Experts Weigh in on War and Peace on the Peninsula

Speaking on a "War and Peace on the Korean Peninsula" panel at a recent conference hosted by Ploughshares Fund, Ambassador Robert Gallucci reflected on a question that has troubled many Korea watchers: "What's the trigger for Americans to act?"

Gallucci was joined by Carol Giacomo of The New York Times and Suzanne DiMaggio of New America. Trump’s bombastic language and its ramifications were at the forefronts of these experts’ minds as they discussed this issue.

"No one thinks that the North Koreans are going to get up one morning and attack South Korea, attack the United States," Gallucci argued. Instead, we should be asking how North Korea's behavior may lead to dangerous miscalculations: "What is it that the North may think they can get away with without provoking a U.S. military response and get wrong in that calculation?" Ever since Trump’s bellicose ”it won’t happen” tweets in January, “the South Koreans have been worried about whether the next missile launch is going to provoke that response.” Trump’s tweets and comments since then have hardly assuaged Korean fears.

Gallucci explained that the South Koreans are not worried about the unpredictability of Kim Jong Un, but of the United States. “The South Korean position is: ‘we don’t know what [Trump] is going to do! We know what the North is going to do, we’ve been dealing with them for a long time… the reason that this is a crisis that could lead to the war is the U.S.’”

Trump’s bombast and incoherent policies created confusion on both sides of the peninsula: the North Koreans “don’t know who to talk to,” said Giacomo, who has recently returned from a trip to North Korea. “The senior people we talked to… said ‘what about Tillerson?’ Well, what about Tillerson? The president has undercut his credibility,” said Giacomo. She stressed the need for “somebody else outside the system to make an inrun, to develop some sort of channel with the North Koreans, to get some kind of dialogue going.”

“We need to be very clear that diplomacy is our first choice,” argued Suzanne DiMaggio, who has participated in a number of dialogues with the North Koreans. “Military leaders, former and current, that I’ve spoken to, don’t see [military action] as a viable option without enormous casualties and destruction.”

Diplomacy is crucial for making expectations clear and avoiding conflict on the peninsula: “I don’t think that the North Koreans understand what the U.S. would do in response to each escalation in their activities,” Giacomo pointed out. “And that’s a real danger, and all the more reason why somebody in authority, with credibility, needs to be talking to them now.”

All three speakers pointed out that negotiations with the North Koreans are not impossible: after an event with senior North Korean Foreign Ministry official Choe San Hui, DiMaggio said “[she] did not completely shut the door to engagement. She left it open a bit - very narrowly - and if I was a member of this current administration, I would look at what she said very carefully and listen… I think this administration would be well served to listen to what she has to say.”

“What we did with Iran, we offered off-ramps, something to the Iranians in exchange, and that was a concession really where we said this is your red line. We’re going to give that to you - it’s going to be highly monitored and verified and limited. We need to have the same thing with the North Koreans,” argued DiMaggio. If the North Koreans won’t talk about denuclearization, the United States should keep the lines of communication open anyways: “there’s a lot to talk about short of denuclearization that are urgent… [we can be] engaging on other issues.”

Ultimately, the Trump administration “needs to take a much more pragmatic approach,” said DiMaggio. If the President can restrain himself from further ad hominem attacks and bellicose tweets, we could have a shot at resolving this crisis peacefully.

--Meghan McCall is policy associate and special assistant to the president at Ploughshares Fund. Rose Blanchard is a research assistant.

More resources:

--“Trump strikes at the heart of the North Korean regime with speech” by Anna Fifield for The Washington Post, November 8, 2017 here.

--“Trump offers North Korea 'a Path to a Much Better Future'” by Brian Bennett for Los Angeles Times, November 7, 2017 here.

--“Why Relying on China to Stop North Korea May Not Work” by Mark Landler and Jane Perlez for The New York Times, November 8, 2017 here.

--“How Trump Should Talk to North Korea” by Suzanne DiMaggio and Joel S. Wit for The New York Times, November 7 , 2017 here.

--“The Act that Gets Tough on North Korea” by Chris Van Hollen and Pat Toomey for CNN, November 7, 2017 here.

--“Invading North Korea is the Only Way to Stop All Its Nukes, Pentagon Says” by Kyle Mizokami for Popular Mechanics, November 7, 2017 here.

--“Trump Repeats Failing Formula on North Korean Threat” by Daryl Kimball for Arms Control Now, November 7, 2017 here.

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