The next few weeks or months could decide the future of global politics for decades to come. North Korea will either possess nuclear weapons with intercontinental delivery systems or they won’t. Essentially, it will be a choice of a workable diplomatic agreement, an extreme military exchange (quite possibly nuclear) or the adoption of an Obama-like sanctions and/or containment policy. However, US President Donald J. Trump has apparently ruled out containment because such a policy will lead to the increased proliferation of nuclear weapon states — most assuredly, The Islamic Republic of Iran.
Not since the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) has the world witnessed such a showdown as is now occurring between Pyongyang and Washington. Literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives are at stake. War on the Korean Peninsula could easily become a global catastrophe. In all likelihood such a war would escalate, drawing in China, to fill the very real perception of an unconscionable vacuum created by the destruction of the North Korean regime. This could very easily lead to a Beijing-Washington confrontation or miscalculation and the possibility of a US-China nuclear showdown.
But the Trump administration has sent the world a definitive red line against nuclear weapons with deliverable missiles in North Korea. Trump also believes that the Iran nuclear deal (the JCPOA) is nothing more than a nuclear containment vehicle couched as a permanent diplomatic achievement. On this score, Trump is absolutely correct. In fact, North Korean advancements in ICBM technology and the miniaturization of its nuclear warhead design has dramatically compromised the inspection regime of the JCPOA. Now it is paramount that all regular JCPOA inspections include the entire gamut of Iranian military facilities. The very real prospect of Iranian and North Korean nuclear cooperation has rendered the current JCPOA inspection regime blind.
Trump and his Republican administration has leaned on China to ratchet up its current sanctions on North Korea to include a complete cessation of oil deliveries. North Korea receives ninety-two percent of its oil from China. But such an economic strangulation policy is not in China’s interest. China does not want North Korea to completely collapse. They don’t for the same reason they don’t want the North Korean regime to be militarily defeated — fear of a US-dominated political encroachment directly on the Chinese border. Hence, any realistic US-China sanctions regime will not be enough to alter North Korea’s current nuclear trajectory. On this point, American and Chinese interests diverge. Also, the use of a US-China trade war to force Beijing to accept strangulation sanctions on North Korea could easily deflate the world’s stock and bond markets. This could lead to a second global economic collapse within ten years.
Might diplomacy, with graduated Chinese sanctions, work on North Korea? Not if the diplomacy mirrors the type of sweetheart negotiations exhibited with the Iran nuclear deal by the administration of President Barack H. Obama. Such negotiations became nothing more than a type of international medium-term capitulation to Iranian nuclear designs. Trump (correctly) believes that the JCPOA needs to be renegotiated. The new administration fears that with the North Korean nuclear infrastructure in place, the eventual proliferation of nuclear weapons will become inevitable. Unlike Obama with Iran, Trump wants the complete elimination of North Korean nuclear infrastructure and capacity.
Trump is searching for a policy direction totally dissimilar to the last eight years under Obama. In other words, the new president does not believe in negotiations merely as the only alternative to war. Trump is willing to pull the trigger — if the alternative is sanctions that don’t work, and/or negotiations that don’t solve the nuclear problem on a permanent basis. Trump is completely against the concept of nuclear containment (deterrence) with either North Korea or Iran. However, many ex-officials of the Obama administration have now adopted the containment of North Korea as the alternative to war. This, of course, does not sit well with Israel or most of the other nations of the Middle East.
So, will a policy of diplomacy in coordination with tougher Chinese sanctions work? If war with North Korea is to be prevented — and with the failure of either US political party to consider a withdrawal of American troops from the Korean Peninsula — the ball is clearly in China’s court. Somehow, Beijing must convince Washington that the only way to complete a successful negotiation with Pyongyang is to end the Korean War permanently. Armistice lines must become borders and the US military forces must leave the Korean Peninsula. North and South Korean troop configurations need to be reconfigured and balanced, while diplomatic relations between Washington and Pyongyang must be established. The US, China and Russia will need to ultimately guarantee the sovereignty of the two Korean states. Unification (if it happens at all) must wait until both sides are in agreement. And most importantly, the Korean Peninsula must be completely denuclearized.
But, of course, this will not be enough. For the US to withdraw from South Korea, it will require that China also exhibits a willingness to dramatically decrease tensions in the western Pacific. Unless China begins to establish a responsible global leadership role to ease the crisis — through a major concession of its own — the US public will not be mollified by the appearance of retreat, especially to an up-and-coming power like China.
Besides the American withdrawal from the Korean Peninsula, there must also be some kind of Chinese concession over the military future of the western Pacific. This could happen in the East or South China Seas, but probably the most significant and convincing place would be the naval military approaches to Taiwan. Make no mistake, the US will not abandon its agreement on the four noes with regard to Taiwan — no independence, no state-to-state relations, no name change, no referendum on independence — Taiwan will remain an integral part of China. But the formalization of its autonomous character and China’s pledge not to use military force against Taiwan must be strengthened by international law, and through an international treaty.
Taiwan’s circular watery approaches need to be demilitarized. The farther this demilitarized zone extends away from Taiwan, the better. China and the US could accomplish a great diplomatic achievement if peace on both the Korean Peninsula and around the naval approaches to Taiwan be achieved formally and in tandem. Between diplomacy, containment, sanctions and war, diplomacy is by far the best solution. But the diplomacy must be real, with concessions as well as gains for everyone.
In Israel and the Middle East, the prospect of a nuclear North Korea, with advanced rocketry and miniaturized warheads working in secret with Iran, has become the nightmare scenario. However, President Trump cannot rely on his many threats of war alone. He needs a full strategy which includes a peace plan. The current situation of bluster without diplomacy could very easily backfire. The continual bombast of threatening statements could easily lead to false red lines and/or miscalculation. Let us all pray that the Trump administration and the government of China have the correct balance of leverage and diplomacy to turn a very dangerous situation into the beginnings of a peaceful blueprint for the future.