How the United States and South Korea Can Avoid Fatal Diplomatic Missteps on the Korean Peninsula

ROK's chief delegate Chun Hae-sung (right) shakes hands with his DPRK counterpart Kim Song-hye during the working-level meeting at Panmunjom on Sunday. Image: ROK Ministry of Unification

The Korean Peninsula seems to have calmed down after months of heated tension among all parties involved. Indeed, recent events may suggest that neither Korean state is willing to risk an all-out war that would prove deadly. That both the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) held talks at Panmunjŏm last week may augur a starting point from which, according to the Associated Press, “tension is easing.” However, any optimism should be tempered in light of North Korea’s well-established track record of avoiding—or outright ignoring—negotiation overtures from South Korea.

As Lt. Col. Roger Cavazos and Peter Hayes of the Nautilus Institute noted, inconsistent approaches by all parties involved may eventually backfire and even derail any chance for reconciliation because they may lead to miscommunication whereby parties involved are “not talking to each other but rather, past each other.” Should miscommunication problems and distrust persist, the consequences for the Korean Peninsula and the regional security environment may be dire. A breakdown in communication, followed by possible limited armed skirmishes, could also provide new impetus and outside pressure to bear on both Koreas.

During a crowd-sourced geostrategic simulation entitled “Korean Conflict Pathways,” a team of analysts at Wikistrat explored what may happen if attempts by the US-ROK alliance to extend an olive branch to Kim Jŏng-ŭn backfire. According to this scenario, Kim Jŏng-ŭn, who is frustrated by what he believes to be inconsistent demands of the US-ROK alliance between offers to negotiate and insulting remarks about his “outrageous demands,” may lash out against the ROK military installation situated along the contested Northern Limit Line (NLL), setting in motion a full-fledged war. Jeong Lee and other analysts who worked on this scenario speculated that in such case, the United States and China might work together with Russia and Japan to bring the two Koreas to the negotiating table because they do not wish to be mired in a deadly regional conflict. Therefore, what may ultimately result is a mutual recognition of sovereignty between two Korean states after a devastating conflict. Simply stated, both Korean states may learn to peacefully coexist. Indeed, the potential outcomes of this simulation may reflect the possibility in which “neither the U.S. nor China is ready to see the strategic landscape in Asia changed in a fundamental way [by the recent Korean crisis].”

The aforementioned simulation scenario also revealed that North Korean threats, such as those most recently seen between March and May this year, are intended as much for internal consumption as they are for extracting concessions from the international community. If miscalculations are to be avoided, one must be always mindful of this factor because Western analyses on the inter-Korean security dynamics still do not factor sufficiently into consideration Kim Jŏng-ŭn’s need to save face and fully consolidate his grip on the Korean People’s Army.

How can the US-ROK alliance and other East Asian countries successfully bring Kim Jŏng-ŭn to the negotiating table? One way of doing this, as argued previously, is to “cajole and flatter the young ruler… [by] allowing Kim Jŏng-ŭn to save face as sovereign ruler of his country.” The US-ROK alliance could help Kim Jŏng-ŭn save face by “accepting his offers to discuss arms reduction first” in addition to holding further talks. That both Koreas have agreed to a “meeting between responsible authorities” this week may be seen as a step towards that direction. Secondly, to prevent a catastrophic regional war, the US-ROK alliance could grant formal diplomatic recognition to the DPRK as a sovereign state.

These diplomatic measures may be crucial in helping the DPRK’s Supreme Leader to save face as he continues to cement his position internally, although they alone may not suffice to prevent potential miscommunications among parties involved. Further, such measures could enable the DPRK to become a responsible member of the international community as it seeks to redirect its focus away from its Sŏn’gun (Military First) policy to economic development.

As ongoing tensions on the Korean peninsula continue to trouble security dynamics in East Asia, preventing miscommunication with Kim Jŏng-ŭn should remain a priority not only for the US-ROK alliance but also for neighboring states. However, should a complete breakdown in communication between Seoul and Pyongyang ultimately occur, a possible solution might be that China and the United States, together with Russia and Japan, jointly apply pressure on both Koreas in order to avoid a destructive regional war.

Jeong Lee is a freelance international security blogger living in Pusan, South Korea and is also a Contributing Analyst for Wikistrat’s Asia-Pacific Desk. In addition to his regular contribution for GJIA Online, Lee’s writings have appeared in American Livewire, East Asia Forum, and the World Outline.

Miha Hribernik is Research Coordinator at the European Institute for Asian Studies in Brussels and an analyst at Wikistrat. He also writes for the International Security Observer and blogs at the Japan Foreign Policy Observatory. All views expressed are his own.

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11 comments to How the United States and South Korea Can Avoid Fatal Diplomatic Missteps on the Korean Peninsula by Jeong Lee and Miha Hribernik

  • [...] allowing Kim Jŏng-ŭn to save face as sovereign ruler of his country.” As Miha Hribernik and I wrote in June, one way of doing this would be to “accept his offers to discuss arms reduction first.” In [...]

  • [...] allowing Kim Jŏng-ŭn to save face as sovereign ruler of his country.” As Miha Hribernik and I wrote in June, one way of doing this would be to “accept his offers to discuss arms reduction first.” [...]

  • [...] having reached an agreement to reopen the Kaesŏng Industrial Complex. As Miha Hribernik and I wrote previously, “Should miscommunication problems and distrust persist, the consequences for the [...]

