Kim Jong-un stated recently that North Korea had a nuclear capability that could reach all of the US and that the nuclear button was on his table. US President Donald Trump responded by saying that he, too, had a nuclear button and that his was bigger and more effective.
Such verbal threats and interactions are not helpful. They only raise the prospect of war on the Korean peninsula. It is important for the US and North Korea to get to the negotiating table.
Rex Tillerson, the embattled US secretary of state, said at the UN that North Korea must earn its way to the negotiating table. However, trying to get North Korea to the negotiating table will be fruitless if Washington continues to insist that North Korea must be open to becoming a non-nuclear weapon state.
North Korea and, by extension, the Kim regime have invested heavily in nuclear weapon capability in the belief that it will ensure its security and survival by deterring attacks by the US and allied powers. Now that North Korea has attained or is near to attaining a nuclear weapon capability that can strike mainland US, it is highly unlikely that it will give up that capability.
Staying the present course and emphasising the military option is likely to raise tension and possibly lead to military conflict that will not be in the interest of either of the Koreas, the US or other countries in the immediate region, including China and Japan. A military conflict could result in millions of casualties on all sides and, in the worst-case scenario, the obliteration of North Korea.
To avoid this, it is essential for the US to formally or informally accept North Korea as a nuclear weapon state, try to get Pyongyang to subscribe to international norms that will prevent further horizontal and vertical proliferation and reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in the Korean conflict.
That will require reorientation of the goals of both Pyongyang and Washington. North Korea should shift its focus to gaining international acceptance as a responsible nuclear weapon state. This will take several years and could be costly in terms of politics and diplomacy.
Concurrently, the US goal should shift to making nuclear weapons less relevant to the Korean peninsula and demanding that North Korea engages in actions to prevent further vertical and horizontal escalation. The combination of these two developments will support peace, security and development on the Korean peninsula and, more broadly, in Northeast and East Asia.
If they pressed on, Washington and Pyongyang could lead to inadvertent war with highly damaging consequences. It is important to stress here that the intention is not to reward “bad” behaviour but to prevent war and advance peace, security and stability on the Korean peninsula and in the region.
This column is grounded in the assumption that countries acquire nuclear weapon capability in the light of their security vulnerabilities and that once attained, countries will be highly reluctant to give them up. Having attained or with near capability to strike the US, attempting to denuclearise North Korea will be futile. This may have been possible some decades ago but no longer. It is important for all parties to look ahead by reorienting their goals.
Steps to be taken by Pyongyang
Pyongyang must seek to convince the international community that it is on the path to becoming a responsible nuclear weapon state. The paths taken by India and China may be instructive here. Pyongyang’s primary goal has and must continue to be deterrence to prevent blackmail or attacks by the US and its allies.
It must forgo the diplomacy of “bluster” and offence. It must make a commitment not to attack non-nuclear weapon states like South Korea and Japan. It should also begin subscribing to non-proliferation regimes and norms to the extent possible.
Commitment not to spread technology and material to terrorists and other non-state actors would be welcomed by the international community. Likewise, protection of its nuclear facilities and preventing them from falling into the wrong hands would alleviate fear on the part of the international community, as has been the case with Pakistan. In due course, such efforts would be welcomed by the international community and create confidence in Pyongyang.
Internally, North Korea should begin to liberalise its economy à la the Chinese model and welcome international investment from not only South Korea and China but also other countries. It should seek to become a regular member of the international community in East Asia and, more broadly, in Asia.
Becoming a regular member instead of being viewed as an outcast or pariah state could be aided by active and positive commitment to non-proliferation norms like those mentioned above and by active participation in Asean-centred forums to promote peace and stability in the region.
Pyongyang should time and conduct activities still necessary to complete or further develop its nuclear weapon capability by making its intentions clear to avoid unduly alarming the international community. As mentioned earlier, it could take several years, but patience is essential in dealing with the issue.
Reorienting the US
Concurrently, the US and the international community should view the development of nuclear weapon capability by North Korea as symptomatic of its insecurity. Measures should be instituted to help ensure the international security of North Korea and ensure the safety of its nuclear arsenal.
At the same time, measures must be taken to ensure the security of US allies in the region. These efforts could prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons and promote peace and security in East Asia. North Korea should also be guided by demands from the international community to make it a responsible nuclear weapon state and player in advancing regional peace and security. Dialogue is essential.
Resurrecting and reorienting the six-party talks
The moribund six-party talks, with China in the lead, may be resurrected to facilitate such dialogue to chart the way forward for North Korea to become a responsible nuclear weapon state and strengthen peace and security in Northeast Asia. With the change in orientation, the six-party talks could, in due course, become the security forum for Northeast Asia.
Reorientation of goals and movement in new directions will not come easily or quickly. However, these may be compelled by an interest in preventing an outbreak of nuclear hostilities.
Pyongyang may have taken its first step by announcing that it is willing to negotiate with South Korea on its participation in the upcoming Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. Seoul responded quickly by stating that high-level talks between the two Koreas should be held soon.
Although this could pose challenges to the US-South Korea alliance, such talks should be encouraged to move in the direction of negotiations and strengthen peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.
Datuk Muthiah Alagappa is visiting professor in the Asia-Europe Institute in Universiti Malaya. Concurrently, he is non-resident senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC.