The only way forward
After its fourth nuclear test and long-range missile firing, North Korea was expected to approach the South and the United States for talks. Borrowing from the expression of a source well-informed about the North, Pyongyang will shift its mode from provocation to dialogue “because it conducted the fourth nuclear test,” not “despite the fourth nuclear test.” The North was expected to offer an olive branch after firing the long-range missile. But 20 days after the fourth nuclear test, and before the missile test announced by the North, an intriguing offer was made by the North. Depending on the attitudes of Seoul and Washington, it was an offer that could lead to a breakthrough in the nuclear and missile crisis.
Choe Un-ju, a researcher of the Institute for Disarmament and Peace under the North’s Foreign Ministry, contributed an opinion piece to NK News on Jan. 26. In the piece, Choe reiterated the North’s offer from January 2015 that it would impose a moratorium on nuclear tests in return for the halt of the South Korea-U.S. joint military exercises. NK News is a news website based in Washington. Choe also repeated the North’s proposal for a peace treaty offered in August 2015. He said the North did not have nuclear weapons in the 1970s, but it has now become a nuclear state so that it can negotiate a peace treaty with the United States on equal footing. Choe’s article provided a glimpse into Pyongyang’s reasoning behind the fourth nuclear test and launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile disguised as a rocket for a satellite, despite the “searing consequences” from the South and international community and the risk of angering China.
The North appears to be exploring the strategies of its neighbors with a readiness to change its attitude at any time by offering the peace treaty and nuclear moratorium in return for the suspension of joint military exercises at a sensitive time under the name of a researcher, not from the Unified Front Department or National Defense Commission. Choe even mentioned that the North offered the peace treaty to the United States in the Joint Declaration on July 4, 1972, and again in 1974. He then stressed that a nuclear-armed North is different from what it used to be in the past. This is a message that the North has become strong enough to ignore China’s warnings and that it wants to negotiate with the United States on equal footing.
After an emergency meeting, the Blue House warned that the North will face “searing consequences” if it follows through with the missile launch. But what will be the “searing consequences?” Other than the United Nations Security Council sanctions diluted by China and Russia, financial sanctions imposed by the United States, Japan’s independent sanctions, South Korea’s propaganda broadcasts and downsizing of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, there seems to be no way to deal a serious blow to the North Korean regime.
The North will face sanctions anyway because of the fourth nuclear test. It seems to think getting 20 lashes, instead of 10, makes no difference. And the South is hopeless because that is true.
No matter how severe they are, sanctions won’t resolve the nuclear and missile issues. Without resolving the nuclear and missile issues, there will be no sustainable peace on the Korean Peninsula. There will only be an endless cycle of provocations, ineffective sanctions and tensions. The final stage of resolving the nuclear crisis is a peace treaty to replace the armistice. And the step before that will be establishing diplomatic relations between the North and the United States. Denuclearization of the North can no longer be a precondition for normalizing ties between Pyongyang and Washington, and the alternative will be the North’s nuclear moratorium.
The North appears to want the halt the South Korea-U.S. joint military drills more than normalizing ties with the United States. This is promising. The allied military capabilities of the South and the United States are already enough to deter the North. The North only outnumbers the South in terms of conventional weapons, and its capabilities are far inferior to the allied capabilities of the South and the United States. The F-22s in Okinawa are capable of attacking North Korean leadership without being detected; the stealth B-2 bombers are capable of carrying nuclear bombs; B-52 strategic bombers can reach the peninsula from Guam within five hours; the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system will eventually be deployed in the South, and the PAC-3 missiles will also provide missile defense in the lower-tier theater. They make up a formidable deterrence against the North. Unless the North is ready for self-destruction, it cannot stage a full-scale provocation.
The North’s offer, made under Choe’s name, must be seriously considered, separately from sanctions on the North. If the North violates its nuclear test moratorium, the South and the United States can always resume military drills. The time has come for us to think about peace on the Korean Peninsula. Warning of searing consequences won’t work for the North, which has become used to sanctions and isolation. Stopping the military drills in return for a nuclear moratorium, establishing diplomatic relations between the North and the United States, and forming a peace treaty is the only way to end the vicious cycle of nuclear tests and sanctions, and to make a breakthrough. And then, discussions on complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization can take place based on trust. North Korea-U.S. diplomatic relations will open a door for the North to use loans from the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and Asia Development Bank. North Korea-Japan diplomatic relations will offer Pyongyang more than $10 billion in restitution.