  • [...] having reached an agreement to reopen the Kaesŏng Industrial Complex. As Miha Hribernik and I wrotepreviously, “Should miscommunication problems and distrust persist, the consequences for the [...]

  • [...] having reached an agreement to reopen the Kaesŏng Industrial Complex. As Miha Hribernik and I wrote previously, “Should miscommunication problems and distrust persist, the consequences for the [...]

  • [...] having reached an agreement to reopen the Kaesŏng Industrial Complex. As Miha Hribernik and I wrote previously, “Should miscommunication problems and distrust persist, the consequences for the [...]

  • Jason Richardson-White

    Hmmm. It is sad but true, I suppose, that insincere flattery may have some impact. Perhaps so.

    We concur that it *may* be necessary to accept NK as a nuclear state.

    As to the UN, I accept your judgment on this matter, your being a professional in the area. For what it’s worth, I still wonder whether the nuclear capability isn’t best viewed as an opportunity rather than a problem. Let’s stand the problem on its head. Instead of regarding it as a trump, bring it down to the level of just one capability that makes a party worthy of respect on the international scene. (Needless to say, this sort of argument could be proposed anywhere by anyone, not just at the UN.)

    At any rate, your article is timely and of great interest, both to regional partners and to those of us abroad from the peninsula. Thanks for sharing and for giving feedback to interested readers!

  • Thanks for your comment.

    To address your comment, first, I believe that flattery could serve to lessen the current tension precisely because it encourages Kim Jŏng-ŭn’s belief that he is a BIG player on the world stage. Flattery, whether sincere or not, would induce the young ruler to open up to the rest of world because that would give him the impression that he is being taken seriously. That is in fact what Dennis Rodman did when he visited the young ruler. In the end, it is all about making him comfortable enough to come to the negotiating table any time.

    Second, precisely because Kim Jŏng-ŭn has proven to be anything but predictable and stable, you are quite right that the Cold War deterrence theory may not apply to the Korean context. After all,who would want to back down in the face of perceived humiliation, thereby, appear weak? That is why I proposed that we agree to Kim Jŏng-ŭn’s request to discuss arms reduction FIRST, then, nuclear weapons later. If all else fails, then, as you pointed out, we may have to accept the DPRK as a nuclear state.

    As to your suggestion that we go to the UN to sort things out, I doubt that this would somehow work. To begin with, it is evident that Kim Jŏng-ŭn desires recognition as an equal on a par with the United States. That may explain why the DPRK has never gone to the UN to address its grievances,and instead has resorted to provocations and threats. That may also explain why accusations of human rights violations against the DPRK have never worked. Instead of working through the UN, working through other regional powers may prove to be more effective in the long run. Let the United States, China, Russia and Japan help the DPRK by offering tangible carrots.

  • Jason Richardson-White

    I commend to your thinking two points in support of an idea.

    First, in the study of Ethics in philosophical circles, there is a saying: the best way to appear moral is to be moral. People engage constantly in so-called “disposition judgments”. How authentic are the statements being made by so-and-so? In assessing the disposition of the speaker, the listener advances rapidly beyond the bare statements to a model, internally conceived, of the speaker’s disposition.

    For these reasons, I wonder whether “flattering” is ever credible on a diplomatic scale. Surrounded by advisors, all of whom are experts at disposition judgments, it cannot fail to occur to the target that the flattery conceals a disposition of opposition and non-neutrality.

    Second, possession of nuclear arms by a party must be an overriding consideration in any scenario involving the party. From the fact that near threshold confrontations have never triggered actual nuclear assault does not mean that they might. The Cold War yields no “iron laws”. Deterrence is difficult to prove, requiring evidence for a universal negative. We do not want to be the generation which disproves the validity of deterrence as a model of the minds of nuclear actors in protracted conflict.

    More bluntly, it is well understood that risk is a probability of an event multiplied by the value of assets lost if the event occurs. In this case, risk remains high, however improbable the event of nuclear attack, because the value of the assets destroyed are so enormous.

    From this first and second points, I propose a modification of the reasonable ideas above. Instead of “flattering”, let the players — both distant and local, strategic and tactical — broach with the UN the notion of security “tiers” or “pools”. Let the UN Security Council create councils for policy recommendation consisting of nations that have, in some sense, “arrived”. Whatever one thinks of its methods, the regime in North Korea has arrived, so to speak, on the world scene vis-a-vis nuclear capability. This capability is a non-trivial element in all possible futures for all players. As it is a de facto element in our assessment of North Korea’s capabilities, let it be a de jure element in our response to its aggressions. Give NK a place at the table. It cannot approach the Security Council, because its human rights grievances forbid it. But it could be granted a status equal with other nuclear nations for its “achievement”.

    Will this encourage status-seeking by other, non-nuclear nations? Perhaps. But if we are to believe that nations are, at the limit, “persons” (in the classical Wilsonian perspective), then we must respect their sensitivity to our turning our noses up at their efforts. Even the hardiest gun fighter admits to the table the young aggressor with his six-shooter, all unstrapped. In the end, we may extract more concessions to democratization by pooling respect, giving it in pieces, for bits earned.

    North Korea has shown its capacity to sacrifice for power. Therefore, admit it. Then, let it shows its capacity for human compassion. In this way it may gain further the respect that all beings crave.