North Korea on Sunday observed the seventh anniversary of the death of former leader Kim Jong Il — and the rise of current leader Kim Jong Un — with public commemorations and a verbal barrage against the United States.
Washington is “bent on bringing [North Korea]-U.S. relations back to the status of last year which was marked by exchanges of fire,” a statement from the North Korean Foreign Ministry claimed, warning that fresh sanctions from the United States would be our “greatest miscalculation and it will block the path to denuclearization on the Korean peninsula forever — a result desired by no one.”
The immediate impetus for Pyongyang’s outlash is the Treasury Department’s issuance of new sanctions against three North Korean officials last week. But the larger context likely matters more: Since Singapore, U.S.-North Korea relations have largely proceeded as usual, with “maximum pressure” from Washington and a mix of public bombast and likely private weapons development from Pyongyang. November talks between Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoState Department watchdog probing whether Trump aides took gifts meant for foreign officials Biden shows little progress with Abraham Accords on first anniversary Biden slips further back to failed China policies MORE and senior North Korean official Kim Yong-chol, intended to make the generalities of Singapore more concrete, were canceled and have yet to be rescheduled.
Does this apparent stall mean fresh “exchanges of fire” are indeed on the horizon? It’s possible, but not inevitable. The prudent course forward for the United States is to allow inter-Korean relations to continue to progress, to maintain the patient approach Pompeo says is policy and to resume specific — if slow — diplomatic engagement backed by conventional deterrence.
Whatever has happened (or rather, not happened) between Washington and Pyongyang in the last six months, North and South Korea have made real progress toward normalcy. Repeated meetings between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, as well as lower level negotiators, have produced plans to reconnect rail and road connections between the two Koreas, to reunite families separated for half a century and field joint sports teams in international competition. Parts of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) are actually being demilitarized and both sides have agreed to stop “all hostile acts” in the DMZ.
The United States’s role here is to avoid interference. South Korean-led engagement with North Korea is to be encouraged — and let alone. Pompeo’s recent worry that “peace on the peninsula and the denuclearization of North Korea [are] lagging behind the increase in the amount of interrelationship between the two Koreas” is unfounded, because increasing the interrelationship between the two Koreas is itself crucial for peace — and peace is a prerequisite for denuclearization at an acceptable cost (i.e., without a costly war that would sacrifice thousands, if not millions). South Korea has a higher stake in resolving the constant crisis of North Korea peacefully, as well as a cultural advantage the United States cannot hope to replicate.
It is imperative Washington avoid undermining Seoul’s progress, and a commitment to avoiding unprovoked military force is vital to that and U.S.-North Korean relations more broadly. On this point, Pompeo has hit the right notes of late, explaining in an interview late last month that dealing with Pyongyang will “be a lengthy process. … It will take time. We are prepared to be patient.”
This is a welcome contrast to the unrealistic expectations from other voices in the Trump administration, most notably national security adviser John Bolton and his unserious call for a one-year denuclearization deadline. Artificial timelines of this sort are deleterious to diplomacy and utterly unnecessary for American security. The United States is amply protected by indefinite powers of conventional deterrence from the unlikely possibility of unprovoked North Korean aggression. We can afford to wait.
Indefinite deterrence also means we can afford to resume shrewd diplomacy. The lack of urgency American military might provide is no reason to let this fall by the wayside and, stripped of its extreme rhetoric, North Korea’s request for a “sincere approach to implementing” the proposed denuclearization is not unreasonable.
The canceled working-level talks with Pompeo should move forward and be followed by a regular schedule of negotiations to make use of any momentum from Singapore. And the security deterrence permits American negotiators to use carrots as well as sticks, judiciously negotiating acceptable tradeoffs, like guarantees not to use unprovoked military force, in exchange for verifiable steps toward denuclearization. A return to last year’s “exchanges of fire” is avoidable if only Washington has prudence to stay a patient course.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and weekend editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Relevant Magazine, The Hill and The American Conservative, among other outlets.