Pyongyang and Washington’s war of words — where does it end?

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Tensions between Washington and Pyongyang are higher than usual due to North Korea’s recent threats to fire four missiles into waters near the American territory of Guam in the South Pacific.

US President Donald Trump’s fiery rhetoric has added to the mix, not helped by the fact he’s unpopular with much of America’s media and that his approach to foreign policy is – at best – unconventional.

However, without trying to defend his policies and performance, let’s consider some facts and context. First, periods of intense tension involving the US on the Korean Peninsula are not new. Three examples:

January 1968, North Korean commandos attempted to assassinate the South Korean president. Two days later, North Korea seized the US Navy vessel Pueblo in international waters, killing one US sailor and holding 82 other Americans hostage for eleven months.

April 1969, North Korean jet fighters shot down a US Navy EC-121 in international waters well off the east coast of North Korea, killing all 31 crewmembers on board.

April 1976, North Korean soldiers attacked a joint South Korean–American work team in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, murdering two US Army officers.

Such events generated a strong response, including displays of American military might, but no hostile military action was taken. Things eventually cooled back down to what is considered normal for relations between Washington–Seoul and Pyongyang.

The reasons for Kim Jong Un’s current bellicosity include new and stringent sanctions by the United Nations that may have the regime truly worried. Though following through on the sanctions is the next step.

Another reason is Pyongyang’s desire for dialog with Washington. In spurning any formal talks with the North, President Trump is unwittingly engaging in what I have called “The Dance” with North Korea.

Step 1   North Korea wants or needs something.
Step 2  North Korea creates tension to get attention.
Step 3  The US and its allies initially ignore the activity.
Step 4  North Korea adds tension with violent act or extreme rhetoric.
Step 5  The US pays attention and some discussion begins.
Step 6  North Korea agrees to stop what its doing to get what it wants.
Step 7  North Korea then invents a way to not honor its commitment.
Step 8  When needs or wants arise again, the dance begins anew.

This time, what the North wants is recognition as a nuclear power and a credible peace treaty with the US. That means Washington would have to deal with Pyongyang as a peer, an unlikely happening.

In any case, what the US would want in exchange for a peace treaty — a freeze of the North’s nuclear and missiles programs — may no longer be possible. Given Pyongyang’s progress, it is unlikely the regime would give it up.

So this time round, Pyongyang and Washington appear to be dancing to different tunes and for the first time, an American president is responding to North Korean provocations in the same register. Heated oratory and military chest-thumping do little to ease tensions.

Nonetheless, considering that Pyongyang and Washington are involved in backchannel communications where cooler heads are needed, Trump’s posturing may be for domestic consumption, just as is the case with Kim Jong Un’s rantings.

Another view harks back to how US President Richard Nixon cultivated an appearance of being irrational when dealing with Hanoi during negotiations to end the Vietnam War. The so-called “Mad man” tactic.

To the degree that Nixon’s tactic worked — not all agree that it did — it was because the North Vietnamese could not figure out whether Nixon really intended to act on his threats.

Trump could be taking a page from the Nixon playbook, since traditional diplomatic approaches have not worked in the past decades of dealing with Pyongyang. Perhaps this “standing tall and in your face” tack could hardly do worse — if words remain the only weapons.

Kim Jong Un — no matter how unpredictable and irrational he seems to his opponents — is quite sane.

Kim Jong Un — no matter how unpredictable and irrational he seems to his opponents — is quite sane.

His ultimate personal goal is to continue as the all-powerful ruler of his domain with everything that position entails. He will do nothing to jeopardize that.

With regards to Washington initiating hostilities, given the certainty that Seoul would suffer grievous damage, that too is unlikely.

Thus, while waiting for Washington to agree to negotiations, the Pyongyang regime will continue to work on perfecting its miniaturized nuclear devices and its embryonic reentry vehicles for an intercontinental missile.

It is important to recognize that this is no sudden crisis. What we are seeing now is the result of a journey that started nearly three decades ago.

At some point, the US and North Korea will have to sit down for discussions on the current situation, but the longer that Washington waits to engage, the better the North Korean position will be.

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