North Korea’s nuclear program has been an urgent problem on the U.S. government’s agenda for decades, and their recent missile launch shows that we have yet to come to a resolution. On July 4th, North Korea launched their first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) that is estimated to be able to reach Alaska. While the U.S. government and media label Kim Jong-un as “crazy,” he has stayed true to his goal for his regime: “to put resources into missile developments and tests.” The consistent missile tests over the last two years not only show that the North Korea is capable of developing ICBMs that can reach the U.S., but also raises the question: What’s next?
In response to these threats and uncertainties, the U.S. government chose to intimidate North Korea with 40 years of annual joint military exercises with the South Korean army. The U.S. has further isolated the country with sanctions that prohibit it from building its economy and connecting with other countries for trade and resources. President Barack Obama utilized “strategic patience,” which put harsh pressure on the regime to halt its nuclear development and refused to engage with the country in the hopes that the regime would tumble down on its own. The strategic patience failed and North Korea has not collapsed. Trump’s administration basically repackaged the policy as maximum pressure against North Korea and chose to rely on China to be a middleman between the U.S. and North Korea. Despite Trump’s support for Taiwan (which has a strained relationship with China) and his harsh sanctions on Chinese banks that have connections with North Korea, China agreed to cooperate and engage with North Korea. Since early Spring this year, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has been urging the U.S. to halt the annual joint military exercise in South Korea, a request that North Korea has also explicitly asked for in return for stopping its nuclear tests. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson rejected the recommendation, asserting that the military exercise is crucial for safety and support of the U.S.’ ally. In fact, in response to the recent ICBM launch, the U.S. and South Korea held their latest extensive drill on Wednesday, July 5th to show their own intimidating missile strength.
Controversy Surrounding THAAD Deployment in South Korea
Not only has the Trump administration taken a harsher stance against engagement with North Korea, but it has also jeopardized the U.S.’ relationship with the neighboring countries. The most controversial aspect of U.S. militarization in East Asia is the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea. THAAD has two components:
1) sensor that identifies incoming missiles as well as other nuclear activities within its range, and
2) missile that locates and intercepts the incoming warhead in the atmosphere.
THAAD has stirred up controversy ever since the joint decision of the U.S. and South Korea to deploy the system in July 2016. THAAD is supposed to protect South Korea and the U.S. military from North Korean attacks by enhancing missile defense. China strongly opposes the deployment of THAAD because its radar can be used for surveillance of Chinese missiles. It’s unclear whether they feel the threat comes from this surveillance or from the increased U.S. military presence near its border, but China has been boycotting Korean businesses and tourism, including Lotte, the company that provided the land for THAAD deployment.
The issue of THAAD created a large debate regarding the location of its deployment and the question of its effectiveness. For example, the U.S. and South Korea agreed to place THAAD in Seongju, a city 135 miles southeast of Seoul, which puts the 25.5 million people living in Seoul out of the defended range. If the U.S. wanted to put South Korean security first, THAAD would have been placed to protect the capital, which is home to half of the South Korean population, rather than solely to protect the U.S. troops on the peninsula. Moreover, the U.S. Congressional Research Service finds that “THAAD is unlikely to shield South Korea since it is designed to counter high altitude missiles, not those that North Korea would likely use against South Korean targets.” David Wright, a specialist in nuclear weapons and missile systems at the Union of Concerned Scientists, clarified, “THAAD has been tested a number of times. While it has been effective under test conditions, nobody knows how they would actually work under attack.” In fact, UCS has criticized the U.S. for not having full knowledge of its missile defense system’s reliability and deploying systems in its 2016 study, “Shielded from Oversight: U.S. Approach to Strategic Missile Defense.” The UCS authors point out that the rush to ensure and publicize the supposed safety provided by the defense systems “can make the United States less safe by encouraging a riskier foreign policy.”
