Getting beyond ThaadSince its fourth nuclear test, North Korea has proven remarkably successful at sowing divisions between China, the U.S. and South Korea. The fifth test has only made these problems worse. These three countries share a common interest in the denuclearization of the peninsula, but deft diplomacy will be required to overcome their growing differences. If they fail to do so, Pyongyang is the only winner.
Following the fourth nuclear test in January and the satellite launch in February — tests that completely ignored China’s stated strategic concerns — North Korea has binged on missile tests. One of these tests landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
The government announced that it had resumed both plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment, the two routes to amassing more fissile material. The regime accompanied the fifth tests with claims it has miniaturized a weapon that can be mounted on a warhead.
The U.S. and South Korea have more than adequate conventional capabilities to prevail in a conflict with North Korea. So why are South Korea and the United States so concerned?
After the onset of the second nuclear crisis in 2002, most American analysts — when pressed — would have admitted that the Korean peninsula was basically stable. Both sides were effectively deterred, at least from large scale war.
But perceptions in the U.S. changed steadily after the fourth test, which generated an overly-measured response from Beijing.
The current concern is not that North Korea would suddenly launch a nuclear attack on Korea or the U.S. The concerns are different. With a secure second-strike capability, North Korea might miscalculate that it can undertake low-level, asymmetric provocations, as it did in 2010 with its unprovoked attack on Yeongpyeong Island.
As such a self-generated crisis escalates, the regime might feel compelled to use them as the U.S. and Korea seek to demonstrate their deterrent.
The United States has accepted strategic vulnerability with respect to both China and Russia. Despite complaints about Thaad, the United States has no capacity to defend itself against the strategic nuclear forces of these two countries. Yet the U.S. and South Korea are rightly reluctant to accept such vulnerability vis-à-vis a government as unpredictable as Kim Jong-un’s.
What can be done to get beyond the current impasse? Clearly, all parties have obligations, and we cannot simply hope that China will solve the problem.
With North Korea now completely dependent on China, it is only through a more forceful exercise of leverage that talks are likely to reconvene. The U.S. and South Korea need to take a forceful stance on sanctions at the upcoming negotiations in New York over a UN Security Council resolution. The status quo is not acceptable.
China is also in the best position to chair this diplomatic process. In 2003, China put tremendous effort into forging the Six Party Talks, a major diplomatic achievement. But convening the talks is not simply a question of playing host. China also needs to outline a proposal for how the talks would proceed and persuade North Korea to come.
However, the U.S. and Korea also have obligations. First, the United States and South Korea need to be more clear about their strategic priorities.
Regime change and unification may be long-run objectives. But open discussions of regime change and unification on South Korean terms complicate negotiations and don’t reflect core strategic concerns in the short-run, which center on the missile and nuclear program.
Second, the parties need to openly discuss concerns surrounding Thaad. The U.S. and Korea should be open to trilateral discussions with China on technical features of the deployment and even on the deployment itself. As with sanctions, the U.S. does not have an interest in Thaad per se but in halting North Korea’s nuclear program.
Third, the U.S. and Korea have to think about prospective quid pro quos. No negotiations are possible unless denuclearization is at the center of the process. And no rewards can be given in advance of negotiations. But interim steps like a freeze should not be ruled out.
China, the U.S. and Korea are currently engaged in dangerous mirror thinking. China believes the allies have deeper motives for Thaad deployment. Similarly, Seoul and Washington are starting to doubt Chinese commitment to resolving the issue. North Korea is a difficult problem that may not be solvable; most analysts think that the chances the current regime will denuclearize are small. But the problems we face are not limited to North Korea; they extend to getting trilateral relations between the U.S., Korea and China right as well. The three countries cannot allow themselves to be exploited by Kim Jong-un, the real winner from the current discord.
*The author is the Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California in San Diego.