The United States and North Korea need to wake up to the reality that time is running out for a peaceful resolution to their nuclear standoff. Both must adjust their behavior if they are to avoid a war.
Pyongyang must realize that, at present, it’s nuclear and missile program is making it more vulnerable to a US pre-emptive attack instead of strengthening its self-defense. If it’s nuclear and missile program is indeed for self-defense and it aspires to be a responsible nuclear power, as Kim Jong-un declared in his new year’s speech last month, Pyongyang needs to start acting in non-threatening ways. Threatening to attack the US homeland with nuclear-tipped missiles is an open agitation for Washington to pre-emptively attack North Korea before Pyongyang’s missiles become fully operational. Such a pre-emptive strike will most likely result in a war that will devastate both Koreas while the US homeland escapes destruction.
Pyongyang can learn from Israel, India and Pakistan regarding how to make its nuclear and missile program more acceptable to the international community: Israel, India and Pakistan have become nuclear weapons states in a discreet fashion by never threatening to use their nuclear weapons against anyone. Pyongyang must realize that being discreet about its nuclear and missile program gives it more security than openly flaunting such a program. Pyongyang must understand, for example, that it has more to lose by openly flaunting its intercontinental ballistic missiles in military parades such as the one scheduled for the day before the opening day of the upcoming winter Olympics in South Korea. Acting like a responsible nuclear power means Pyongyang also needs to stop engaging in illicit behavior such as its diplomats trafficking in drugs and counterfeit currency. Such behavior raises concerns that Pyongyang will sell its nuclear and missile know-how to enemies of the United States for cash.
Washington, for its part, must bear in mind that a pre-emptive strike against North Korea will lead to a North Korean retaliation that will probably kill tens of thousands of American citizens currently in South Korea, not to mention many more South Koreans. Moreover, such a strike will probably inflict a severe shock to the world economy as North Korea disintegrates, South Korea and Japan sustain unacceptable collateral damage, and the US and China get embroiled in the ensuing chaos.
Washington and Pyongyang need to realize that sometimes a war starts not because nations want one but because war is the only default option when all other options are not actively pursued. At the present, both nations have been acting in ways that foreclose a peaceful resolution and make resorting to war the default choice. A way out is for both to find face-saving ways to explore common ground by turning away from their confrontational hardline policies, statements and actions
The United States, therefore, would be wise to make use of the political cover provided by the upcoming PyeongChang Olympics to establish a direct dialogue with North Korea. Instead of shunning the North Korean delegates at the Games, the US delegation should meet with them. Kim Yong-nam, the likely chief North Korean delegate at the Games, is a senior official with much experience in the international diplomatic arena, whose alleged professionalism is suited for meetings with the officials from the US and other nations to be represented at the Games. Washington has little to lose but potentially something significant to gain by meeting Kim and exploring Pyongyang’s intentions. Even if the meetings lead to no breakthrough for the nuclear standoff, at a minimum, a communication channel will be established, which will be invaluable in defusing future spikes in tension.
Pyongyang also needs to seize this diplomatic opening for Olympic peace in order to avert a catastrophic war, and the global community would do well to lend its support to this Olympic diplomacy. If this opening is wasted, spring will probably bring on heightening tensions as US-South Korean joint military exercises resume and North Korea conducts more nuclear or missile tests. Attempts to engage in diplomacy then may be too late.
Jongsoo Lee is Senior Managing Director at Brock Securities and Center Associate at Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University. The opinions expressed in this essay are solely his own. He can be followed on Twitter at @jameslee004 -- Ed.