Gerald F. Seib
A tentative move toward diplomacy over the confrontation with North Korea has begun, though that hardly means the tension is evaporating.
In a village on their heavily militarized border, North and South Korean officials opened talks Tuesday, ostensibly over possible North Korean participation in the coming South Korean Olympics. South Korea would like the talks to expand beyond that, toward finding broader ways to lower tensions.
But as just one sign of how fraught the situation remains, simply consider this: U.S. officials are quietly debating whether it’s possible to mount a limited military strike against North Korean sites without igniting an all-out war on the Korean Peninsula.
The idea is known as the “bloody nose” strategy: React to some nuclear or missile test with a targeted strike against a North Korean facility to bloody Pyongyang’s nose and illustrate the high price the regime could pay for its behavior. The hope would be to make that point without inciting a full-bore reprisal by North Korea.
It’s an enormously risky idea, and there is a debate among Trump administration officials about whether it is feasible. North Koreans have a vast array of artillery tubes pointed across the demilitarized zone at Seoul, the capital of South Korea, with which they could inflict thousands of casualties within minutes if they choose to unleash an all-out barrage.
Now, that danger is coupled with the risk that the North Koreans could attempt to use a nuclear weapon if they choose to escalate in retaliation against even a single strike.
Such a debate reflects how tense the situation remains, even though North Korea has scaled back the pace of its provocative actions in recent weeks and opened the door to diplomacy.
Tuesday’s talks marked the first high-level dialogue between the Koreas in two years. After almost a year of regular provocations from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, they are the first real sign that a diplomatic track is possible to begin de-escalating tensions over his nuclear and missile programs.
A key question is whether the conversation can expand beyond the Olympics to include other topics Seoul wants to discuss, notably reunification of Korean families split between North and South, and a general lowering of hostility.
Even if that happens, though, the diplomatic move needed to really start dialing back tensions would be conversations between North Korea and the U.S. That possibility seems stuck in a long-distance dance between Pyongyang and Washington, with each side making opening bids the other finds unacceptable.
North Korea wants the U.S. to forswear joint military activities with South Korea in advance of talks, while the U.S. insists the goal of talks should be to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, not merely contain it. Each side finds the other’s conditions unacceptable.
Indeed, diplomats suspect North Korea’s engagement with South Korea is an attempt to drive a wedge between Seoul and its American allies, thereby reducing the possibility the U.S. could take any kind of military action against Pyongyang.
Efforts are under way to broaden the diplomatic opening beyond Tuesday’s intra-Korean conversation. Jonathan Powell, a former chief of staff to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, has offered to help try to get broader conversations going, three people in the diplomatic community said.
And Jeffrey Feltman, an American diplomat now serving as U.N. under secretary-general for political affairs, recently traveled to North Korea to explore diplomatic possibilities. But Mr. Feltman returned alarmed at what he found in Pyongyang, where he sensed little interest in either talks with the U.S. or moving off the North’s current nuclear track, say those who have talked with him.
Within the Trump administration, officials say, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis remain focused on trying to get a broader diplomatic effort under way to rein in the North Korean nuclear program. National security adviser H.R. McMaster is arguing more vocally, publicly and privately, that military options need to be considered.
The wild card, as in all things in the Trump administration, is President Donald Trump himself. He signaled his own interest in a diplomatic track in the past. But he has also seemed to disavow Mr. Tillerson’s overtures on negotiations. And his recent tweet—asserting he has a “bigger” nuclear button than does Mr. Kim—is, in the words of one experienced diplomat, the equivalent of “waving a red flag before a bull.”
The U.S. hasn’t done the kind of logistical preparations needed for a full-blown conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Still, as the talk of a “bloody nose” option suggests, that doesn’t mean one can’t happen.
Thanks to the Olympics and the intra-Korean diplomatic opening, the next few months figure to be relatively calm. But depending on whether the diplomatic opening widens or not, mid-2018 could be a time of reckoning.
Write to Gerald F. Seib at email@example.com