The greater Kim Jong Un’s success in ‘peace diplomacy’, the more difficult he calculates it will be for Donald Trump to push the red button that denotes a full-scale war of elimination of North Korea’s offensive capabilities.
Donald J. Trump is accurate when he blames his predecessors for causing the dilemma that the 45th President of the United States finds himself in on the nuclear capabilities of the DPRK (North Korea). President Bill Clinton had the best chance of settling the issue in a manner satisfactory to US interests, but waffled and shifted goalposts frequently, thereby confusing Pyongyang. Since the USSR had collapsed, the Clinton administration was taken in by NGOs claiming to have the means to generate mass agitations against the Kim family, claims that proved to be a hoax. The consequence of the belief within the Clinton White House that they could topple the Kim family on the cheap, led to a reneging of secret commitments made to the DPRK, a factor which led to the acceleration of a nuclear program that till then had been given only secondary importance when compared to the build-up of conventional forces. The Clinton era was riddled with lost opportunities, including the possibility of an alliance with India during the period (1992-96) when P.V. Narasimha Rao was Prime Minister. The Clinton White House let go of this chance by demanding that Delhi make impossible concessions to Pakistan on Kashmir and at the same time dismantle its entire atomic research program. Secret exchanges between the United States and Indian sides during that time show how the Clinton administration defined “dual use” nuclear technology in such a broad way that the entire program begun by Homi Bhabha in the 1950s would have had to be sent to the junkyard. In the case of North Korea, Kim Jong Il was willing to scale back the program to “Iran nuclear deal” levels and even below such a threshold, and sent several feelers to the US side for high-level talks on this, all of which were insultingly ignored by the Clinton White House, that saw the DPRK as being vulnerable to internal subversion. His successor did little better. Puffed up by initial successes in Iraq, President George W. Bush (2001-2009) zeroed in on a “maximum concessions from North Korea, zero from the US” negotiating stance that was not backed up with any serious intention of militarily confronting the DPRK. This lack of aggressive resolve barring tough talk became known to the Chinese and thereafter reached the North Koreans, who thereafter ignored as bluff any verbal threats coming their way from the Bush White House.
The only way Bush could have secured his stated objectives regarding de-nuclearisation of the DPRK sans substantive concessions to Pyongyang, would have been through the launch of a pre-emptive military strike, but the Afghanistan-Iraq quagmire took that option off the table in the minds of those dealing with the subject during the George W. Bush period. A role was also played by the Bush family’s desire not to offend Pyongyang’s prime (indeed, only) patron, Beijing, which then and now remains opposed to any use of the military option by the US and its allies. The initial years of the Barack Obama administration (2009-2017) provided the last chance for resolving the North Korean nuclear issue in a manner that would meet US interests without entailing substantial casualties in the RoK (South Korea) and Japan, including of US forces stationed in both countries. However, the Obama administration neither offered concessions on the scale needed to tempt the Kim regime into scaling back its nuclear program, nor gave any credible indication that it had the stomach to launch a war against North Korea. In 2011, Hillary Clinton joined hands with David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy to finish off Muammar Gaddafi and his regime, thereby convincing incoming Supreme Leader of the DPRK Kim Jong Un that giving in to US demands would only delay his end and not eliminate that possibility as was being promised by US and UN diplomats. From that time onwards, the nuclear and missile program took top priority within the Kim regime, and as a consequence of secretive assistance by a clutch of scientists from countries that regard their homelands as having been short-changed by the US, by now the DPRK has built up sufficient offensive capability to cause mass casualties running into the tens of thousands in South Korea, Japan and Guam. Within a couple of years at most, the North Korean regime will have the capability to drop a viable nuclear device on New York or Washington, but eliminating that capability would almost certainly entail mass casualties on a scale not seen since the Vietnam War ended. The only scenario that could avoid much of such a blowback would be a joint US-China strike on North Korea, with the US destroying the offensive conventional capability of the DPRK in the south of the country (especially along the DMZ), while China would move in and seize control of the nuclear facilities clustered near its border with North Korea. The US would eliminate almost all the DPRK’s conventional (and part of its WMD) capabilities without sending troops across the 38th parallel, in deference to the sensibilities of Beijing, which could then justify its takeover of nuclear assets in the northern part of the DPRK as being needed to “protect” the communist regime in power in Pyongyang. A new administration would thereafter be set up in the DPRK that would be without participation by the Kim family, who could be provided shelter in China and Russia, two countries they still maintain frequent contact with.
However, it is unlikely that the negotiating skills of the Trump administration are versatile enough to enlist the Chinese into a joint move against North Korean nukes and missile systems. That would leave the option of either accepting Pyongyang as a nuclear weapons power or launching a killer strike against its capabilities that would be certain to entail mass casualties outside the boundaries of the DPRK, and which would be resented if not resisted by China, now that in Xi Jinping the country has a leader in the mould of Mao Zedong for the first time since the founder of the People’s Republic of China passed away in 1976. DPRK Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un has skilfully used his considerable diplomatic skills to convince the international community that he has a safe pair of hands so far as the nuclear button is concerned. He has a partner in the effort to avoid another Korean war in President Moon Jae-In of South Korea, who believes in the option of integrating the DPRK into a regional economic and security network. Treating it as an outlaw, the way successive US administrations (and some in South Korea) have done, has forced Pyongyang to use unorthodox methods to secure its needs. Sanctions on the DPRK have neither reversed its nuclear and missile program nor made the Kim regime compliant with other international norms. President Moon understands that only a “Bright Sunshine” policy towards the North can peacefully ensure that Pyongyang cease to be a global troublemaker, but instead be a good neighbour, including to its hitherto implacable foe, Japan. If not such a course, the only other method is war, with its attendant loss of life in several countries.
President Trump has acted with a boldness that was beyond the capabilities of Bill Clinton, who passed on a genuine chance to make peace with a de-nuclearising North Korea and that too in Pyongyang. However, Kim Jong Un is unlikely to believe Trump’s assurances given the previous record of the US just within the 21st century. He will refuse to begin rolling back his WMD capability, unless the US pulls out of the entire region militarily, an impossibility both politically as well as strategically for Washington. In the meanwhile, the Supreme Leader is seeking through a charm offensive to convince the world (especially domestic opinion in the US and Europe) that he is a statesperson who favours peace over war, conciliation over conflict. The greater his success in such “peace diplomacy”, the more difficult he calculates it will be for President Trump to push the red button that denotes a full-scale war of elimination of offensive capabilities of North Korea. For Kim Jong Un, there is no choice. He has to retain his WMD capability to avoid going the Gaddafi way. For President Trump, it is a choice between a costly (in lives and treasure) war or accepting the DPRK as a nuclear power capable of inflicting unbearable harm on the US. Kim may of course offer some face-saving gestures that the Christiane Amanpours could showcase as a US success. This would be while holding on to their core WMD capabilities.
President Moon meanwhile will be seeking to integrate North Korea into a relationship with the South that would reduce the prospect of future conflicts to very low levels. There are several diplomatic and policy projectiles in the air around the Korean peninsula, but by far the most difficult decision will need to be taken by President Trump well within his present term in office. This is whether Trump “declares victory” and accepts the reality of the DPRK as a significant nuclear power or takes the decision to enter on a war with consequences that by now have grown immense but incalculable.