What would ‘detente’ with North Korea look like?

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A security guard intervenes as Howard, 37, an Australian-Chinese who is impersonating North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and Dennis Alan of Chicago, 66, who is impersonating President Donald Trump, pose outside US Consulate in Hong Kong. Photo: Reuters/Bobby Yip

Is “detente” possible between North Korea and the US with regard to the nuclear crisis – and if so, what might the contours of such an agreement be?

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said this week that Washington would be willing to hold talks with Pyongyang without preconditions and North Korea has hinted vaguely that it might come to the table now that it has developed a credible nuclear deterrent.

Would US President Donald Trump’s administration agree to recognize North Korea’s independence and sovereignty and offer other unspecified guarantees in exchange for concessions by Pyongyang on nuclear weapons?

Scott A. Snyder, a senior fellow and director of the US-Korea policy program at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, tells Asia Times in an interview that the outlook for detente is still dicey. But he says the most likely scenario involves the two antagonists “agreeing to disagree” on denuclearization of the peninsula, while moving to reduce conventional tensions on issues like US-South Korean military exercises.

Snyder, who is the author of South Korea at the Crossroads: Autonomy and Alliance in an Era of Rival Powers, says engaging in such incremental diplomacy could lead to wider detente.

Self-interest in averting a catastrophe, especially on South Korea’s part, will be critical in finding solutions. But Snyder warns the North’s insistence on developing and possessing nukes remains a basic stumbling block and that war, through miscalculation, remains a distinct possibility.

Is it possible that the US and its allies will agree to “detente” with North Korea given its progress in conducting successful ICBM and nuclear tests?

I believe that there is a widespread recognition that continuing the current provocation and reaction cycle between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is heightening the risk of miscalculation that could lead to war and that it is in the interest of all sides to take a deep breath and establish a framework for managing the situation.

Scott A. Snyder

Scott A. Snyder

South Korea, often overlooked in the war of words between the United States and North Korea, has a special interest in averting unnecessary conflict. In this respect, I agree with UN Undersecretary (Jeffrey) Feltman’s emphasis on the need to establish effective channels of communication as a necessary first step toward reducing risks of war by miscalculation.

If it happens, what would such a detente agreement look like?

The DPRK has long called for the United States to reduce its hostility toward North Korea, but at the same time it has been unilaterally pursuing aggressive actions clearly intended to target the United States. Any pursuit of detente would involve mutual reduction of hostility. But the nuclear issue remains a fundamental stumbling block on which both sides have diametrically opposing positions.

Pursuit of detente would most likely involve agreeing to disagree on denuclearization while identifying areas where mutual tension-reduction steps might be feasible. The most promising area for discussion would involve an easing of conventional tensions on the peninsula. As a practical matter, the right atmosphere for such talks would likely involve a DPRK commitment to show restraint on nuclear and missile testing.

Could Chinese/Russian proposals advocating a “freeze for freeze” be viable in initiating talks between the US, its allies and North Korea for a detente agreement?

I do not see the United States as likely to take up the “freeze for freeze” proposal, and the North Koreans also appear to have walked away from it despite the fact that the proposal is a derivation of a proposal originally floated by the North Koreans.

Would the US agree to recognize North Korea as a nuclear weapons state?

The United States will not formally recognize North Korea as a nuclear weapons state because such recognition would undermine the Nonproliferation Treaty and undermine South Korean confidence in US extended deterrence commitments to protect South Korea from North Korean nuclear capabilities.

Given the history and unpredictability of North Korea’s negotiations on the nuke issue, could Pyongyang be trusted to honor a detente agreement with the US and its allies?

The viability of such an agreement would not be based on trust, but on a convergence of interests that provides a basis for self-restraint and tangible mutual benefits that derive from reduced tensions. Otherwise, the agreement would probably not be sustainable.

What long-term challenges do you see if North Korea and the US agree to detente?

The risks of achieving detente involve the ability of the two sides to identify and act on identifiable common interests despite a long-standing history of mutual hostility. The risks of sustaining detente involve the possibility that one side might benefit disproportionately from the benefits of a temporary pause, then decide to pocket those benefits through a renewal of hostilities and an establishment of a more favorable, new status quo.

Is war still possible on the Korean peninsula?

A state of war has continued on the Korean peninsula despite a long-standing cessation of hostilities. In this respect, the Korean conflict has been a frozen conflict.

If the US national security advisor perceives the risks of war on the Korean peninsula as increasing daily, then it is reasonable to conclude that the risk of renewed military conflict is not only likely but growing on the Korean peninsula. Instability on the Korean peninsula continues to derive from the asymmetry in power between the United States and North Korea.

The current danger is that North Korea may overestimate the ability of nuclear and missile capabilities acquisition to fill the power gap between the two countries, while the United States may miscalculate North Korean resolve.

Doug Tsuruoka is Editor-at-Large of Asia Times

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