The answer to this question may seem obvious: destroying the DPRK along with its missile and nuclear programs.
However, US policy on the Korean Peninsula underwent a dramatic, albeit short-lived, shift that cannot be ignored. In fact, recent developments around the Korean issue confirm that the hawks and doves continue to battle inside the US administration with varying degrees of success, although the hawks seem to have the upper hand.
Speaking at the Atlantic Council meeting on December 13, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the US was ready for talks with the DPRK without preconditions, signaling a major shift in Washington towards greater flexibility. Tillerson went on to say that Donald Trump supported his diplomatic efforts.
Many countries across the world, including the DPRK, Russia and China, have long been advocating and waiting for the US take such a reasonable approach to foreign policy in the interests of easing tensions. After this statement, it seemed that the wait was over.
It was also encouraging that this statement did not come out of nowhere. UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman became the first senior diplomat to visit the DPRK after a long break that lasted since 2011. During his December 5-8, 2017 visit to Pyongyang he spent 15 hours talking to DPRK Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho and his deputy.
Although officially Jeffrey Feltman represented the UN, not the US, the fact is that he is a US diplomat, who served as US Assistant Secretary of State under President George W. Bush.
Feltman called his mission to Pyongyang “constructive and productive”, confirming that North Korea is ready to continue dialogue. He also said that the door to a negotiated solution was left ajar and called the mission the most important one that he had ever undertaken.
The meetings held by the UN official in Pyongyang proved yet again that effective and positive talks between the US and North Korea were possible.
Following the visit, Feltman came to the conclusion that the United Nations could play a mediating role in settling the Korean Peninsula issue. This could also suit Russia’s interests, since it views the current UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres as less biased on the Korean issue compared to his predecessor Ban Ki-moon.
Political analysts in all the stakeholder countries immediately started to pour over this news story. Is it a tectonic shift in US policy or just a facelift? Is the US actually ready to negotiate without preconditions?
Unfortunately, these questions rapidly became irrelevant. In just three days, on Friday December 15, 2017, the UN Security Council held a ministerial-level meeting on the DPRK nuclear issue. It was convened by Japan as the current president of the UN Security Council. Speaking at the meeting, Rex Tillerson disavowed all the realistic proposals he had put forward at the Atlantic Council meeting as recently as on Tuesday of the same week.
The Secretary of State reaffirmed Washington’s opposition to the “double freeze” proposal put forward by Russia and China (having DPRK suspend missile and nuclear tests in exchange for halting the military exercises by the US and South Korea) and the need to scale down military activity on both sides and resume dialogue as the primary prerequisite for preventing war.
Incidentally, in his remarks at the Atlantic Council, Tillerson talked at length about US intentions to suppress the DPRK by force, mentioning serious and real plans by the US and China to divide North Korea in the eventuality that the regime suddenly collapses.
According to Tillerson, the White House went as far as give the Chinese assurances that if something happened in North Korea and US troops had to cross the demilitarized zone, they would later retreat south of the 38th parallel once stability in the DPRK was restored. “That is our commitment we made to them,” he said.
In other words, the US confirmed once again that its ultimate goal is to destroy the DPRK as a state. To deliver on this objective, Washington needs China to act in the spirit of loyal neutrality, if not contribute to the military operation.
It is highly unlikely that the pragmatic Chinese have any doubts that Washington’s promise to pull out its troops from North Korea once the situation stabilizes will not be kept, just like the promise given to Mikhail Gorbachev not to expand NATO to the east once the Soviet troops pull out of Eastern Germany.
For this scenario of destabilizing North Korea to come to pass in the near future, Washington needs to draw China and Russia into its strategy of imposing an all-out economic blockade on the DPRK. Tillerson noted with satisfaction that the DPRK had already lost $2.3 billion in annual export earnings from sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, and 22 countries were pressured by the US into severing diplomatic ties with the DPRK, including Peru, Spain, Italy and Portugal. However, it would be impossible to fully isolate the DPRK without the help of its immediate neighbors.
Answering a question by a US reporter during his annual news conference on December 16, 2017, in Moscow, Vladimir Putin said that it was “incomprehensible”, and defied common sense, that the current US government viewed Russia as part of an axis of evil with the DPRK and Iran, while also pinning hope on Moscow’s positive contribution to Washington’s plans to dismantle these two states.
Russia responded to these unreasonable calls from the US by taking part in a meeting of the Russia-DPRK Joint Commission of Defense Ministries on December 14-16, 2017, in Pyongyang to discuss an intergovernmental agreement for preventing dangerous military activity signed in 2015, and a broad range of issues to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula. First Deputy Chair of the Federation Council Committee on Defense and Security Franz Klintsevich summed up the meeting very succinctly when he said: “The world is on the brink of nuclear war, and the Russian delegation is doing everything it can to prevent it.”
The whole story leads inexorably to the conclusion that Rex Tillerson’s “courageous” proposal to have talks with Pyongyang without preconditions was at best a short-lived tactical maneuver and could be indicative of even more alarming trends on closer inspection.
In the US, there are people who favor a diplomatic solution with North Korea and understand that a war in Korea would be disastrous. However, holders of this view are poorly organized, especially within the State Department, where there are too few people working on the Korean issue, and a sound diplomatic strategy has yet to be devised. Nevertheless, the doves within the US administration are trying to achieve something on the diplomatic front, but all their initiatives are quickly suppressed by those favoring force to resolve the Korean issue. At this point, the hawks exercise much greater influence on the president and are better organized.
Consequently, an ominous pre-war atmosphere reigns supreme on the Korean Peninsula. There is hope that an Olympic “truce” during the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang could bring some calm, but it is anyone’s guess what will come after February.