The US and South Korean governments continue to use the carrot and stick approach in their dealings with malcontent North Korea. After a quasi-breakthrough at the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum last month over North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, the harsh rhetoric and tit-for-tat diplomatic games persist between the two sides.
This week, the United States and South Korea launched another joint military exercise aimed at mitigating a potential protracted conflict with the North. Both sides want to maintain the stick part of the policy, especially in light of the recent exchange of fire between the navies of Seoul and Pyongyang. North Korea has reacted with indignation and veiled threats about a resumption of hostilities. The state news outlet, the Korean Central News Agency, released a statement claiming that the country is ‘ready for both dialogue and war.’
Last week, Japan’s Asahi Shimbun reported that last year’s war games simulated a ‘snatch and grab’ of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il. The report claimed that the capture scenario was practised as a defensive measure aimed at quickly ending hostilities in the event that North Korea attempts a quick strike offensive on Seoul, and said a similar plan could be looked at this year. Under tactical plan 5027, a joint team of US-South Korean Special Forces would allegedly find and capture Kim and negotiate an end to the conflict with the decapitated government in Pyongyang.
The Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise is taking place mostly through the use of computers, and focuses on testing command and control abilities. But the leaked capture plan suggests another move by Washington and Seoul to ensure that they don’t fall into another embarrassing set of talks with North Korea only to once again end up with egg on their face.
In 1994, US diplomats thought they had achieved a peace dividend on the Korean Peninsula when they formalized a grand bargain, the Agreed Framework, aimed at neutering the North’s nuclear weapons programme. However, history has taught us a different lesson—that this is a truculent regime pitted against a well-intentioned but divided US and South Korea partnership that keeps kicking the can down the road.
This all comes against the backdrop of a relatively optimistic few weeks, following positive diplomatic signals made over the speeding up of a resolution of the North’s nuclear weapons programme. At the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) last month in Indonesia, nuclear negotiators from both Seoul and Pyongyang met on the margins of the meetings and agreed to look at ways to get back to the table.
Moreover, after the ARF concluded, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan visited New York and met US special envoy Stephen Bosworth to explore ways to restart the Six-Party talks, stalled due to the North’s bellicose actions, including last year’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan.
In the meantime, Pyongyang remains transfixed on securing benefits from the United States and South Korea while still maintaining its nuclear weapons capacity—a formula that just doesn’t compute for diplomats in Seoul and Washington.