Can the US and North Korea Move From Threats to Negotiations?
August 30, 2017
Gareth Porter / AntiWar.com & Julian Borger / The Guardian
The Trump administration and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have each made a series of moves that have appeared to take them ever closer to war. The US and the South Korean military war plan for the Korean Peninsula, OPLAN 5015, calls for surgical strikes on North Korea's nuclear and missiles sites and command-and-control facilities, as well as "decapitation" raids by Special Forces to take out senior North Korean leaders. But a closer review reveals that both sides are maneuvering for extended negotiations on a new framework for peace on the Korean peninsula. The Trump administration is well aware that it has no real military option against the North.
Can the US and North Korea
Move From Threats to Negotiations?
Gareth Porter / AntiWar.com
(August 29, 2017) -- For months, the Trump administration and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have each made a series of moves that have appeared to take them ever closer to the brink of war.
But a closer review of the escalation of the conflict reveals that both sides are consciously maneuvering for what they know will be extended serious negotiations on a new framework for peace on the Korean peninsula.
The Trump administration is well aware that it has no real military option against the North, and the Kim Jong-un regime seems to have sought to use missile launches as signals to the Trump administration to convey not only North Korea's determination not to give in to pressure, but also its hopes to stabilize the situation and avoid further escalation in US-North Korea military relations.
The latest US-North Korean crisis revolves around the Trump administration's public refusal to accept North Korea's nuclear weapons and long-range missile program, and Trump's flirtation with options for removing it that would certainly result in a highly destructive and destabilizing Korean War.
Those military options preceded the new administration. In mid-2015, after a series of North Korean nuclear tests between 2006 and 2013, the US military and the South Korean military both adopted a new war plan for the Korean Peninsula, OPLAN 5015.
The plan called for surgical strikes on North Korea's nuclear and missiles sites and command-and-control facilities, as well as "decapitation" raids by Special Forces to take out senior North Korean leaders.
Such strikes and raids were to be "preemptive" in character, based on the assumption that the United States and South Korea might obtain good intelligence on a planned launch of a nuclear-armed North Korean missile.
But the reality, as most US military planners know full well, is that the United States doesn't know where the missiles are hidden, and a preemptive strike would have little or no chance of catching many of North Korea's missiles on the ground.
Moreover, any attack on North Korean strategic targets would probably provoke retaliation by North Korea's 8,000 artillery pieces trained on South Korea's capital, Seoul, which is home to 10 million people, including a quarter million Americans. Robert E. Kelly, an American political scientist at Pusan National University, had a succinct verdict on the leaked war plan: "In terms of national security, it's just nuts."
The Trump administration nevertheless embraced OPLAN 5015 enthusiastically as a form of pressure on North Korea. In mid-April, multiple intelligence officials -- presumably with the encouragement of CIA Director Mike Pompeo -- told reporters from NBC News that the United States "was prepared to launch a preemptive strike against North Korea" in response to intelligence that North Korea was planning a nuclear weapons test.
There is good reason to believe that the story reflected a psychological operation aimed at North Korea. It appears that the Trump administration was seeking to intimidate Kim Jong-un by convincing him that the US was contemplating regime change by force.
However, the United States couldn't attack North Korea without the permission of the South Korean government, and no South Korean government is likely to risk a war with the North over the belief that North Korea was about to test a nuclear weapon.
In fact, the opposition candidate in the 2017 South Korean presidential election, Moon Jae-in, was elected after arguing that South Korea should learn to "say no to the Americans." In August, Moon rebuked the Trump administration for making threats to attack North Korea to which the South Korean government had not assented.
OPLAN 5015 became the basis for the annual joint US-South Korean military exercises called Key Resolve/Foal Eagle and Ulchi-Freedom Guardian. The new war plan added a major new provocative element to the joint exercises, which the North Koreans had already regarded for decades as possible moves toward war. Pyongyang was especially upset at the presence of long-range US bombers in the joint exercises beginning in 2016.
After the 2017 Key Resolve/Foal Eagle exercises had been completed, the Trump administration sought to increase the pressure once again. US B-1 bombers began flying from Guam to South Korea regularly to "show US resolve." The response from Kim Jong-un was not long in coming.
On June 22, North Korea launched two large Musudan intermediate range missiles with a range of 3,000-4,000 kilometers, putting the highly militarized US territory of Guam well within its range. It was a clear signal that the North would respond to evident threats with demonstrations of its retaliatory capability.
