Secret talks can cool tensions between US and North Korea

Secret talks can cool tensions between US and North Korea
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The confrontation with North Korea is accelerating toward a potentially catastrophic climax. Neither side in its right mind wants to start a nuclear war, but this is where we are headed if both Washington and Pyongyang do not appreciate how the growing momentum of the crisis could soon exceed their grasp. Immediate steps need to be taken to de-escalate tensions and lessen the risk of miscalculation and inadvertent conflict.

North Korea’s headlong pursuit of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles clearly triggered the current crisis, but President Trump’s bellicose threats at the United Nations along with his personal attacks on its leader, Kim Jong Un, have propelled the confrontation to dangerous new levels. This is now as much an individual contest of wills as an international one.

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Trump and Kim will not only become more averse to compromise for fear of losing face and signifying weakness, which for Kim at least would be personally fatal, but also increasingly captive to the fateful logic of brinkmanship, the need to signal a greater disregard for the risks of war in order to intimidate your opponent to back down.

As tensions rise, it is not hard to imagine how perfectly rational behavior intended to avoid or hedge against a war could ignite one. North Korea, for example, could feel that the only way it can resist growing external pressure is to rattle nerves in Tokyo and Seoul through ever more reckless provocations so that they pressure Washington to cave in. Recent talk of an atmospheric nuclear test somewhere over the Pacific Ocean should be interpreted as such. Such coercive tactics, however, could literally backfire if Japan or South Korea decide to retaliate, triggering further escalation.

Likewise, common sense defensive military precautions could be misconstrued as the prelude to offensive operations. Heightened U.S. intelligence gathering to ascertain North Korea’s intentions or probe for weaknesses might be interpreted as preparation for a preemptive strike to destroy its nuclear arsenal or decapitate its leadership, plans for which have been openly discussed and even exercised. With limited military surveillance capabilities, Pyongyang is largely blind beyond its immediate periphery and might assume the worst. Dispersing its missiles and mobilizing its forces in response would set off alarm bells in Washington and increase pressure for the United States to strike first.

Whatever confidence exists that such dangerous interactions could easily be halted also needs to be tempered. “Stuff” always happens in crises. Initial reports turn out to be wrong, communications break down at critical moments, important people become inexplicably hard to reach, and orders get lost or are sometimes interpreted overzealously with calamitous results. There is no reason to assume such glitches wouldn’t arise when things turn really hot with North Korea. More fundamentally, it is also unclear how either side could try to halt an onrushing war even if it wished to.

Washington and Pyongyang have no diplomatic relations, so there are no ambassadors to summon. The hotlines across the inter-Korean border have also all been severed. While there is the so-called “New York channel” to relay messages to Pyongyang through its U.N. representative, its value for rapid and direct crisis management is untested. Finally, let’s not overlook the 12-and-a-half hour time difference between Washington and Pyongyang. Chronic sleep deprivation from managing a crisis halfway around the world, potentially over many nights, is not conducive to sound judgement.

All this demands that every effort should be made to avoid getting into such a fraught and perilous situation. High-level emissaries of both sides need to meet out of the spotlight as soon as possible to discuss how tensions can be cooled in a face-saving manner. Discreet and neutral places exist to accomplish this. Secret talks are unlikely to resolve the underlying conflict, but they could establish some basic ground rules and emergency procedures to avert a catastrophe.

Paul B. Stares is a senior fellow for conflict prevention and director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of “Preventive Engagement: How America Can Avoid War, Stay Strong, and Keep the Peace.”