Diplomacy key to easing tensions with N. Korea, local experts say
By DUSTY CHRISTENSEN
NORTHAMPTON — With North Korean and U.S. leaders ramping up tensions recently, many here and on the Korean peninsula are undoubtedly going to bed with “fire and fury” in their heads.
President Donald Trump on Tuesday threatened North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” in response to a report that the communist country had mastered a key step in developing long-range nuclear weapons, and the North Koreans responded with threats of their own. Several local experts tell the Gazette that this latest round of sabre-rattling is different than previous administrations’ posturing. Although that’s not a good sign, they also said it doesn’t necessarily mean that nuclear apocalypse is around the corner.
“I don’t think there’s any real reason to worry yet,” Vincent Ferraro, professor emeritus of international politics at Mount Holyoke College, said. “I think obviously the tensions have ramped up a bit, but we’ll have to wait to see what the next steps are.”
That’s not to say those next steps won’t be cause for concern. If North Korea launches missiles toward the U.S. territory of Guam, which on Thursday it threatened to do, the United States would likely feel compelled to respond militarily, Ferraro said.
University of Massachusetts Amherst political science professor Paul Musgrave thinks that this current moment of heightened tensions goes beyond previous antagonisms for two reasons: North Korea has developed better nuclear and missile technology, and Trump spends far less time with his advisers than previous administrations. What’s more, he said, those advisers are less experienced than they would have been in the past.
“For 25 years, we’ve been in a relatively dangerous situation, but now these two things have happened,” he said. “Both of them happening simultaneously raises the possibility of miscommunication, of miscalculation.”
Michael Klare, Five Colleges professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, also believes this moment is different, both because of North Korea’s technical advances and because of the figure of Trump. Klare said, however, that he thinks Trump is posturing more for his “ultranationalist” followers than for the North Koreans.
“I think his domestic policy has gone nowhere, and he’s decided to switch to foreign policy issues and to become more of a war president,” he said. “I think this is a new phase of his presidency.”
Given all of that context, all of the experts interviewed for this article agreed that diplomatic solutions are needed for de-escalation. Whether the Trump administration will choose that avenue, however, is another question.
For Ferraro, the United States’ precondition that North Korea terminate its nuclear program is a roadblock to diplomatic progress.
“That’s just a nonstarter,” Ferraro said. “That’s just never going to happen, it’s ridiculous.”
That’s because the North Koreans, he said, want a deterrent to U.S. invasion, which is something they credibly fear. Ferraro and Musgrave both mentioned the cases of Iraq and Libya, which the North Korean regime has used as examples of why they fear U.S.-led regime change.
The United States was able to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq because he did not have nuclear weapons, the thinking goes. And in Libya, Muammar Gaddafi gave up that country’s nuclear program in the early 2000s, only for the United States to lead the intervention that overthrew him less than a decade later.
As terrible as the North Korean regime is, Ferraro said, its understanding that a nuclear weapon might keep it in power may not be wrong.
“They are eminently rational there, they just look at history,” he said.
“The underlying problem here is diplomatic and political,” Musgrave said. “The only peaceful solution is one that ends with the North Korean government feeling that they will remain in office, that they will literally, politically and physically, survive regardless of U.S. capabilities.”
The United States, he added, has already had success keeping nuclear weapons out of one regime’s hands. A landmark 2015 deal under the Obama administration lifted sanctions on Iran, which in turn began winding down its nuclear program.
Trump, however, has refused to accept that deal, and has signaled publicly that he wants to go back on it. That, Musgrave said, undercuts the United States’ credibility in the one area where it actually has had success preventing nuclear proliferation.
Another problem with diplomacy under Trump, Musgrave added, is that his administration has yet to fill a large number of essential diplomatic positions that would make negotiations more likely.
“One reason why these are being presented in exclusively military terms is that the U.S. doesn’t have a State Department at the moment,” he said, referring to a high number of vacancies in essential positions.
Klare, the Hampshire professor, doesn’t agree that the United States should accept a nuclear-armed North Korea as a fait accompli.
“That could lead to other countries moving in the same direction,” he said, mentioning Japan and Korea as examples.
Klare cited a Chinese-backed proposal that North Korea stop further developing nuclear weapons and cease missile testing, and in exchange the United States would stop carrying out aggressive military maneuvers like flying nuclear-capable bombers on the North Korean border.
“Those would be confidence-building measures,” he said.
Although he doesn’t think the North Koreans have developed the intercontinental ballistic missiles needed to strike the United States, if they continue carrying out tests they could reach that possibility soon. That, he said, is why the Chinese proposal is so appealing.
“My sense is that the real key player here will be China,” Eleonora Mattiacci, an assistant professor of political science at Amherst College, said. “That’s really the actor who will make the difference, and the United States is kind of cornered.”
However, she said that shouldn’t necessarily mean drawing back on military exercises in the region.
“The problem with it is that the United States has a commitment to keep its allies safe — South Korea and Japan,” she said. Without U.S. assurances, she said, those countries might consider developing their own nuclear weapons.
Despite the obvious concerns that ratcheted-up tensions pose, however, Mattiacci said there may be a silver lining that comes from this moment: a renewed commitment to multilateral efforts to ensure nuclear nonproliferation.
“I think this will be a turning point for the way in which we think of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapon acquisition,” she said.
Dusty Christensen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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