The crisis on the Korean Peninsula is a real-life Game of Thrones, full of intrigue, duplicity, danger and unpredictable plot twists. As the Korean script was marching inexorably toward a climactic battle scene at the end of 2017, brought on by a rumored U.S. preventive attack, the writers suddenly ended the season on a cliffhanger.
The 2018 season began with a missive of friendship from the king in the north to his compatriots in the south who eagerly grasped at the opportunity to avert the impending clash of armies. A new, unexpected sense of peace broke out on the peninsula as two opposing kings engaged diplomatically through emissaries. A third king stared across the Narrow Sea and wondered nervously what his ally is up to.
The media touted Pyongyang’s Olympic charm offensive as more successful than Vice President Mike Pence’s glowering face of resolve and his refusal to even acknowledge the presence of North Korea’s delegation. Pence’s mission was to counter the media adulation of North Korea and remind its potentially wayward South Korean ally of the true nature of its neighbor.
Pence drew criticism from some South Koreans who perceived him as the ill-mannered guest glumly casting a dark cloud over an important event — like a wedding guest casting aspersions on the bride. The U.S. was once again faulted for refusing to pursue a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis.
If only, it was argued, Washington would drop its outrageous preconditions and simply talk with the regime. It’s a well-worn trope that misdirects the blame for escalating tensions and the repeated failure of dialogue and negotiations. The responsibility for the North Korean nuclear crisis lies with…. wait for it… North Korea.
Turns out the Olympian Game of Thrones writers had another clever plot twist up their sleeve. The U.S. king wasn’t as isolated as he appeared — since he sent a real-life Davos Seaworth to serve as a secret emissary to the north.
Though a fierce a critic of North Korea, Vice President Pence was still willing to meet with the leader’s sister, who is on the U.S. sanctions list for North Korea’s human rights violations that the UN Commission of Inquiry deemed to be “crimes against humanity.” North Korea cancelled the secret meeting two hours before it was to occur.
Pyongyang’s rejection of dialogue is typical. There have been countless attempts by successive U.S. administrations to reach out to North Korea, only to have them rejected. Contrary to then-candidate Barack Obama’s depiction of George W. Bush’s administration as eight years of neoconservative refusal to talk with North Korea, Bush actively engaged in four years of eventually fruitless attempts at dialogue and negotiations.
President Obama then extended an open hand of dialogue in 2009, only to have Pyongyang quickly reject that entreaty with missile and nuclear tests. The regime showed it would act as badly to liberal Obama as to conservative Bush. The same scenario played out more recently with Pyongyang initially rejecting progressive South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s pleading for dialogue as it had rejected attempts by his conservative predecessors.
It was Pyongyang that closed the New York Channel, the last means of official bilateral communication with Washington, until the regime reopened it to facilitate the return of the comatose and dying Otto Warmbier. Until this year’s charm offensive, North Korea even refused to pick up the phone of the military hotlines in the Joint Security Area and the West Sea.
So, to all those advocates of dialogue and negotiations, including in Beijing, the U.S. has tried time and time again, only to be rejected by North Korea who is determined to remain in defiance of the international community. While Washington should continue its outreach efforts, it must integrate them into a comprehensive strategy of deterrence, containment, increased pressure, non-proliferation, confronting human rights violations, and law enforcement.
The U.S. and its allies must also deploy sufficiently robust military forces to defend themselves, but not initiate a recklessly provocative preventive attack. Launching a military strike without any indication that a North Korean attack is imminent, would be starting a war to prevent a war. As Otto von Bismarck observed: “Preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death.”
We can be grateful for the temporary reduction in tensions on the Korean Peninsula. But we need to realize that these Olympics are like being on a carefree vacation in which worries and responsibilities can temporarily be forgotten. Eventually, we have to return to the real world.
As the sporting events and inter-Korean dialogue take place, the menacing army in the North continues to quietly build up its military, included a fiery threat from above. The Winter Olympics may almost be over, but as Ned Stark warned, the real winter is coming.
Bruce Klingner is a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org). He previously served as the CIA’s deputy division chief for Korea.