But Kim Jong-un's biggest riposte was yet to come. On July 3 North Korea carried out a test of an intercontinental ballistic missile that media reports speculated could reach the continental United States.
In fact, the missile was incapable of doing so, according to independent missile analysts who analyzed the flight data. Nevertheless, the test was another major political signal to the Trump administration by Kim that he would not be intimidated by US shows of force.
Trump escalated tensions further on August 9, warning that North Korea "best not make any more threats to the United States," or it would be "met with fire and fury such as the world has never seen." That remark suggested that Trump was warning Kim against any further missile tests that could reach US territory.
But just two hours after Trump's threat, Kim made a statement that was inaccurately described by Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as a threat to fire missiles at Guam, the heavily militarized US island from which those US warplanes had flown.
In fact, Kim's threat was not to attack Guam itself, but to consider launching Musudan missiles in the vicinity of the island -- in a show of force paralleling the flight of US B-1 bombers near North Korean territory.
Almost immediately after the tit-for-tat of threats and missile launches as signaling had reached that climax, however, both sides moved to turn it down a notch. The following day, Kim Jong-un changed signals and said he would wait for a while longer to see what the United States would do. And the Trump administration signaled that it recognizes that its provocative posture of the previous months has not had the desired effect on Pyongyang's actions.
Taking at least half a step back from earlier statements by several military officials who refused to rule out a US military operation against the North, Mattis and Tillerson said the aim of the United States' "peaceful pressure campaign was denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula rather than regime change." That explicit renunciation of regime change represented a substantial moderation of the extreme posture of the administration in the spring.
More important as an indicator of apparent US restraint was the fact that South Korean military officials believed on the eve of the beginning of the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercise on August 21 that the United States was unlikely to send its "strategic assets" to participate in the exercise, according to the Korea Herald. Specifically, the military sources said the US would probably not introduce a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, submarines and long-range fighter jets carrying nuclear weapons into the exercise.
Those assets were not deployed during the same drill in 2016, but according to the South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean defense official said the largely computer-based exercise would likely play out a "nuclear war game" for the first time.
So, the absence of those US strategic assets from the weeks-long exercise could take on greater significance as a sign of desire not to exacerbate tensions with North Korea further and in combination with the new Mattis-Tillerson language, could signal a hope for the beginning of serious talks with North Korea.
These developments suggest at least the possibility that the signaling by Kim Jong-un and the Trump administration's realization that its initial highly provocative threats were backfiring have caused Trump's national security team to make an important recalibration of its North Korea strategy.
Those signs point to a possibility for negotiations in the relatively near future. What is needed, however, is a return to the successful diplomacy of the Clinton era, which produced an agreement -- the "Agreed Framework" of 1994 -- that could have avoided the present situation of high tension over North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.
Given the advances of North Korea in both nuclear and missile technology since then, it will be more difficult now than it was then -- but far from impossible -- to devise ways to satisfy the interests of both sides. But as always, the main obstacle to such an accommodation is the US political elite's deeply imbedded habit of refusing to accept the legitimate interests of other states.
Gareth Porter, an investigative historian and journalist specializing in US national security policy, received the UK-based Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 for articles on the US war in Afghanistan. His new book is Manufactured Crisis: the Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
US Faces Critical Moment to Negotiate with North Korea, Experts Warn
Analysts say the latest statement by Kim Jong-un,
signally a pause on Guam strike, gives the US
a brief window to end the tense standoff
Julian Borger / The Guardian
WASHINGTON (August 15, 2017) -- The latest statement by Kim Jong-un signalling a pause in Pyongyang's war of words with Washington has given the US a window of a few days to negotiate a way of defusing a dangerous standoff, experts said on Tuesday.
Many longstanding observers of the North Korean regime expressed concern that the US could misinterpret the message that it sent on Monday when Kim said he would "watch a little more" how the US acted in the region before deciding whether to go ahead with a plan to launch missiles over Japan aimed at the seas around the US territory of Guam.
In some of the US media, that statement was portrayed as a withdrawal of the Guam plan in the face of threats of overwhelming retaliatory force from Donald Trump and US defence secretary James Mattis.
That would be the wrong way to read the signs, said Vipin Narang, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology specialising in nuclear strategy.
"I think people are not reading the statement," Narang said. "This is literally restating the threat and leaving space for some quid pro quo and space for negotiation.
"But the threat remains. It's not like he took the threat off the table. If the US does anything that he sees as provocative, he has reviewed the plan and now stands poised to execute it," Narang added.
