Michael KreponNuclear Risk-Reduction on the Korean Peninsula

Lyric of the week:

“Don’t want to die in a Super 8 Motel just because somebody’s evening didn’t go so well”  — Jason Isbell, “Super 8” in the Southeastern album

Every nuclear weapon awaits a set of circumstances that could produce truly awful headlines. An accident waiting to happen. A failure in safety or security measures. A possibility of theft and unauthorized use. A horrific case of misperception or over-reaction. All of this, and more, is why the goal of an eventual denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula — and everywhere else — is important. I get it. I’m in favor. I’m an optimist that progress can be made.

I’m also a realist. Abolition is a desired end state, when international relations bear little resemblance to the world in which we live. The capping, reduction and dismantlement of Pyongyang’s capabilities will take time. Denuclearization will proceed only to the extent that the threats and anxieties that have generated North Korea’s nuclear offset subside. I am therefore shocked — as shocked as Captain Reynaud, Cluade Rains’s wearily knowing character in Casablanca — that North Korea has built heretofore secret satellite missile operating bases to try to protect itself from pre-emptive strikes. The interested public now knows what the U.S. Intelligence Community has previously known. Deterrence has its logical imperatives that will proceed unless progress is made to reduce the likelihood of war.

Despite the Nonproliferation Treaty, proliferation is a stubborn phenomenon of international relations. It usual proceeds in slow motion. Absent progress toward denuclearization, North Korea’s deterrent is likely to advance hedging strategies elsewhere, especially if U.S. alliance relationships and friendships in Asia erode even further.

For this elemental reason among others, it is essential to reduce prospects for war on the Korean Peninsula. This is why steps like the removal of landmines along the 38th parallel by North and South Korean soldiers, the establishment of no fly zones near the DMZ, and increased trade across the Korean divide are important symbolic gestures. Conventional threat reduction, normalization of ties and denuclearization can proceed in tandem or fail in tandem.

Let’s give Donald Trump his due, even if this is disorienting: By breaking normal diplomatic protocol and by deciding to meet with Kim Jong Un, he has set in motion developments that could make a war on the Korean Peninsula more remote. He has freed South Korean President Moon Jae-in to advance prospects for peacemaking. He has set in motion confidence-building, nuclear risk-reduction and tension-reduction measures between the two Koreas. He has unwittingly damaged his “maximum pressure” posture, loosening sanctions by China and Russia. He has opened the possibility, finally, for an end to the Korean War. This, too, can proceed in stages.

What is unfolding is far from the script that hard-liners in the Trump administration had in mind. It discomforts high-ranking U.S. Government officials. But here we are: Trump prompts unintended consequences, good and bad, with the best of them. We are a long distance from his early exchange of bellicose statements between Trump and Kim Jong Un. To return to them would be to acknowledge a major screw-up that can’t persuasively be fobbed off on underlings. Donald Trump doesn’t acknowledge major screw-ups of his own, so perhaps there will be room for further reductions in tensions on the Korean Peninsula, even if it goes against hawking instincts.

Yes, this situation can still go terribly wrong. There is no need to count the ways. We are a long way away from peace on the Korean Peninsula. There will be ups and downs, but perhaps the downs will be more manageable now. Deterrence can still help prevent worst cases. At least for the near term, the beat of war drums has receded. And there are many more steps now under consideration to muffle them further.

The last time I looked, U.S. troops are still deployed in war-torn areas of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria without persuasive exit strategies. Previous presidents and their hawkish advisers have bequeathed many Thanksgivings far away from home to  U.S. servicemen and women. Adding the Korean Peninsula to this list of on-going wars would be irresponsible as well as extremely dangerous. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has expressed misgivings that South Korea’s leadership is getting ahead of itself, or rather, ahead of Washington in seeking détente. But we all know who let this cat out of the bag. Washington is now a bystander to as well as a participant in events on the Korean Peninsula.


  1. John (History)

    “Conventional threat reduction, normalization of ties and denuclearization can proceed in tandem or fail in tandem.” Well said, Michael! That was also what the Joint Statement from the June Summit agreed too!

    To break the current stalemate in the US-North Korea talks, it seems imperative that the US should pivot to “maximum engagement” policy to build mutual trust by encouraging inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation as well as lifting some of the harsh US sanctions imposed on North Korea. Maximum pressure policy is unrealistic and counter-productive at this time!