GSTAAD – Sixty-four years ago, the Korean War was suspended with a ceasefire agreement between North Korea, China and the United States.
Six and a half decades later, that “temporary” truce still governs the status quo on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea’s nuclear and missile program is advancing at a rapid clip, with Pyongyang testing two inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in just one month. But U.S. policies – from sanctions to conditional negotiations – have failed repeatedly. Why? Because North Korea’s isolated and unstable regime fears giving up its nuclear deterrent will mean the end of Kim Jong Un and his regime.
North Korea’s missile technology can already cause catastrophic results through an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack – even without a re-entry vehicle. As Business Insider explains, to launch a successful EMP attack, “all North Korea has to do is launch a low-yield nuclear missile from a submarine, ship, or even by balloon and explode it at high altitude, above the atmosphere.”
A worst-case scenario: a prolonged EMP blackout. According to the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack, which was established by Congress in 2001, within 12 months following a nationwide blackout, “up to 90% of the US population could perish from starvation, disease, and societal breakdown.”
Given the gravity of these threats to our homeland and our regional allies, U.S. policymakers have rightly focused for years on trying to secure North Korea’s denuclearization. But nothing has worked. We’ve tried isolation and sanctions. We’ve tried serious deterrence, ramping up our own defense capabilities on the Korean Peninsula and showing our strength through military exercises and bomber flyovers. We’ve extended conditional offers to negotiate, provided North Korea takes concrete steps toward denuclearization – a tough call since North Korea has been adamant that it will never give up its nuclear weapons program.
What’s missing from all of these policy approaches is any incentive for North Korea to actually consider denuclearization.
There is one lever we haven’t deployed yet: the prospect of a permanent peace treaty that accepts North Korea as a sovereign state and a non-aggression pact not to invade. In exchange, North Korea would agree to freeze its nuclear and missile program.
How would a peace treaty change North Korea’s strategic calculations?
A peace treaty would include both the complete dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs and the permanent division of the Korean peninsula.
A peace treaty would show the U.S. is serious about turning this principle into possible concrete actions, would could include establishing formal diplomatic relations and embassies, creating a pathway to reducing the number of U.S. troops on the peninsula over time, and making economic investments in North Korea.
If North Korea agrees, we can finally end the Korean War and remove the nuclear threat. If not, we make it clear once and for all by taking the initiative that North Korea is the one obstructing progress, making it harder for China and Russia to complain about U.S. deterrence and pressure.
However, the United States needs to back up the “carrot” of the peace treaty negotiations with a “big stick”. If North Korea doesn’t agree, the United States should make clear that it will shoot down every North Korean missile tested.
When the North Korean army crossed the 38th parallel into the South in the early morning hours of June 25, 1950, the man in the White House was Harry Truman. I’ve written before about how President Truman represented the best of American leadership – a man who led with honor and kept his commitments. It was under Truman that U.S. forces under the auspices of the United Nations arrived on the peninsula to defend our ally over three bloody, grueling years.
What would Truman do today? His comments about another hostile country – Fidel Castro’s Cuba – offer one possible answer. “When Castro came into power, if I’d have been President, I’d have picked up the phone and called him direct in Havana,” Truman told an interviewer, “I wouldn’t have gone through protocol or anything like that.”
“He’d have come to the White House,” Truman explained, and “I’d have said, ‘Fidel, it looks to me like you’ve had a pretty good revolution down there, and it’s been a long time coming. Now you’re going to need help, and there’s only two places you can go to get it. One’s right here, and the other’s – well, we both know where the other place is. Now you just tell me what you need, and I’ll see to it that you get it.”
Going to war to keep our commitments to an ally takes courage and leadership. So does being willing to deal honestly with your enemy when it’s the smartest thing to do.
Perhaps it’s time for President Trump to take a leaf from Truman’s book and have some straight talk with North Korea about what Pyongyang needs and how we can deliver it in exchange for meeting our needs for security and stability on the Korean Peninsula. It begins with a peace treaty to finally end the war that Truman had to deal with.
As Truman understood: if the United States doesn’t lead, no one will. The buck stops here.