By M D Nalapat
Any peace offer would need to include 100% guarantees of the safety of Kim, as well as of his governmental associates.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, North Korean regime head Kim Jong Un represents a better chance for peace on the divided Korean peninsula, than was the case under his grandfather and father, both of whom ran the country before the start of his own period in office. This is according to analysts in the troubled peninsula, who claim to be personally aware of the thinking of the young supremo of the Pyongyang regime. However, to incentivise Kim into making such a move, “an attractive peace offer will need to be made”. The option to such a move “would be war, as Kim is as ready to take to the battlefield as his grandfather Kim Il Sung, whom he resembles in both appearance and character”, according to these individuals. According to those familiar with the thinking within higher level groups in North Korea, any peace offer would need to include “100% guarantees of the safety of Kim, as well as of his governmental associates, given the unhappy history in the Middle East of promises made to leaders there (who were persuaded to surrender their WMD stockpiles) being broken and they themselves getting eliminated in a brutal manner”. Hanging in the case of Saddam Hussein and death by torture for Muammar Gaddafi, with a similar fate being sought by the regional allies of NATO for Bashar Assad. Such a guarantee “would include the giving of a state position to Kim”, albeit of a ceremonial sort, “that would protect his protocol privileges as a national leader”. According to those who are familiar with the workings of the North Korean governance mechanism, status and protocol will be pre-dominant in any acceptance of a peaceful conclusion to the DPRK nuclear issue. Hence, they add, “it needs to be at the level of the US and the DPRK” and not any lesser power on the other side of the negotiating table. They claim that “the intention of Supreme Leader Kim is to make the territory of the DPRK as advanced as is the case south of the 38th parallel” and that he has “steadily been loosening the constraints on private industry” in the DPRK.
It needs to be added though that some analysts, based not elsewhere in East Asia but in Beijing, are sceptical of claims that Kim Jong Un is prepared for a peace settlement. They say that the “atmosphere of mistrust and paranoia within the North Korean leadership makes it impossible for them to be satisfied with guarantees that would entail their giving up the security believed to be provided by possession of WMD”, including a nuclear arsenal. However, others claim that Kim Jong Un is an aficionado of what is described loosely in East Asia as “the American way of life”, and that he “regularly listens to jazz and even to country music”, while his personal tastes “often coincide with those of the elite in neighbouring countries”.
Diplomats based in East Asia claim that the Korean Peninsula is “closer to war” than at any time since the end of the 1950s war between the US and China for control of the territory, a contest that ended in a stalemate because of President Harry S. Truman’s refusal to use the full range of US military power in order to unify Korea after it had split into two separate countries. Boosted by clandestine assistance from Pakistan, which itself has been given help in the nuclear field by China, the regime of Kim Jong Un is within four years of developing both a missile system, as well as a nuclear weapon capable of devastating Seattle or San Francisco, and within seven years of a missile that can reach New York, on the east coast of the US. Even the first is intolerable for Washington, which is why a second Korean war has become inevitable, unless North Korea voluntarily and verifiably disarms its nuclear and missile arsenal. Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama have each embraced the Atlanticist playbook on North Korea, which involves the brandishing of both carrots and sticks that are puny in size.
The tiny carrots on intermittent offer to Pyongyang have been derisory in scope, being mostly cosmetic in their potential effects on the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK), which is what the Kim family calls its fiefdom. As for the sticks, these are mostly related to financial punishments, it being an Atlanticist article of faith that policymakers in countries outside the charmed circle of Atlantic Alliance partners are, at the core, motivated entirely by considerations of cash. It is, therefore, no surprise that each such effort by the US and its allies to ensure that the DPRK disarm, has met with failure. Since President Donald John Trump took office on 20 January 2017, there has been a change in policy, in that the carrots have almost entirely disappeared, while the stick used to coerce the regime into compliance is larger. The emphasis on the stick, rather than the carrot, reflects the reality of President Trump’s diplomatic, defence and national security picks being overwhelmingly Atlanticist thus far, despite his own efforts during the 2016 campaign to embrace a strategy more in line with the Indo-Pacific realities of the 21st century.
