July 20, 2017 9:00 am JST
John Merrill

US flexibility could ease tensions with North Korea

Washington should give 'freeze-for-freeze' option a chance

South Korean marines take part in joint U.S.-South Korean amphibious landing exercises in Pohang, South Korea, on April 2. © Reuters

The Chinese and Russian proposal for a freeze on large-scale U.S.-South Korean military exercises in return for a freeze on further North Korean nuclear and missile tests just might work -- if only Washington could give it a chance rather than dismissing it out of hand.

Dubbed "freeze-for-freeze," the proposal undoubtedly came up in U.S. President Donald Trump's one-on-one discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the recent G-20 summit in Hamburg. Although the U.S. had previously rejected a similar North Korean proposal, saying it made no sense for the U.S. to suspend lawful joint exercises with South Korea in exchange for a freeze on North Korea's unlawful activities, the proposal is worth serious exploration. Few other options remain.

As part of its policy of strategic patience, the administration of former U.S. President Barack Obama played down North Korea's growing strategic capabilities, hoping for regime collapse. More recently, as a collapse failed to materialize, the U.S. adopted a new denial mechanism -- thinking that it could push China to exert more pressure on Pyongyang. Yet this, too, does not seem likely to produce results. The North's recent intercontinental ballistic missile launch should now prompt Washington to explore new options.

The Chinese and Russian dual freeze proposal could lead to a breakthrough in the impasse, but this would require Washington to seriously consider its own responsibility for resolving the nuclear problem. As unpalatable as this may seem, it is not so crazy when you consider the American role in creating the problem in the first place. Few remember it now.

In addition to being the only country to have used nuclear weapons, the U.S. carpet-bombed North Korean cities into rubble during the Korean War.

We know from declassified U.S. government documents that then-President Dwight Eisenhower was close to ordering the use of nuclear weapons to end the war. In a very public act of intimidation during stop-and-go armistice negotiations, Eisenhower ordered an atomic cannon to be prominently displayed during his January 1953 inaugural parade. Even after the armistice, the perceived threat of nuclear weapons did not end, as the U.S. deployed a large number of nuclear weapons to South Korea. At their peak in 1967, they totaled about 950.

In hindsight, it is clear that Pyongyang's nuclear program was spurred by these real nuclear threats. While U.S. nuclear weapons are no longer on the peninsula, they can be delivered there on very short notice and in a matter of minutes, via cruise missiles, bombers or ballistic missiles.

Moreover, the U.S. and South Korea conduct frequent large-scale military exercises, prominently featuring nuclear-capable systems. The most recent example was the simulated bomb drops by two B-1 Lancer bombers near the demilitarized zone in early July. The stated goal of such shows of force is to enhance deterrence, but they actually have the opposite effect.

These high-profile exercises reinforce North Korea's sense of existential threat, its perception of the usefulness of nuclear weapons, and its determination to have similar capabilities -- which are hardly the intended messages. Large-scale military exercises with South Korea have a similar effect -- especially highly promoted training for "decapitation strikes," aimed at taking out the North Korean leadership.

What good are these exercises, even if they are "legitimate and lawful," if they only intensify tensions and make it more difficult to find a solution? The gains from scaling back such exercises far outweigh the risks the U.S. is creating from stubbornly sticking to principle.

There is reason to hope that the freeze-for-freeze proposal may bring North Korea back to the negotiation table. Since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un took over more than five years ago, he has been pursuing a policy of building up the military and developing the economy in tandem. Ironically, Kim's policy is strikingly similar to Eisenhower's so-called "New Look" policy, with nuclear weapons offering "more bang for the buck" and freeing up resources to develop the civilian economy.

So far, the policy seems to be working, if the accounts of recent visitors are to be believed. Ultimately, the survival of Kim's leadership will depend not just on nuclear weapons but on economic revitalization -- and for that he needs a lessening of tensions, easing of sanctions, and better relations with both Seoul and Washington.

A freeze-for-freeze option is the only remaining viable option to defuse the current crisis. It is actionable and carries relatively little risk. If successful, the payoff could be peace.

John Merrill is a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, and former head of the Northeast Asia Division in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the U.S. State Department.

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