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Why the U.S. Should Accept the Chinese Offer on North Korea

On March 6th North Korea test-launched four missiles in defiance of international sanctions on the isolated country- three of which fell into Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). This is the latest provocation by Kim Jong-Un that began with hesitant optimism five years ago when the Switzerland-educated leader came to power. After aggressive internal purges, foreign assassinations, and continued advancement in the country’s nuclear weapon technology, that speck of optimism is now long gone.

Instead, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said in regards to Kim: “We are not dealing with a rational person. It is an unbelievable, irresponsible arrogance that we are seeing coming out of Kim Jong-un at this time.” Although it may appear like an unremarkable statement in respect to the stories that often come out regarding the deified leader, calling the head of State of any nation-state irrational has notable ramifications. What comes first to mind, is that the Ambassador just undercut the entire logic behind the sanctions regime. There is little reason to economically isolate (and therefore pressure) North Korea with sanctions if one believes they do not behave rationally.

In fact, Pyongyang has a history of “rational” behavior, although problematic in a plethora of ways. One can refer to North Korea’s Songun, or military first, doctrine under Kim Jong-Il. The doctrine came about after the combination of floods and the collapse of the Soviet Union (and its support) led to a severe famine. The doctrine declared that the military is the number one priority, and therefore was first to receive food rations during the famine. After all, the government needed to remain alive – at a cost of a massive civilian death toll.

In 2013, Kim Jong-Un announced an adaptation to his father’s Songun doctrine, calling it byungjin, or “simultaneous progress,” which balances nuclear deterrence with actual economic development. Obviously, with little existent foreign investment and near complete isolation, this is difficult to do. However, Kim Jong-Un did announce the country’s first five-year plan since the 1980’s just last year, in a surprising sign of shifting domestic priorities.

Clearly, North Korea and its missile tests present a significant problem for the international community, in particular U.S. allies in East Asia. However, it should be made clear that Kim Jong-Un does not act like an “irrational” leader as Ambassador Haley described. By understanding the insecurity behind the brutal domestic behavior and the provocative behavior with foreign neighbors, the United States will be in a better position to deescalate the situation in East Asia.

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After the missile firing earlier this month, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, proposed the United States halt its military drills with South Korea in exchange for a suspension of missile and nuclear tests in the hope of bringing both the United States and North Korea to the negotiating table. The offer was quickly declined, which led to the Ambassador Haley statement calling Kim Jong-Un irrational. Like the missile and nuclear tests which have been a constant irritant for the United States and its allies, the military drills with Seoul are seen as a major threat in Pyongyang.

This was a significant missed opportunity for the United States. When regional ire towards the North Korea is reaching its peak, the United States would be negotiating from a position of strength. Even China, which fears a collapse of the North Korean government as it would likely lead to a South Korean take over and a U.S. military presence right on its border, was willing to take the major step last month of halting its purchase of North Korean coal. This was a huge hit to North Korea and its economy: 90% of North Korea’s trade is with China and coal is its number one export –it constitutes 35% of the North Korean economy. The United States has asked China to put more pressure on North Korea for years, but it took this action on its own volition.

Instead of taking the opportunity to negotiate from a position of strength with the rare support of China, the United States decided to move ahead with the planned military drills and even install the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD) in South Korea to China’s great frustration. The THAAD system, designed to protect South Korea from a North Korean missile attack, includes a very powerful radar system that China fears will be used to spy against its own military.

The opportunity for negotiations and even a grand bargain with North Korea would be one that even Seoul would support. South Korea is under the gravest threat in a potential conflict with North Korea and has obvious deep cultural ties with the country. Under the Agreed Framework between the Clinton administration and North Korea in 1994, the United States initially succeeded in suspending Pyongyang’s nuclear activities at Yongbyon. It was a similar zero-sum mentality with North Korea during the Bush administration’s first term that ended it.

Although the United States declined the Chinese offer, it is still possible to reverse course. President Trump is set to host Chinese Premier Xi Jinping later this year, a visit U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is set to confirm in China during his Asia trip. Secretary Tillerson squandered the initial opportunity to reverse course during his trip by threatening North Korea with military action. With the negative start to the China-U.S. relationship under the Trump administration, taking China’s offers seriously regarding North Korea would be a helpful start.

The spokesperson for the State Department, Mark Toner, said last week regarding the military drills with South Korea and North Korea’s missile tests: “this is not apples and oranges…what we’re doing in terms of our defense cooperation with South Korea is in no way comparable to the blatant disregard that North Korea has shown with respect to international law.” This may be true, but taking into account the failed history of this strategy and the diplomatic opportunity before us, the United States must not lose this opportunity to avert a miscalculation or a catastrophe in East Asia.