An Indo-Pacific strategy would give the first priority to an effort at changing North Korean behaviour by offering carrots of a size sufficient to persuade Kim Jong Un to exchange his nuclear weapons and missiles for an honourable and guaranteed future that would include the unification of both halves of Korea into a single democratic entity. What has been termed as a “Bright Sunshine” policy, would substantially reward the present leadership of North Korea in order to persuade them to agree to surrender their nuclear weapons and proceed towards a political settlement that would end in unification. Should such a generous peace initiative be rejected, “the public in South Korea, Japan and the US would fully back kinetic action” against North Korea. During the period of negotiations, “anti-missile defences would be boosted in South Korea and Japan to the levels built up in Israel under the Iron Dome system begun by Barack Obama. At the same time, intensive intelligence operations would ensure a complete picture of the DPRK’s military capabilities”, so that these can be taken out in a pre-emptive strike, should the peace talks fail. The period of good faith negotiations under a “Bright Sunshine” policy rubric would be accompanied by co-ordination between the militaries of Japan, the US and South Korea, while efforts would be made to persuade capitals such as Hanoi, Manila and New Delhi to join in a pre-emptive strike, “because North Korean nuclear and missile capabilities threaten them as well”.
Analysts linked to the South Korean military say that they have “the force needed to devastate the defences of North Korea in a first strike”, and that coordinated strikes by Japan, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the US would succeed in ensuring that the offensive weapons in the North Korean arsenal would be unable to do more than “acceptable” damage to the RoK, most notably its capital, Seoul. This they define as casualties below 5,000. They, however, admit that casualties in North Korea will be “many times more”, and that a first strike has to be of a level that is devastating enough to destroy almost all its weaponry within an hour of launch, if casualties in South Korea are to be held to the “acceptable” level of 5,000 or less, including deaths of military personnel engaged in operations against the DPRK.
A question mark floats over Beijing’s response to any such highly kinetic strike by the US and its allies. According to an analyst in favour of elimination through military means of the North Korean arsenal, “so long as a Zone of Quarantine is established along the (Chinese) border, Beijing would likely leave the DPRK to its fate”, especially if such an attack follows a period of diplomacy that would offer a generous exit to the Kim Jong Un regime. Those in favour of an Indo-Pacific strategy towards the Korean crisis ask that China be asked “to curtail its shipments of essential materials to the DPRK”, so that Pyongyang has a bigger incentive to come to a settlement during the window of a little over three years before Kim Jong Un has a nuclear bomb and missile system capable of threatening the west coast of the US. The period ahead is likely to see “intense pressure on China to cut back on its assistance to North Korea” and thereby “join the rest of the international community in refusing to assist the DPRK, until it surrenders its nuclear ambitions”.
The Atlanticists have confidence that Beijing will cooperate in the tough measures needed to persuade Pyongyang to surrender its weapons, while the Indo-Pacific theorists are more sceptical, with some even raising the possibility of Chinese assistance to North Korea to defend itself against a US attack. However, such assistance would rupture most ties with the US “and would be an international catastrophe”. The clock is ticking on North Korea and its nuclear weapons program, the outer limit for a pre-emptive strike being around three years from now, with several (especially those sceptical of negotiations offering any hope of transformation) advising action “much sooner”. All are agreed that (1) China needs to join hands with its major trading partners in sharply cutting back on its power, fuel and other shipments to the DPRK. This would help create a climate conducive to serious negotiations. Also (2) should Kim Jong Un decline within a defined time period to surrender his nuclear weapons, a pre-emptive strike against him becomes inevitable. This needs to be devastating enough to prevent a response other than a weak riposte that would hold down the level of South Korean casualties to below 5,000.