Escaping the North Korean Impasse

Pyongyang urged Washington to “positively respond” to the former’s call for negotiations “without preconditions.”  The Obama administration insisted that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea first commit to denuclearization.  Diplomacy is going no where fast.

The Korean peninsula remains dangerous for everyone.  Although America and South Korea would triumph in any conflict, the price would be extravagant.

The allies continue to focus on the North’s nuclear program.  No doubt denuclearization is the best outcome.  However, it remains the least likely.

North Korea has grown ever more determined to be accepted as a nuclear power.  There’s nothing mysterious about the North’s program.  It offers several advantages, including military deterrence.

Instead of growing more entangled in the peninsula, Washington should disengage.

The U.S. should end its Cold War alliance with the Republic of Korea.  After six decades, the “mutual” defense treaty has lost its raison d’être.  Most important, the South is capable of defending itself.  Washington should terminate the security pact and withdraw its military forces.

Moreover, as I write in my latest column on Forbes online:

American officials should set aside the nuclear issue in order to engage Pyongyang.  North Korea’s nuclear ambitions most directly affect its neighbors.  The North lacks any means to attack the U.S.—other than targeting troops which should be brought home from South Korea.  Even if the DPRK could act, confronting America would be suicidal, a quality not evident in Pyongyang.  Washington should make the one genuine threat, nuclear transfers to non-state actors, a red line.  Otherwise the U.S. should turn over the issue to the countries with the most at stake:  China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia.

Then the U.S. should indicate its willingness to sign a peace treaty and open diplomatic relations.  These long have been North Korean priorities:  the North’s ambassador in Geneva, Sin Son-ho, recently held an unprecedented press conference denouncing the U.S. for “the hostile relations between the DPRK and the United States, which can lead to another war at any moment.”

Set aside his reflexive blame of America.  Six decades surely is long enough to officially end the Korean War.  Moreover, the U.S. government would benefit from a small window into DPRK society, direct process to handle mundane diplomatic matters, and official channel for more serious communication.

Finally, Washington should make clear that it is up to the two Koreas to work out the peninsula’s future.  Abundant commercial and extensive family relationships would continue to tie America to the ROK.  However, the U.S. would not presume to dictate the ultimate inter-Korean relationship, which needs to evolve along with events on the peninsula. 

A more relaxed American approach offers numerous advantages.  But most important, current policy is broken.

Is there a genuine desire to reduce tensions hidden within the North’s endless bombast? Washington should challenge Pyongyang by accepting its latest proposal for talks.

It won’t be easy for the U.S. and DPRK to put aside fundamental differences, such as on human rights.  But both sides would benefit from reducing the possibility of conflict.  At least that’s worth holding a serious discussion.