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Capitalize on the Olympic Truce, Formalize a Freeze for Freeze with North Korea

Photo by UNC – CFC – USFK | CC BY 2.0

Poor Rex Tillerson. Secretary of State must have sounded like an awesome job to the former Chairman and CEO of Exxon/Mobil, it certainly would to most people. The massive pay cut must have given him at least some pause, as he made more than $25 million in 2016.

Now he finds himself working for a “very stable genius,” or an (expletive) moron depending on Trump’s or his own description of our president, with no discernible direction coming from the White House as to how to handle the very serious crisis with North Korea.

Recently Tillerson has sounded very much adrift or at least inconsistent in his public statements on the Korea situation, at times somewhat optimistic, and at other times pretty downbeat. He does come across as serious, appearing to be someone who would like to succeed at his job (assuming he keeps it, though he has survived rumors of his imminent ouster for several months now).

At the recent Vancouver meeting of foreign ministers from countries that (mostly) participated in the UN Command in the devastating 1950-53 war on the Korean peninsula, Tillerson threw cold water on what might be the most promising starting point for negotiations with North Korea, a “freeze for a freeze.” Under this approach, North Korea would pause its nuclear and ballistic missile testing in exchange for the U.S. and South Korea postponing their twice annual military exercises, which involve more than 200,000 troops rehearsing for war with the North, including simulated nuclear bombing runs and “decapitation strikes.” It’s no wonder the North loathes these exercises, hence their potential value as a bargaining chip.

Tillerson stated, “Let me be clear: We will not allow North Korea to drive a wedge through our resolve or our solidarity. We reject a ‘freeze-for-freeze’ approach in which legitimate defensive military exercises are placed on the same level of equivalency as the DPRK (North Korea)’s unlawful actions.”

The equivalency of nuclear and ballistic missile tests and massive war games is an interesting question, legally, morally, geo-strategically, and where one stands might well depend on where one sits. It’s certainly possible to imagine Pyongyang, faced with the massive military, political and economic might of the U.S.-South Korea (and Japan) alliance thinking it needs nuclear weapons to ensure its survival, observing how the U.S. invaded Iraq and Libya and overthrew Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi after they gave up their nuclear weapons programs. In his New Year’s address, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un announced the North had achieved its goals for its nuclear program and intended to spend more resources on developing its economy.

Still, the U.S., South Korea and Japan cannot guess at his intentions. They must be prepared for North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, and are justifiably alarmed at the thought of a nuclear strike on Seoul, Tokyo or Los Angeles, which could kill millions and wreck the global economy. They could also reasonably argue the massive war drills are meant to make Pyongyang think twice about any military aggression.

The question of equivalency is perhaps unanswerable, and ultimately moot, if it provides a place to start negotiations. And, while Tillerson might not admit it, there is a de facto freeze for freeze in place right now. North Korea has not tested nuclear weapons or missiles recently (there could be any number of reasons for that), and the U.S. agreed to South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s request to postpone the war exercises until after the Winter Olympics and Paralympics, so practically speaking, through March.

One could go even further; not only is there in reality a freeze for a freeze in place, but also an Olympic Truce, a tradition that dates to the ancient Greek games and is officially recognized by the United Nations and International Olympic Committee. The U.N. vote on the current Olympic Truce was supported by both Koreas. The recent thaw in North-South tensions and initial talks resulting in agreements for North Korea’s participation in the PyeongChang Games beginning February 9 are certainly steps, perhaps small, back from the brink of war—a marked departure from the awful threats Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump have volleyed at each other.

Effective negotiators build on any points of agreement the parties to a dispute have at the outset. So why not ditch the “non-equivalency” argument and state the U.S.-South Korea war drills are on indefinite hiatus as long as North Korea continues to observe a moratorium on nuclear and missile testing? That would be solid footing on which to begin real diplomacy. South Korea isn’t afraid to talk to the North, why is the U.S.? If Tillerson can’t do his job, the least he can do is support the North-South talks, and let Koreans make peace.

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Kevin Martin is Executive Director of Peace Action, the country’s largest grassroots peace and disarmament organization with more than 200,000 supporters nationwide.

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