How the US and North Korea Can Avoid a Nuclear War

Once we get past this moment of tension, how can the two countries reach a new, more stable status quo?

by Mike Pearl
Aug 11 2017, 4:39pm

People in Pyongyang watch a North Korean ICBM test in July. (KIM WON-JIN/AFP/Getty Images)

Here we are again. North Korea's nuclear arsenal has reached another milestone—in this case it looks like its achieved the ability to strike inside the US, according to a US intelligence report obtained by the Washington Post—so President Donald Trump is adding his own unique flavor to the customary ratcheting up of tensions. On Tuesday, he said that further threats from the hermit kingdom would be met with "fire and fury like the world has never seen." North Korea, of course, immediately tossed out a rejoinder, saying it's looking into attacking Guam.

On Thursday, Trump doubled down on his "fire and fury" statement, saying, "Maybe it wasn't tough enough." Then, Friday morning, Americans woke up to a Trump tweet: "Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!"

If there's a plan behind these statements, it seems to be "shock and confuse the entire world"—what exactly does "locked and loaded" even mean, after all?—but so far, the standoff that has defined relations between the US and North Korea for decades remains firmly in place. North Korea first started taking steps toward obtaining a nuclear arsenal in the 1980s, and the exchange of bellicose threats has become something of a tradition over the decades. In 1993, Bill Clinton said that if North Korea used nukes, "it would mean the end of their country as they know it," and North Korea warned of "fatal consequences" if Clinton made good on the threat. (Shortly afterward, Clinton negotiated a deal that sent a couple nuclear reactors to North Korea in exchange for the country halting its nuclear weapons program.) Just last year, Barack Obama warned North Korea that "we could, obviously, destroy North Korea with our arsenals," though he pointed out in the next breath that "aside from the humanitarian costs of that, they are right next door to our vital ally."

This sort of thing carried right on until Trump, as president-elect, tweeted about North Korea's goal of a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile "it won't happen" just months before it happened.

While it's enlightening to game out what would happen if the US and North Korea really did start exchanging nukes—particularly now that we can be almost certain that North Korea's apocalyptic threats aren't empty—a queasy new status quo seems to be on the horizon. That status quo is one in which North Korea has real nukes aimed at the US mainland, yet life goes on.

Let's say for a moment this period of tension subsides—a not-unreasonable assumption, given the enormous cost a war would exact on all sides, and given the Friday AP report that back-channel conversations between North Korea and the US have continued after the release of imprisoned American college student Otto Warmbier.

If this back channel stays open as tensions ratchet down, what might happen after the world accepts a nuclear North Korea? To find out, I talked to Rodger Baker, vice president of strategic analysis at Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence firm. He told me about some wild, out-of-left-field possibilities like "more talking."

VICE: If there's no war, what else could happen with the US and North Korea now?
Rodger Baker: On the US side [there's] a much more open willingness to say, Maybe we just have to accept that North Korea has nuclear capabilities, and shift to traditional ways of managing that, rather than having to stop them. In other words, it may just be that this ship has already sailed, and instead of blowing into the ocean lets' just figure out how to work with it. It's been an underlying element for a while. It just got really buried in the last couple of months underneath the rapidly ratcheting tensions.

One downside I can see to the US sitting down to negotiate with North Korea is that it would kinda feel like they've won. But that's sort of intangible. From the perspective of someone who doesn't want war, are there tangible downsides to something like that?
Aside from the question of, Does that give Iran the sense that they have the capacity to go forward? I think the big question is, does this, from a direct, tangible point of view, give North Korea a sense of confidence to increase their military activity in and around the Korean Peninsula? Do they feel more comfortable with things like the Cheonan incident [in which North Korea apparently sank a South Korean naval ship]? Or [does it embolden] action along the frontline islands to try and reassert that those should be theirs, and not South Korea's?

Is it a misconception that North Korea's military isn't exactly state-of-the-art?
I don't think it's entirely a misconception. The North Korean military is certainly not a modern armed forces in terms of even the way the South Korean armed forces are. That said, I wouldn't underestimate their capacity—particularly in terms of things like special ops or infiltrations, or their mini subs.

So when people worry that North Korea with nuclear-tipped ICBMs can get away with more from a military standpoint, what are the limits there?
I think they do have a fairly strong capacity, but I don't think they're in a position where they feel they have the capability to push toward a full invasion of the South, like I think you see some people suggesting—like, they think now they're just going to invade the South and it'll be easy. I really don't think they have that capacity.

So let's say the US and North Korea start to engage diplomatically. How might that start?
I think realistically, you would probably start to facilitate it through a third party, and it would probably be China. In the long run, I think certainly the North Koreans would like to sit down with the US, rather than the US and the Chinese.

And what would they be talking about, if not nukes?
You would do it around the concept of, let's say, the armistice agreement [that ended Korean War hostilities]. We need to do something beyond the armistice agreement, and we need to manage the sense of rising crisis.

If you were setting the goals for negotiations between the US and North Korea, what would the goals be?
The ideal goal of that I guess—a minimal ideal, because of course you're not getting rid of the North Korean nuclear program—but conceptually, it would create a space for a regularized engagement and interaction between the US and North Korea—a normalization of North Korea's relations regionally and internationally, ultimately. That means a shift of North Korean attention more to economics than just to North Korean military might, and therefore a reduction of this constant manic sense of extreme tension [which] would ease the peaks and ups and downs of the relationship. And I think the South Koreans would like a little more stability, so they don't have to worry so much about how people perceive the political risk of operations in South Korea.

South Korean President Moon Jae-In wants talks with North Korea. Would you expect him to be happy about all this?
I think the South Koreans would much prefer to be the ones leading the dialogue with the North, and not be left out. But that said, I think the South Koreans seem to have made it fairly clear that they're looking for anything that at least would take us from what appears right now to be a very heightened sense of potential for conflict, and to at least pull that back in the short term. Find some way to stand down for the next two or three months so there's some space for dialogue and relaxation.

If you notice, the North Koreans have been playing really hard to get with the South Koreans. The South Koreans have offered a bunch of new small openings on humanitarian and sports groups and even some funding and things like that, and the North Koreans keep saying, Eh, you're disingenuous. We're not going to talk to you. We're not going to join that.

In the end, is there a course the US can take that's neither diplomacy nor war?
Effectively what you do is you just keep going along with the status quo, where the US doesn't formally recognize North Korea as a nuclear power, but nor does it engage. The North Koreans keep going in the up and down cycle. The Chinese keep them on life support, just enough so they don't collapse, but not enough so they break free and become a full part of the global community. So it's really that political decision on the US side to say, w e just can't publicly accept that this is what North Korea has achieved. We're going to continue using isolation tactics.

How well do you see that strategy working?
It doesn't really give you really easy ability to manage [relations]. We didn't isolate the Soviet Union; we isolated them and talked to them a a lot. We didn't isolate China when they got nukes; We isolated them, and talked to them a lot. You can't manage these things by hoping you can ignore them to death. And that's kind of the lowest hanging fruit.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.

You can watch VICE on HBO's "Show of Force"—featuring an inside look at North Korea—Friday, August 11, at 7:30 PM and 11:00 PM ET on HBO.

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