Limited options for US on North Korea

Thus far, Trump has tried to prompt both resolve and ambiguity, suggesting at various times that he is open to all choices.

Limited options for US on North Korea

North Korea may have refrained from detonating a nuclear device and botched another missile test this weekend, easing tensions in Asia. But it is unclear whether US President Donald Trump has found a way around the limited options against North Korea that constrained his predecessors and put it on the path to becoming a nuclear power.

Trump essentially has three choices: a military strike that could ignite a full-blown war; pressure on China to impose tougher sanctions to persuade the North to change course, an approach that failed for his predecessors; or a deal that could require significant concessions, with no guarantee that North Korea would fulfill its promises.

Thus far, Trump has tried to signal both resolve and ambiguity, suggesting at various times that he is open to all three options. The question is whether his apparent willingness to consider both war and a deal may be enough carrot and stick to persuade China to change its approach and apply enough pressure to bring the North to the table.

US Vice President Mike Pence, during a visit to South Korea, raised the possibility on Monday that the Trump administration could pursue talks. No one should mistake the US resolve, he said, also noting that Washington was seeking security “through peaceable means, through negotiations.” The phrasing was unusual for a senior US official discussing the Korean Peninsula with US troops in the background.

Talks have long been China’s preference, and now that Trump seems to be relying on Beijing to an unprecedented degree, Pence may have been signaling that the US was open to negotiations. China’s chief objective is to get talks — of any kind — started to avoid conflict so close to home.

War on the peninsula is a nightmare for China that could lead to at least one million casualties, according to some estimates, ravage North and South Korea and set back Beijing’s climb to global pre-eminence. In his most flexible language yet, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, appealed again for negotiations.

“As long as it is a talk, China is willing to support it: either it is formal or informal, one-track or dual-track, bilateral, trilateral or quadrilateral,” Wang said in Beijing. “We are also willing to stay open-minded and accept the good advice from others.”

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, already has enough fissile material for 20 to 25 nuclear weapons and may be able to produce sufficient fissile materials — plutonium and highly enriched uranium — for six to seven new weapons a year, according to Siegfried S Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Should the North conduct its sixth nuclear test, it would move closer to having a hydrogen bomb, or a two-stage thermonuclear weapon, Hecker said, with up to 1,000 times more power than the Hiroshima-style weapons that Kim has detonated so far.

With that level of firepower, Hecker said he worried about a “nuclear catastrophe” on the peninsula resulting from either “escalation of military activities” or poor security around the North’s nuclear arsenal. Talks are needed immediately, he said, just to deal with the immediate threat to Japan and South Korea, both US allies.

The logic for diplomacy should be compelling to the Trump administration, Chinese experts say, even as Washington stakes out a policy of “maximum pressure” and has deployed a naval flotilla led by the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson to the coast of the Korean Peninsula.

In a formal proposal last month, China said that talks should be framed on the basis of North Korea suspending its nuclear testing, and the US and South Korea suspending their military exercises off the peninsula.

Such suggestions were a nonstarter for the Obama administration, which insisted that Pyongyang had to give up its weapons first, and the conditions, as proposed by Wang last month, were immediately rejected by senior Trump administration officials.
Washington needs to understand North Korea’s point of view, argues China, which fought on the North’s side against the US during the Korean War, losing an estimated 3,00,000 soldiers.

As nearly 30,000 US troops are stationed in South Korea and frequent US military exercises occur on land and at sea, North Korea has complained that it is threatened by a “ring of American fire.” The US is still technically at war with the North because a peace treaty was never signed at the end of the Korean War in 1953.

New diplomacy

A major purpose of any new diplomacy would be to halt the North’s nuclear programme. The longer the country is allowed to test its weapons, the more lethal they become. Capping the arsenal at its current stage is one of the more palatable among several unpalatable options, US and Chinese experts say.

The North’s freedom to conduct underground tests gives it the chance to significantly improve its weapons by using less fissile material per weapon and producing greater explosive yields, said David Albright, a physicist who oversees the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington.

For Trump — and China and its neighbours — this means a much graver threat than the Obama or Bush administrations faced, Hecker wrote in The New York Times in January.

“Pyongyang can most likely already reach all of South Korea, Japan and possibly even some US targets in the Pacific” with its nuclear weapons, he wrote.

Chinese experts say they detect an opening for negotiations. “Trump said something interesting during his campaign — that if necessary he could meet with Kim Jong Un and have a sandwich with him,” said Yang Xiyu, a former diplomat from China who led his country’s delegation to the so-called six-party talks on North Korea in the mid-2000s. “We can see that as a shortcut to solve the issue in a peaceful manner.”

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