In an interview with New York Times last month, William Perry, the defense secretary in former president Bill Clinton’s administration, expressed his deep concern and great disappointment to the “escalation course” between the United States and North Korea.
“In a sense, we are sleepwalking into a war, and I think that’s a dangerous situation,” Perry said.
The interview also pointed that there was a possibility of coming into an agreement between Pyongyang and Washington, but after that “a funny thing” happened, which is called the “U.S. election.”
Today, the current situation on the Korean peninsula is being blundered for a number of complex causes, or more specifically, political excuses. With no negotiations going on, the United States and North Korea are firing verbal volleys at each other, virtually making the world believe that a war is an option. But there will be no winner after a war should the whole situation collapse. Nevertheless, at least technically, Pyongyang has gained more in the protracted game, and the ‘price” for any re-opened negotiation might have already gone sky-high.
How did it come to this? As a key player in the protracted game, the United States of course has a role. North Korea has been playing a completely asymmetric game with the United States. Since the 1990s, it has mobilized a large proportion of its national resources to further its nuclear program as a coercion strategy against threats from the United States. North Korea has remained one of the “issues” on the U.S. global geopolitical map.
Moreover, overall inconsistency in Washington’s North Korea policies since the 1990s might have helped to generate some unexpected outcomes. During Bill Clinton’s administration, the United States generally adopted a policy of “limited engagement,” and there was the “Agreed Framework of 1994” between North Korea and the United States. However, George Bush’s administration put a stop to all former talks and insisted on labeling North Korea’s regime as part of the “Axis of Evil.” Out of all the responses from North Korea, the most significant were its withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 and a first nuclear test in October 2006. While Barack Obama and his officials focused on “strategic patience,” Pyongyang tested its nuclear devises four times (May 2009, February 2013, January 2016, and September 2016) and withdrew from the Six-Party Talks in 2009. Donald Trump’s strategy toward North Korea has been dubbed “maximum pressure”; North Korea, however, has responded with another nuclear test in September and more frequent missile launches.
Although some of the above policy changes and the outcomes may not always be strictly ‘paired-up,’ it does not mean that they are completely independent of each other. In other words, although more rigorous studies are needed to prove the causal effect between the above policy inconsistency and the outcomes in North Korea, the appearance of correlations exists.
Foreign policies can, of course, be changed. But the above inconsistency seems to indicate that these policy changes and adaptations by the White House in the past years are often nonlinear, and thus it might bring about unexpected and negative outcomes at the other end. By contrast, North Korea’s nuclear strategy has been more linear and predictable to a degree.
China, another party in the issue, has never changed its grand strategy and policies toward the Korean peninsula, and it has always emphasized the importance of peaceful solutions including direct talks and constructive negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington. But the current situation is different: In 1999, North Korea would talk about its “right” to proceed in their nuclear development; today, with the nuclear program they have in hand they would naturally and definitely ask for more.
In 1999, Donald Trump was asked about the escalation between the United States and North Korea in a Meet the Press interview. He said, “First, I’d negotiate. I’d negotiate like crazy and I’d make sure that we’d try to get the best deal possible.”
However, in 2017, in his response to North Korea’s rhetoric and tests, the formerly proposed “negotiation” turned into “fire and fury.” The “funny” part is that when two leaders start calling each other names, like “Rocket Man” and “Dotard,” the situation seems to get a little more bewilderingly personal. Personal hatred among state leaders can be rather devastating at critical moments in the history. Hence, the question remains, if these men are brave enough to go to war, why aren’t they brave enough to shake hands and start to talk?