An Alternative Path for Peace in the Korean Peninsula

With North Korea’s inscrutable march towards nuclear tipped missiles capable of striking Continental United States, the path to peace on the Korean Peninsula seems bleaker than ever. Yet this is not new. The United States, in alliance with the U.N. and international community, have tried economic sanctions, economic incentives, the threat of military intervention, cyber warfare and other overt and covert mechanisms, all to no avail. It has tried everything short of direct military action, and not for lack of will, but rather due to the tremendous costs to South Korea and possibly Japan. The just passed U.N. sanctions seem to be yet another check box in a long list of tried and failed options. There appears no good path forward.

Yet why are North Korea’s nuclear programs such a threat to the United States? The UK and France have ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads that could reach the United States. This is not a concern because they are our allies, and we believe that they will remain so for a long time to come. India and Pakistan also have similar capabilities. They are quasi allies to various degrees, but we believe they harbor us no ill intentions to date. Russia and China are not our allies and in some American quarters, considered the opposite of friendly, but Americans don’t wake up every morning worried about Russian or Chinese missiles striking a major US city. Why? Because we believe (1) these countries are rational actors and (2) retaliatory measures by the United States are significant deterrents.

North Korea knows well that should it advance a nuclear attack of any sort on the United States or its allies, retaliations will all but guarantee the extermination of the regime. Is our worry with North Korea’s growing capability a worry that they are irrational? Kim Jong Un certainly appears to be the mad dictator, having killed several of his closest kin. Yet there is consistency and continuity in three generations of Kim in their dealings with the outside world. Every indication has shown that North Korea is acting very rational in acquiring and growing its nuclear capability, as it sees the programs as the principal and only method to secure its survival. The length with which Kim has gone to consolidate his hold on power reinforces the supposition that he will do whatever is best to remain in power. Having observed states such as Libya that gave up its nuclear programs and later deposed with tacit US support, North Korea rightfully sees its nuclear programs as the sole option for survival. If North Korea is indeed a rational actor, why then are we concerned? There are a primary and a secondary reason. The primary reason is that there isn’t a system of mutually verifiable checks and balances between North Korea and the outside world pertaining its nuclear and missile programs. The height of the Cold War, it’s most dangerous apex, was when the United States and Soviet Union lacked agreed to, and verifiable programs to monitor each other’s nuclear and missile progress. If such a system were to exist, for example the agreement signed under President Clinton and later broken by North Korea, it would meet the primary need of the United States and the international community. The secondary reason is one of proliferation, that North Korea might advance its know-how, once acquired, to other rogue states. While this is a real and proven concern, it pales in comparison to the primary reason as the United States and the international community could be much more effective in monitoring, checking, and putting pressure on other states, such as Iran or Pakistan, in their illicit dealings with North Korea.

Why did North Korea flaunt agreements signed under President Clinton and supported by the international community? Because the agreement did not address the fundamental security concern of North Korea and because it can. North Korea is still technically at war with South Korea and the United States. It is inferior in technology, population size, economics, and just about everything else compared to South Korea. Just as the hornet knows that its one sting will draw out its life; that sting is what prevents it from being consumed by larger preys. North Korea knows that its security is not secure under any current agreements. On the other hand, it also knows that it could produce a heart-breaking counter-attack on Seoul should a pre-emptive attack by the United States ever materializes. The United States would be in the right, supported by the international community, to retaliate should North Korea strike first. However, a pre-emptive strike by the United States that leads to ruins for South Korea and possibly Japan would inevitably draw a deep wedge between the United States and her Asian allies and cast doubt on the fundamental fabric of every US alliance around the world. Allies will necessarily ask, ‘will I be sacrificed by the United States in a global chess game?’ Any devastation of Seoul would produce horrific visuals impossibly to erase.

And so the current pattern seems to continue, the United States threatens with military action and economic sanctions, North Korea marches towards full nuclear and ballistic developments. How do we break this cycle? Perhaps we might draw from history. For centuries contentious borders, especially of buffer states and smaller nations, were guaranteed by a combination of larger and more powerful nations. Today, the United States in effect guarantees the security and borders of South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan in Asia. But in yester year’s arrangements, great powers, sometimes staunch allies but more often frenemies, come together to guarantee the security of contentious regions. Take England and France’s guarantee of Poland’s territory integrity in 1939. Germany’s invasion of Poland automatically triggered a declaration of war leading to World War II. Interestingly, if England and France and Poland had entertained Stalin’s entreaties for a joint security guarantee, the Soviet Union might not have signed a non-aggression pact with Germany, thus securing Germany’s eastern front and allowing the Fuhrer to pursue his conquests in Europe.

The six party talks were launched in 2003, involving China, Russia, United States, Japan, South Korea, and North Korea. These are the parties with an interest in peace and maintaining the status quo. Why not a six-party security guarantee of existing borders between South and North Korea, with eventual unification only through peaceful means agreed to by both peoples? Such a six-party security guarantee would of course be predicated on the fact that North Korea freezes all existing nuclear and ballistic tests. It could at once solve North Korea’s fundamental security concerns, and put a verifiable and sustainable monitoring program in place. The DMZ borders, currently manned by the North Koreans on one side and the Americans and South Koreans on the other side, could be jointly patrolled by the Chinese, Russian, and North Koreans, and Americans, South Koreans, and Japanese. Under such an arrangement, all military transgressions would cease, including but not limited to shelling, assassinations, and propaganda broadcasts. Violations would be penalized through defined clauses within the agreement. Multiparty security guarantees, when done right, have prevented war in Europe and elsewhere for centuries, and might just be the best option under the circumstances.

Lately there has been increasing clamor in the United States to put pressure on China to bring North Korea to terms, given China’s pivotal role in sustaining North Korea’s economic viability. On the one hand, this is a tacit acknowledgement that the United States can no longer go at it alone, and it needs help. On the other hand, such pressures, while logically on the surface, runs counter to China and North Korea’s fundamental interests. It does nothing to guarantee North Korea’s security, and it pushes China to punish a useful neighbor that might result in uncontrolled consequences such as regime destabilization.

Critics might argue that North Korea could continue to cheat under such a security guarantee. While it might be tempted to; to lose an effective security shield and guarantee would make it consider earnestly and deeply than a mere loss of civilian nuclear reactors under previous agreements. The guarantee will also open the door for the lifting of sanctions and increased economic stimulus, incentives for the North Koreans to play ball. Critics might contend that other countries may not want to participate in such an arrangement, and that the era of great power arrangements are bygone. However, it never hurts to ask. Such a proposal posits the United States as leading in peace and resolved to finding a peaceful resolution involving all interested parties, while meeting their fundamental needs for peace and status quo. For China and Russia, the agreement would permit them to have a role in an issue of global importance, without significant investments or downsides. Especially for China, if North Korea violated the agreement, it can rightfully wash its hands of North Korea. The current situation as it stands is unpalatable for the Chinese. Should the United States take military action, and North Korea engages, a land invasion is not impossible to envision. The Chinese will have to weigh engagement, like they did in 1950, for domestic opinion would strongly compel them to do so. For the Japanese, this maybe a way for it to extend and expand its military modernization program and increase its influence in Asia. The one sticking point might be the stationing of Japanese troops on South Korean soil, given historical animosities. However, this maybe resolved by demarcating specific areas of movements. South Koreans, with a few exceptions, prefer the status quo as they have the most to lose in any conflict. When all other options have failed and are no longer tenable, why not draw a page from history and fashion a multi-lateral security guarantee suitable for present day requirements?