Trade U.S. Military Exercises for North Korean Nuclear Tests

Whatever the issue and occasion, North Korean ambitions loom large. Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong recently opined that the confrontation between the United States and his nation “will lead to very catastrophic results, not only for the two countries but for the whole entire world as well.”

Actually, most of the world doesn’t much notice the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Nevertheless, everyone would benefit if international relationships involving the DPRK became more normal.

Interviewed by the Associated Press, Ri defended the right of his nation to possess nukes and blamed American hostility for forcing the DPRK to create a nuclear deterrent in self-defense. The latest missile test, he said, gives North Korea “one more means for powerful nuclear attack.”

However, Ri suggested a potential deal between North Korea and the United States: “Stop the nuclear war exercises in the Korean Peninsula, then we should also cease our nuclear tests.” It’s an idea worth pursuing.

Pyongyang is unlikely to ever agree to fully disarm. It has spent too much developing nuclear weapons. Nukes also offer security against the world’s greatest military power, which has demonstrated a propensity for ousting the regimes of largely defenseless antagonists.

Nevertheless, there are more limited steps which Pyongyang might be willing to take, having already established its nuclear bona fides. Halting additional nuclear tests is one.

Ending military exercises with South Korea would be a small price for Washington to pay. In fact, America’s conventional military presence on the peninsula is a relic of the past.

The Republic of Korea long ago surpassed the North on every measure of power, save military. The latter failure is merely a matter of choice.

The ROK began to take-off economically during the 1960s. Today, South Korea has around 40 times the GDP of the DPRK. South Korea also has twice the population, a vast technological edge, and far greater international reach and support.

Although Seoul’s forces are outnumbered by those of the North, the ROK possesses newer equipment, larger reserves, superior naval and air forces, and a much bigger industrial base. If the South wanted to match North Korea man for man and tank for tank, it could do so. But it doesn’t need to, since the United States will do the job.

Washington’s security guarantee is a bad deal for Americans and creates the opportunity for a win-win agreement with North Korea.

America should bring home its conventional forces and in doing so could offer to trade away the maneuvers.

The United States could propose to end exercises in exchange for the North halting nuclear tests. The United States could follow-up with a proposal for troop withdrawals. In return, the DPRK might end missile tests, move its conventional units away from the border, and freeze nuclear activities.

America could add a little extra incentive: diplomatic relations. There is no good reason not to have regular contact between North Korea and the United States. Providing North Korea with a way to contact Washington without having to arrest another errant American for one alleged crime or another would be a nice bonus.

Of course, the gambit might turn out to be a propaganda ploy, with the Kim regime unwilling to follow through. Pyongyang might quickly violate any agreement that it reached.

Possible, but unknowable, without taking up Ri’s challenge.

And, as I point out in Forbes, “no one has a better solution. Preventive war is unthinkable. The latest sanctions have bitten more deeply than before, but remain inadequate to force change in Pyongyang. At the moment, all Washington can do is watch the DPRK continue testing nuclear weapons and missiles.”

North Korea long has been an insoluble problem for the United States. But Foreign Minister Ri’s remarks suggest the possibility of at least reducing the threat posed by North Korea.