WASHINGTON – As North Korea continues its threats and missile tests while the U.S. reroutes the USS Carl Vinson and other ships toward North Korea, the tit-for-tat makes direct talks between the two countries unlikely, especially because the two leaders are trapped in their commitments to shows of strength, experts say.
As the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson heads toward an area near the Korean peninsula, North Korea has threatened to sink it and the U.S. Navy strike group surrounding it. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the era of U.S. strategic patience with North Korea is over.
After the the U.S. dropped the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan on April 14, North Korea renewed its missile tests, possibly to show that it, too, has massive fire power.
And there’s wide speculation that North Korea may carry out nuclear tests Tuesday to go along with a celebration of the anniversary of the founding of its army.
Joseph Cirincione, president of nuclear nonproliferation advocacy group the Ploughshares Fund and a professor at Georgetown University, said the U.S. needs to make a move toward negotiations with North Korea now that pressure has been put on the country.
“I’m afraid that if the United States doesn’t engage [in dialogue] with North Korea, one side or another will make a precipitous unilateral move that could ignite a military conflict unlike anything we’ve seen on this planet since the Korean war,” Cirincione said.
A one-on-one dialogue between the two coutnries would be one of the best ways to clarify their intentions and avoid misinterpretation of signals that could arise when the two sides only communicate through messages sent through the media and military moves, according to Scott Snyder, an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“The possibility of dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea has been seasonal,” Snyder said. “The U.S. and North Korea have never been able to sustain a very good dialogue in the spring because the U.S. and South Korea conduct military exercises every March.”
Direct talks between the U.S. and North Korea have made important contributions in the past. Such talks in 2003, facilitated by China, led to the six-party framework that became the main platform of dialogue for North Korea, U.S. and regional stakeholders.
“China has done this in Beijing and then the Chinese officials leave the room so that the US and North Korea can talk directly,” said Cirincione. “It helped bring about several agreements that the U.S. and North Korea have reached over the last 20 to 25 years.”
China will be indispensable in facilitating a direct dialogue, Cirincione said. “You need to have an interlocutor. … China is an essential partner in both solving the problem and the negotiation.”
But Cirincione and Snyder note that there are serious obstacles for talks to begin soon.
Snyder said that President Donald Trump would find it hard to explain to the public why talking to North Korea would not be the same as giving in to the rouge state.
Cirincione pointed out that both Kim Jong Un and Trump are trapped in their commitments of promises of force, and Trump also by his unpopularity in the polls. “Unpopular leaders often look to military adventure,” he said.
A peace treaty between North and South Korea will only come after a freeze of North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests, and a period of time with well-maintained agreements, Cirincione said.
Snyder said peaceful coexistence between the two countries would be a precondition of peaceful unification of the Korea peninsula.
A peace treaty would pose a problem for South Korea because it was not a party in the armistice agreement after the Korean war, said Snyder.
“North Korea wants to negotiate with the United States without South Korea, and it really wants to push the Unites States off the Korean peninsula,” Snyder said. South Korea will not want to be left out of the process, and it’s not prepared to have the United States leave.
“Of all the flashpoints in the world, this is the one that could lead to war,” said Cirincione. “South Koreans should be deeply worried.”