From the debate on its location to the question of its effectiveness, THAAD led concerned South Koreans to protest every day outside the deployment site with peaceful marches, sit-ins, and candle lightings. These peaceful activists, who are supported by the U.S.-based Stop THAAD Coalition, continue to point out the U.S. military expansion in South Korea claims to be protective, but in reality seeks to expand U.S. control in East Asia. President Moon has delayed the full deployment of THAAD until a comprehensive review of its environmental effects has been completed, but the issue still remains at the heart of the rising military tensions in East Asia.
Nuclear Disarmament of North Korea
Among the many complications that aggravate the tension in the Korean peninsula, the most urgent problem is North Korea’s growing nuclear development and threatening missile tests. The current U.S. administration’s strategy does not successfully address this problem. Both China and Russia urge the U.S. to stop intimidating North Korea and start working towards a peaceful resolution. South Korea’s President Moon has taken a firm stance against North Korea’s nuclear development, but also maintains engagement as his priority. He has declared that “South Korea does not wish for the destruction of North Korea nor will pursue any form of reunification through absorption,” but rather that, like Russia and China, it wishes for a denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in a way that does not threaten the North Korean regime. The Trump administration also clarified during its first announcement of its foreign policy plans for North Korea in April that it “calls for engagement with the North Korean regime, if and when it changes its behavior” and not for regime change. North Korea’s primary goal has always been to preserve the Kim family-led socialist regime and it has prioritized nuclear weapons for this security. Therefore, before he can even begin a conversation about denuclearization of North Korea, Kim Jong-un needs to be confident that regime change is not the real agenda. Although when and how North Korea would “change its behavior” is unclear, the urgency of the situation should make us focus on the one option that everyone has on the table and the U.S. refuses to take: diplomacy and engagement.
Diplomacy and Engagement with North Korea
On June 28, former Secretary of State George Shultz, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Bill Richardson, former Defense Secretary William Perry, and three other prominent former U.S. government officers sent a letter urging the Trump administration to engage in talks with North Korea. “Tightening sanctions can be useful in increasing pressure on North Korea, but sanctions alone will not solve the problem,” they wrote. “Pyongyang has shown it can make progress on missile and nuclear technology despite its isolation.” According to these authors, sanctions should only be used in the context of negotiation between the U.S. and North Korea.
Past negotiations with North Korea have been of a transactional nature, meaning that the U.S. and North Korea focused on urgent issues through a transaction involving deals, compromises, and consequences. In Robert S. Litwak’s report “Preventing North Korea’s Nuclear Breakout” published by the Wilson Center in February, transactional negotiation would best address the current conflict with North Korea to “improve the (already daunting) prospects of success [of]…[preventing] a nuclear breakout that could directly threaten the U.S. homeland and deterring North Korean-abetted nuclear terrorism.” Siegfried Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, explained that the goal of the negotiation should be North Korea’s nuclear freeze including the “Three No’s”: first, no new weapons (freezing North Korean production of plutonium and enriched uranium); second, no testing of weapons or ballistic missiles; and third, no exports of nuclear technology or weapons to state or non-state entities.”
Of course, the U.S. conflict with North Korea is not only confined to its threatening nuclear development and missile tests. The human rights violations of the regime and its history of torture and maltreatment of captured North Korean refugees and defectors are only some of the issues that raise the question of how the world still fails to address these atrocities in the twenty-first century. These issues should not be forgotten or pushed aside, but rather be held as another goal along the way in the long journey of working with North Korea. Negotiations and engagement today can be stepping stones towards decreased military tension and lead to more conversations about peace, reform, and human rights.
Therefore, it is essential for China, Russia, South Korea, and the U.S. to carefully coordinate with each other and clearly convey to North Korea that their imminent and overarching goal in the relationship is to freeze its nuclear development and missile tests, and begin negotiations, instead of further intimidating and threatening the regime.
Angela Kim is a senior at Wellesley College and a Legislative/Political intern at Massachusetts Peace Action.