De-escalating the North Korean nuclear crisis

This morning, I read the first piece of sensible analysis that I have seen on the current escalating North Korean nuclear crisis. It’s an article titled ‘Rattling the American Cage: North Korean Nuclear Threats and Escalation Potential’ (PDF), co-authored by Peter Hayes and Roger Cavazos—two authors from the Nautilus Institute, both of whom have a deep understanding of proliferation dynamics and have been studying North Korean behaviour for many years. I hope everyone with an interest in defusing what has become a very tense standoff will read it, as a weighty and well-informed alternative to the otherwise shallow, hysterical and mostly counter-productive commentary that has appeared in the media in recent days.

Their argument goes like this: based on past patterns of behaviour, it’s most likely that the latest round of North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship is calculated to consolidate Kim Jong Un’s charismatic leadership and demonstrate the country’s independence, in defiance of international condemnation, UN Security Council sanctions and the Obama administration’s (failed) policy of strategic patience. Accordingly, Pyongyang’s intention is not to attack South Korea, pre-emptively or otherwise, but to signal to the international community—and the US in particular—that the costs of what Pyongyang regards as a hostile and unjust US-led policy of isolation and intimidation are growing. Kim Jong Un’s ultimate goal is thus extortion rather than pure deterrence—to bring about a change in US policy that will bolster and legitimise his regime.

If this is right, then the current escalation might not be as dire as many commentators fear. But, as Hayes and Cavazos point out, there’s still a serious risk that miscalculations and accidents could ‘activate an unstoppable chain of events that lead to uncontrollable escalation’. With this in mind, US decisions to fly B-2 bombers and F-22 stealth fighters across South Korea in what looked like simulated nuclear bombing runs against the North were probably ill-judged. What’s needed in place of actions and statements that amount to threats and counter-threats are efforts to defuse tensions and clarify intentions. This means talking, however unpalatable that might sound to those who, like me, consider the North Korean regime to be deeply repugnant. It also requires a cool-headed focus on long-term goals, rather than the knee-jerk short-termism that is in danger of escalating the current situation to crisis point.

This raises questions of how to begin the talks, and what diplomatic mechanism should be used to do so. Hayes and Cavazos argue that it’s easy to find the bad news and the reasons to have a continuing standoff and fight, and much more difficult to ‘find the tiny signals that all is not lost’. This is true, and is the reason why the difficult proliferation cases are often put in the too hard basket. They argue that ‘talk is cheap, valuable and entails no concessions’, and suggest that dialogue should be the way forward. Unfortunately, the reality isn’t quite that simple, and this is my only serious criticism of an otherwise sound analysis. In the past, efforts to engage North Korea through official and unofficial channels have failed, in part because it’s politically difficult to sustain talks when the investment in dialogue far outweighs the short-term benefits. The truth is that talk is not cheap, and in fact almost always involves concessions. Moreover, dealing with deep mistrust and paranoia requires dogged persistence from negotiators, which can only be sustained if leaders on all sides of the political spectrum acknowledge the importance of keeping channels of communication open.

The best hope of de-escalating the current crisis and eventually stabilizing the Korean peninsula lies with the US and China working together on a long-term strategy of quiet engagement with the North. This would not have been possible in the past, including during the Six Party Talks, when Washington and Beijing often pursued confused and conflicting agendas. But more recently, US and Chinese interests have started to align on this key issue: it is in their mutual interests to promote regional stability and prevent further regional proliferation; reigning in North Korea’s provocative and unpredictable behaviour is one of the most urgent tasks they face. Realistically, there’s a limit to what Australia can do to assist this process, except to encourage Beijing and Washington to use the current crisis as an opportunity to navigate this difficult path and to work in coalition with like-minded states to help keep them on track. This is something Prime Minister Julia Gillard could emphasize during her talks with Chinese leaders this weekend, and which Australia and its fellow members of the Nonproliferation and Disarmament Initiative could advocate at the NPT PrepCom in Geneva later this month.

Tanya Ogilvie-White is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user meg_williams.