Sunday, August 30, 2015

North Korea may seek new nuke deal with weak Obama

Last week, North and South Korea traded artillery fire and accusations across their border, demonstrating yet again the fragility of their 60-year-old truce. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea initiated the incident, and it underlined the potential seriousness of any escalation by deploying more than 50 submarines (70 percent of its total), and massing artillery near the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ), according to South Korea.

A soldier stands guard in front of the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket sitting on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang, April 8, 2012. Reuters
A soldier stands guard in front of the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket sitting on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang, April 8, 2012. Reuters

High-level talks between the two Koreas restored calm, at least superficially and temporarily. Nonetheless, the United States should recognize that strategic interests far more important than just another military confrontation across the DMZ may be at stake here. This affair might well be a ploy by the North to con Washington into negotiations like those that recently led to the disastrous nuclear deal with Iran. What better way than to create an artificial crisis, and then lure America to the bargaining table?

Whatever the outcome of Pyongyang’s latest gambit, America cannot underestimate the seriousness of the risks involved if these repeated provocations ever escalated into a serious military confrontation. These are not merely echoes from the 1953 truce; their regularity underlines the North’s continuing menace. In 2010, North Korea, in a completely unprovoked attack, sank a South Korean corvette, the Cheonan, with a loss of 46 crew members. Random cross-border attacks over the years have resulted in killing many innocent civilians.

As deadly as renewed military hostilities on the Korean Peninsula would be, the real focus of U.S. attention should be on the North’s growing nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile capabilities. In April, China estimated that the North had 20 nuclear warheads, and could double that number by next year. This estimate can hardly be called alarmist, because Beijing is Pyongyang’s only real ally in the world, and is hardly a potential target. And the North’s three nuclear tests and its expanding nuclear infrastructure have all been successfully undertaken despite decades of U.S. and international sanctions.

What does worry Beijing, and should worry Washington more, is the potential for Pyongyang’s growing nuclear arsenal to destabilize East Asia, including provoking a regional nuclear arms race. South Korea’s defense ministry and the U.S. force commander there already estimate that the North is rapidly moving toward a warhead-sized nuclear device that, mounted on one of its ballistic missiles, could reach America’s West Coast in the near future.

And yet, official Washington is all but asleep on the North Korean threat. President Obama, despite his much-touted “pivot” from the Middle East, rarely pays it much attention. Indeed, the “pivot” itself has faded from view. The 2016 presidential candidates have yet to address the issue seriously. Even West Coast politicians, whose constituents should worry about Obama’s gutting of America’s missile-defense program, seem uninterested.

Worse than U.S. inattention, however, is the risk that in the Obama administration’s waning days the president and Secretary of State John Kerry may conclude they have one more glorious negotiation left in them. Fresh from signing the Vienna agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, they may try again with North Korea. Although the American public, by increasingly large margins, rejects the Vienna deal, the administration seems poised to secure the votes it needs to preserve it from congressional opposition.

Pyongyang may have the same negotiation scenario in mind, although for exactly opposite reasons. Kim Jong Un likely sees Iran’s diplomatic triumph in Vienna for what it was: a determined, persistent nuclear weapons aspirant, aided politically by Russia and China, was able to grind down a weak and credulous American president. Using a sustained campaign of threats, falsehoods and stubbornness, Tehran achieved all its strategic objectives in the negotiations with the Security Council’s five permanent members and Germany.

North Korea could well conclude it can accomplish precisely the same objective. After all, that kind of diplomacy has been its trademark since the Korean War. Kim’s biggest problem is that Obama’s term would end before Pyongyang could extract all the concessions it desired. So, if Pyongyang wanted to find a way to initiate negotiations quickly, what better way than to start off with a military provocation along the DMZ?

Neither presidential candidates nor congressional leaders can stop Obama from pursuing yet another illusory diplomatic “triumph” as a second-term legacy. But sober analysts should do whatever they can to prevent the Obama White House from making still more concessions to a dictatorial regime that, based on its entire history, has no intention of keeping its side of any bargain. This is very dangerous terrain, far more serious than merely exchanging artillery fire.

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