Dangerous times in U.S.-North Korea relations

April 19, 2016

We are witness to an accelerating trajectory of events which may culminate with the loss of additional Korean and American lives on the Korean Peninsula as well as disorder in Northeast Asia.

Increased attention has focused on a range of North Korean actions deemed provocative by that country’s neighbors and the international community including nuclear tests and missile launches.

The United States and South Korea continue to insist that North Korea abandon its nuclear weapons program.

The North Koreans are pressing that the U.S. must first enter into a peace agreement.

While American officials maintain they are open to negotiations, North Korean leaders are convinced the U.S. will be satisfied with nothing less than collapse of the Kim Jong-Un government.

A plethora of U.S. officials in the Congress and the Administration are exasperated by North Korean provocations and what they view as ongoing cycles of North Korea’s willingness to have dialogue (charm offensives) after having engaged in provocative actions.

On the North Korean side, the American political system is often considered bewildering. If the President of the United States were to achieve agreement with North Korea, North Korean officials ponder whether the Congress would allow or block implementation of the deal. 

North Korean leaders are also uncertain that a U.S. President would be capable of ensuring full Executive Branch cooperation and implementation of any agreement.

Neither side is budging. The “tit for tat” between North Korea and the U.S., the ROK and the UN is elevating.

The Six Party Talks have failed.

Bilateral talks between the U.S. and North Korea are elusive.

South Korea closed the Kaesong Industrial Complex, where approximately 120 South Korean companies employed over 50,000 North Korean workers.

The Congress, the U.S. Executive Branch and the United Nations have elevated sanctions pressure on North Korea.

The joint military exercises between South Korean and American military forces and the upcoming Korean Workers’ Party Congress in Pyongyang are benchmarks which may facilitate additional provocative actions by North Korea - likely to be met by U.S. and ROK countermeasures.

Often ridiculed and characterized in the international media through caricatures of its leadership, North Korean officials believe they will prevail.

As their nuclear, chemical, biological and cyber warfare programs continue to expand, North Korean leaders insist they are developing a necessary defense mechanism to protect against a U.S. military strike on their country.

President Eisenhower’s threat to use nuclear weapons to bring about an end to the Korean War, and later U.S. consideration of utilizing nuclear weapons in response to North Korea’s seizure of the USS Pueblo are not lost on the North Koreans.

There is a sense among some of the American specialists that once the Party Congress has adjourned, the North Korea situation will “de-escalate”. Perhaps. However, we are now traveling a new road.

In the event a de-escalation of the current situation presents opportunity for renewed talks between the U.S. and North Korea, any final resolution is impossible without addressing the mutual mistrust which has deepened over decades. For some in the U.S., efforts toward this end will be a ray of hope that a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue will be achieved.  Other Americans will be less enthusiastic, viewing such a development as hindering their goal of witnessing a collapse and termination of the present government in North Korea. 

The final days of a less-focused Obama Administration and the transition period to a new Administration may ultimately present the most dangerous time of all. What will be the actual U.S. policy toward North Korea until January 20, 2017 and who will truly be in charge of that policy’s implementation?

Will additional actions deemed provocative by the international community emanate from North Korea during the U.S. leadership transition?