Negotiation, Not Deterrence, the Way Forward with North Korea

United Nations sanctions and acts of deterrence have not worked to end the cyclical crises that have plagued the Korean Peninsula since the end of the Korean War in 1953, according to Charles K. Armstrong, Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies and Director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University.

“The only realistic way out,” said Armstrong in an interview with the Global Observatory, “is to go back to negotiations, particularly between the US and North Korea.” 

 “Our immediate goal should be to de-escalate the current conflict on all sides, then to freeze North Korea’s nuclear program as it is through a negotiated process,” said Armstrong, pointing out that the North Koreans have frozen their nuclear program in the past—in 1994 and again in 2007. 

Over the long term, however, he noted that all sides, including—until recently—North Korea, have said that they want a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. “If we can eventually build trust between North and South, between North Korea and its other neighbors, then maybe we can work toward that goal.”

While the chance of a large-scale attack by North Korea on South Korean or American targets remains very slim, a number of elements have converged that make the current crisis especially acute, according to Armstrong, including the anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, founder of the North Korean state.

In this context, a show of military force—such as the recent joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States—risks increasing tensions and producing a miscalculation that could lead to open conflict. Given the nuclear stakes, this “would be a catastrophe for not only North Korea and South Korea but the entire region,” said Armstrong. “A second Korean war could be very short, but it could kill millions of people, so that is something we want to avoid.”

While China and the US both have an interest in maintaining the broader status quo in the region, a negotiated process could lead to a scaling back of arms in the long term. Now that Kim Il-sung’s anniversary has passed and US Secretary of State John Kerry has opened the door to talks, negotiations look like a more realistic, as well as a potentially more effective, path. 

The interview was conducted by Marie O’Reilly, Associate Editor, International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):


Marie O’Reilly: Following a rocket launch in December and a third nuclear test in February, the North Korean leadership has been increasing its blustery rhetoric over the past two months—threatening a nuclear attack on the US and declaring a “state of war” with South Korea. What does the North Korean regime want, and how likely is a large-scale attack?

Charles Armstrong: I don’t think there is much chance, if any, of a large-scale, unprovoked attack by North Korea on the South or on American targets. In some ways this is the same story we have heard many times before. This seems to be a little bit different in terms of the level of rhetoric, the specificity of the threats, and also the duration of this really provocative language—it’s been going on now for about two months. But fundamentally, it’s the game that North Korea has played over and over again. 

If you look closely at the language, the North Koreans are not talking about attacking out of the blue for the most part. What they are trying to say is that they will defend themselves by any means necessary: if they are attacked, they will counterattack with full force. And they are trying to impress upon the world, and the US in particular, that they have greater capability than in the past to really inflict damage. They have demonstrated they have nuclear weapons, that they have missiles that can reach some distance, and that they will not be a force to be trifled with—that they can wreak tremendous damage on anyone whom they see as threatening, or who attacks them. 

The North Korean leadership has a number of goals, not so much to impress the outside world, but for their own purposes, for their own propaganda, if you will, for their own people—to prove that the new leader, Kim Jong-un, is an adequately tough and military-minded leader of the regime. 

North Korea’s really extraordinarily belligerent language and mostly verbal threats have been a reaction to the UN sanctions, first and foremost. And this is also something that’s not new: they said in 1994—the very first time the US brought issue of sanctions against North Korea to the UN—that they would consider UN sanctions as an act of war. And that was the first time they used the term “sea of fire”: they said they would turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.” So the metaphors aren’t new; what is new is this talking about turning American cities into “seas of fire.” That’s not something that they have said before. 

There’s also something that most of the media has missed which is very important: North Korea raises their level of rhetoric every time there are joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States. This has gone back to 1976—the first “team spirit” exercises, which led to a crisis not dissimilar to this one, in which the US military was put on alert and it looked like the two countries might even go to war. Except in 1976, the incident was the murder of two American soldiers in the demilitarized zone by North Korean guards wielding an axe. The so-called Panmunjom axe murder incident was over, of all things, American soldiers trimming a poplar tree in the middle of the demilitarized zone. That tree-trimming incident provoked a fight, which ended up in the murder of two Americans. This was probably one of the three times that the US and North Korea came closest to war since the armistice of 1953, the other one being the nuclear crisis of ’94, and possibly today. 

So there are number of things that are converged here to make this especially tense: the UN sanctions in response to the nuclear test; the South Korean–American military exercises, which always provoke harsh response from the North; and the anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, which is April 15, and that is also time when North Koreans feel they have to demonstrate their strength.

