhetoric should be avoided to ensure that Northeast Asia’s security remains anchored to reliable alliances constructed over many decades. These have historically prevented a deleterious arms race from emerging in Northeast Asia and allowed for socio-economic development to be the hallmark of the region’s focus. An arms race, or accidental or pre-emptive conflict on the Korean peninsula, should be avoided at all costs.

The Trump administration needs to continue to work with China, South Korea, Japan and other stakeholders in the region to reign in Pyongyang. It should continue to pursue a novel approach to ending North Korean belligerence and nuclear projection capabilities. Part of that approach is to increase pressure on China, but also ask other regional stakeholders to step up to the plate and not solely rely on the US to deal with the problem.

At the same time, provocative rhetoric needs to be set aside to allow for closed-door diplomacy to garner momentum, such as the Chinese “freeze-for-freeze” proposal. Here, mass media has an important role to play in shifting away from a “crisis narrative” to news reporting which also looks at dialogue and compromise in this longstanding conflict between Pyongyang and Washington.

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