The North Korean state news service KCNA reported Kim's visit on Monday to the Korean People's Army's missile forces in which he reviewed the plan to fire four intermediate range missiles over Japan to land in the waters 30 to 40 kilometres off Guam.
Mattis has said that the US would shoot down any missiles heading directly for Guam, but said it was up to Trump to decide how to respond if they landed in the ocean near the island as Pyongyang has threatened.
Having approved the Guam plan, Kim is quoted as saying he would watch "a little more the foolish and stupid conduct of the Yankees".
To defuse tensions and ward off the missile launch, the US "should stop at once arrogant provocations against the DPRK and unilateral demands and not provoke it any longer", he said.
The statement echoes previous messaging from Pyongyang in referring directly to practice sorties over South Korea by US B1-B heavy bombers based in Guam.
"They always refer to the B1s as the 'pirates of Guam'," Narang said. "[Kim Jong-un] has a real problem with B1 flights and there may be an equivalence of if you are going to harass us by coming to within tens of kilometres of our territory, then we are going to park Hwasong-12's [intermediate range missiles] 30 or 40 km off of Guam."
However, in a separate KCNA statement, the regime also warned the US about its major joint military exercises with South Korean forces scheduled to start next Monday.
"The US should think twice about the consequences," the statement said, before going on to describe the plans for the Guam missile launch.
Analysts were divided over whether the separate statement suggested next week's exercises could also trigger the launch of the North Korean missiles. The statement does not explicitly link the two, and it is not attributed to Kim or a senior official, but just to KCNA.
Adam Mount, an expert on the North Korea weapons programmes at the Centre for American Progress said Pyongyang has signalled there is room for negotiation.
"Nowhere in that statement does it say that the US has to cancel exercises. North Korea has always said that in the past. They have screamed it over and over, but they've not said it now," Mount said.
He pointed to other possible signs from North Korea that it was open to talks. The regime has not test-fired a missile since 28 July, while Kim has made the Guam missile launch contingent on US action.
"This is the first time in years that North Korea has suggested the US can prevent a missile test. It looks to me like there is an opening for arms control negotiations," he said. "There is now a very clearly defined window that they have left for the US to give a response. The choice we face is seek tension reduction measures or face missile strikes near Guam. They haven't stepped back from one or the another."
There is a backchannel of communications between US and North Korean diplomats at the UN in New York, which the Trump administration has used to discuss US detainees held by Pyongyang and reportedly other, broader issues too.
Among the issues on the table for discussion could be the scale, scope and location of next week's exercises and further B1-B overflights. There has not been a B1-B sortie out of Guam over South Korea since 7 August.
One possible deal, suggested by James Acton, the co-director of the nuclear policy programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, could involve a quid pro quo.
"There could an agreement with North Korea that it does not carry out missile flights over South Korea or Japan and we agree not to fly within a certain proximity of the North Korean border," Acton said.
There is no guarantee that the North Koreans would agree to such a limited confidence building measures. They could demand the cancellation of next week's war games altogether, which is something Washington is unlikely to concede. But the analysts agreed that the signal being sent by Pyongyang is that while it is still prepared to carry out its Guam missile plan it has left the door clearly open for negotiations.
"This is the best chance that Donald Trump will ever have to limit North Korea's missile programmes," Mount said.
Letters from Guardian Readers
* The increasingly threatening rhetoric between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un (Report, 15 August) risks triggering a conflict that could escalate to the annihilation of everyone on this fragile planet. Is it not time for the UN security council to step up to its primary responsibility under the UN charter: the maintenance of international peace and security?
Its first action is usually to recommend both parties reach agreement by peaceful means, helping with mediation if needed. Both Kim Jong-un and South Korean president Moon Jae-in are reported to be willing to talk, and there is a New York back channel between Joseph Yun, the US envoy for North Korea policy, and North Korean diplomat Pak Song-iI. Sweden has longstanding diplomatic representation in North Korea and seven EU countries now have embassies in Pyongyang. The security council has imposed heavy sanctions. It has the channels to now urgently promote a dialogue towards negotiation.
-- Judith Cook, London
* Why is the US threatening war with North Korea instead of pressing for negotiations? The short answer is Donald Trump's desire to distract public attention away from the Russia investigation, which has taken an ominous turn of events with the raid on Trump adviser Paul Manafort's home, the pending interrogation of Trump's personal assistant, Rhona Graff, and the investigation into Trump's financial entanglements with Russia, which Donald Trump Jr admitted were substantial.
