Send Tillerson to Pyongyang“If North Korea masters intercontinental ballistic missile technology, the situation will become uncontrollable,” President Moon Jae-in said in his first response to the North’s launch on Nov. 29, regarding its most advanced ICBM to date. He used the future tense by saying, “The situation will become controllable.” But the situation has already become uncontrollable. Moon’s words critically lacked a sense of urgency.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s decision to order the latest launch is a demonstration of his unshaken will to complete the regime’s nuclear and missile technology no matter what sanctions the international community imposes, no matter what pressure China exerts and no matter what sacrifices the North Korean people have to pay. Unless the rest of the world covers the North Korean territory with an iron dome, Kim will continue to fire missiles and conduct nuclear tests to miniaturize nuclear warheads.
It is totally meaningless to debate whether Pyongyang has really mastered its coveted re-entry technology or not. A year or two makes no difference. From now on, all counteractions should be planned based on the presumption that the situation has worsened enough to say that Kim has indeed crossed the Rubicon.
The international community will work even harder to isolate North Korea, including the United States and Japan further tightening sanctions on their own. China also will put more restrictions on its financial dealings, including trade, with the North. But the outcome will be no different. Would Kim engage in such reckless provocations even without determination to face the music? The international community’s campaign only helps the meaningless cycle of provocation and punishment to repeat endlessly.
What caused this dilemma? There has been no decisive blow to North Korea. If China cuts off oil supplies to the North, Kim’s nuclear and missile brinkmanship will come to a halt, or at least significantly slow down. But that won’t be enough. A loophole is in Russia’s Far East. From the Gulf of Pohai to the northern East Sea, the illicit trafficking of oil and goods has to be stopped.
But Beijing continues to send oil, albeit limited, to its ally despite Washington’s repeated requests to cut the entire supply. China’s action is based on the geopolitical, strategic and short-sighted calculation that it can hardly cut off the last-remaining lifeline of North Korea. And yet, China makes all imaginable demands to South Korea over the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) missile shield.
U.S. President Donald Trump surprisingly had a calm reaction. “Nothing changed. Nothing changed,” he said. “I will only tell you that we will take care of it.”
Trump’s words “Nothing changed” can translate to his position that he will concentrate on bolstering sanctions. Meanwhile, his words “We will take care of it” suggest that he will consider military options if sanctions and pressures prove ineffective.
But South Korea’s president has made it clear that a pre-emptive strike on the North without Seoul’s consent is unacceptable. U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis also strongly opposes the idea of a pre-emptive strike, probably more than anyone else in Washington. U.S. State Secretary Rex Tillerson has consistently maintained the position that he wants to resolve the situation through dialogue.
Trump has long criticized his predecessors’ failures in their North Korea policies. He assured that Kim won’t be able to complete the nuclear and missile technology under his administration. But that happened. Trump’s North Korea policy is failing too. The problem with Trump is that he is just engaging in a war of words with Kim while shifting the responsibility for stopping the North’s provocations to Chinese President Xi Jinping.
U.S. Strategic B-1B bombers are frequently flying the airspace near North Korea while both allies are conducting a joint military exercise targeting the North’s nuclear and missile bases. Under such volatile circumstances, there is no reason for Kim — who even refused to meet with Xi’s special envoy two weeks ago — to accept Washington’s demands that Pyongyang stop its nuclear and missile tests.
Instead of shifting the responsibility to Xi, Trump must make a bold decision to send his State Secretary Tillerson to Pyongyang. If not Tillerson, another high-profile figure can go. It was wrong for Trump to stop former President Jimmy Carter from visiting Pyongyang as a special envoy.
Before the American student Otto Warmbier died in June after returning home from a long detention in North Korea, a serious and meaningful secret contact, which could have produced a dramatic outcome, was taking place between Pyongyang and Washington for a while. Even now, the two enemies are looking for an opportunity to resume the contact. That means the North is still interested in talking to the United States.
Sanctions will never stop Kim’s nuclear and missile ambitions. Trump must live up to his remarks that he “will take care of it.” At the moment, there is no other realistic option than holding a senior-level talk between Pyongyang and Washington and negotiating an agreement that North Korea will freeze nuclear and missile programs while South Korea and the United States will downscale or stop their joint drills.
A consensus is growing in Washington to seek a freeze in North Korea’s nuclear and missile development. But there is a risk that the North will be recognized as a nuclear state. Therefore, the freeze must be agreed to with the specific condition that a negotiation for a complete dismantlement of the North Korean nuclear and missile programs will take place after a certain period. Normalizing relations between Washington and Pyongyang — and signing a peace treaty — can take place during talks to end the North’s nuclear program and missile program once and for all.
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 1, Page 35
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.