MO: Based on what you’re saying, it seems clear that the cycle of sanctions, the joint military exercises, the deterrence approach—over the long term, they don’t seem to be working. What steps do you think can be taken to pull the regime back from the edge in the short term, but also to promote real disarmament in the long term? Or, would we need to see the regime fall before any real nuclear disarmament could take place?

CA: I don’t think there is much chance that we will see the regime fall in the foreseeable future. It’s a much more resilient regime than many people give it credit for. It has survived more than 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has survived the death of two of its leaders since that time, and it has survived more than 60 years of sanctions. Sanctions have not worked in all of that time, and furthermore, the Chinese have never really enforced the recent rounds of sanctions set up by the UN. 

Deterrence is limited, and a show of military force always brings with it the danger of miscalculation or tension leading to open conflict, which would be a catastrophe for not only North Korea and South Korea but the entire region. A second Korean war could be very short, but it could kill millions of people, so that is something we want to avoid. 

The only realistic way out, it seems to me, is to go back to negotiations, particularly between the US and North Korea. And I think John Kerry in his most recent statements has said that the US is opening the door, and that is a very positive sign. The North Koreans responded with a very negative remark about those statements, but I think that’s part of their own negotiating position. I think, eventually, North Korea also wants to get back to talks. 

North Korea has also said they want to be considered a nuclear weapon state, and of course the US and most other countries won’t accept that. But we have to begin where we are, which is North Korea has nuclear weapons, and it’s not going to give them up immediately. At the very least, while the two sides are negotiating, the North Koreans should be able to agree to freeze the program that they are in. And that has happened in the past—in 1994 and again in 2007—and that is certainly preferable than them continuing to develop and to build up their nuclear arsenal.

MO: What’s China’s role in all of this? China is often considered North Korea’s only ally, but recently its stance has shifted a little. We’ve seen it support the United Nations Security Council resolutions in February and March, and these were resolutions that tighten sanctions on North Korea. Do you think this shift is just a short-term change for China, or is China fundamentally changing tack?

CA: I don’t think this reflects a fundamental change—I think China has made a strategic choice that they’re going to stand by North Korea. They will criticize North Korea to some degree, and they will sign on to the Security Council sanctions, but it remains to be seen if they will really enforce them. They certainly have not enforced them with any degree of stringency in the past. 

There are certainly liabilities to being allied with North Korea, but the national interest—as China seems to define it—is best served by keeping North Korea as a buffer state against the US presence in East Asia, and to maintain leverage over the Korean Peninsula and hence over American interests in the region through their ties with the North.

MO: So do you think it’s fair to say, as some analysts do, that it’s in China’s interest to maintain the broader status quo and keep propping up the regime—as a buffer state but also so that China itself can play a role not just as an economic power in the region, but also as a political and military power? Indeed, others say that it’s also in the US interest to maintain the status quo since North Korea is a good reason—or excuse—to maintain the US military presence in Asia. What’s your take on this interest in maintaining the status quo?

CA: I think most of the countries in the region are invested in the status quo, so long the situation does not get out of control. The Chinese preference as I understand it is to keep North Korea with the regime in place but on a reforming path like China itself, so that it will be less belligerent, less military focused, and turn its energies to economic reform. That would be in China’s interest, and that’s what China has been trying to encourage the North Koreans to do for a long time. What China does not want to see is instability in North Korea, and certainly not a collapse of the regime. 

And for the US, it has to be said that the North Korea threat is very convenient for American military interests in the region, again so long as things don’t go too far. It’s a very good rationale for building up missile defenses and maintaining US forces in the region over a long term. The relationship between China and the United States is such that it is difficult for the US to say that China is the enemy in East Asia, but North Korea is a useful threat against which American forces can be built up and maintained. That is not to say that the threat isn’t real, but without North Korea, it would be more difficult to justify the extent of military involvement in East Asia.

MO: So what does that mean for long-term resolution of the issue?

CA: Again, we can’t expect anything dramatic to happen anytime soon. We should at least be trying to keep things from getting any worse. And if we can stop the military situation from escalating, if we can get North Korea to freeze its nuclear program and begin to dismantle it—as they had done in 2007—then all sides, including until recently North Korea, have said that they want a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. That will have to be tested. China has made that clear publicly, and if we can eventually build trust between North and South, between North Korea and its other neighbors, then maybe we can work toward that goal. So our immediate goal should be to de-escalate the current conflict, then to freeze North Korea’s nuclear program as it is, through a negotiated process, and then after that to begin to scale back.

MO: Thank you very much.

CA: You’re welcome.   

About the photo: A view of North Korea from the South. Credit: Karl Baron/Flickr