Kim Jong-un and Trump are cut from the same cloth. Both will do anything to survive. North Korea has every right to be wary of US intentions. Trump's war of words, belittling Kim Jong-un, is totally irresponsible and plays into Kim's playbook, depicting the US as the nasty aggressor. We need a diplomatic solution to the problem, not hellfire and brimstone. We have threatened military strikes and imposed tight sanctions and nothing has worked.
Why don't we try something different? Bombard North Korea with acts of unconditional kindness -- drones packed with food to remote areas to feed North Korea's impoverished people to counter Kim's shrill anti-American rhetoric. This would generate goodwill, defuse tensions, promote pro-American sentiments and may eventually topple North Korea's one-man rule.
-- Jagjit Singh, Los Altos, California, USA
* When, after the US dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, President Harry Truman threatened Japan with "a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth", the Red Army was moving into Manchuria and the Soviet Union seemed likely to control all of east Asia, making American sacrifices in the Pacific redundant. Three days later, the US dropped its sole remaining deployable atomic bomb on Nagasaki.
The US, of course, had no military need to have weapons of mass destruction on standby in August 1945. But what is the hurry for President Trump? Alarmingly for those with any knowledge of history, both sides are fixated on their own internal logic. Trump's circle brief that he is being advised by some to "push very hard, even to the point of launching a pre-emptive strike" and he is conspicuously failing to deny this.
For Truman, the Japanese surrender was an attainable goal for which the costs had been paid and would stop once the surrender had happened. And he had good reason to suppose that his enemy also feared a Soviet takeover. All Trump has done is convince the "paranoid" Kim of the need for a deterrent. There may be no good options, but anything is better than this.
-- Roger Macy, London
* In December 1972, 15 American B-52 bombers were shot down over North Vietnam during an 11-day period, and five others were seriously damaged. Twenty-eight pilots were killed and 34 captured. Some 15,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Hanoi over two weeks, but the Vietnamese government did not surrender to America's bombing campaign.
The plan to place North Vietnam at a disadvantage at the Paris negotiations -- and gain concessions -- failed miserably, and the Paris peace agreement was signed with almost the same stipulations drafted months earlier. America's military and foreign policy establishments have a long history of miscalculation. President Trump may not be aware of this history, and of the consequences that military action against North Korea may have on his administration.
-- Luis Suarez-Villa, Professor emeritus, University of California, Irvine
* What a shame the US embassy in Grosvenor Square was unable to accept a letter submitted by the Rev Giles Fraser on behalf of the CND protest delegation on Friday. For those not present, it was more a case of a subdued and serious presence rather than a "protest", so there was nothing in this small gathering to antagonise those in the embassy or the security outside (the CND website shows a small clip of the proceedings).
Over the years, I have attended many protests which have culminated in signed petitions handed in to Downing Street which were either taken to the door of No 10 or handed to a member of the police force on duty. The rejection of this letter surely exhibits both a lack of grace and a sense of democracy from the US ambassador?
-- Margaret Conaghan, London
* The threats being exchanged between Trump and Kim today feel more dangerous than between the US and the Soviet Union in the 1960s. I was a CND member then, and at Greenham, when we tried and failed to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Where is the voice of this UK government? All nations should be expressing their views about what is going on. Are we all just waiting to see what happens?
-- Pat Brandwood, Broadstone, Dorset
* An attack on Guam -- a United States territory -- would be an attack on a member of NATO. We are treaty-bound to come to the aid of NATO members. Is this a circumstance in which Theresa May would repeat her commitment to unequivocally say "yes" to pressing the button? Why has nobody asked the question?
-- Colin Challen, Scarborough, North Yorkshire
* In the early 1980s, Cambridge city council declared itself a nuclear-free zone (Letters, 14 August). Not so South Cambridgeshire district, which ran a survival course. I attended this on behalf of the small village where I worked. My abiding memories are of a lecture, in almost lascivious detail, on the effects of radiation, and another on how to dig a latrine. I wish I'd kept the notes.
-- Margaret Waddy, Cambridge
* In the 80s, government advice for Armageddon was contained in a booklet called Protect and Survive. Having read how to whitewash our windows and use brown paper as an extra lining before retreating beneath the kitchen table, some wag offered a more succinct counsel. "In the event of a nuclear war: Put your head between your knees / And kiss your arse goodbye."
-- Margaret Philip, Scole, Norfolk
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.