Stories by Daniel Russel, diplomat

Expert Voices

How the Winter Olympics are shaping diplomacy with North Korea

Kim Jong-un delivered his 2018 New Year's speech at an undisclosed location, as seen in this picture from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency. Photo: AFP / KCNA via KNS

Kim Jong-un's New Year's speech, in which he boasted about a nuclear launch button on his desk, mixed bluster toward the U.S. with overtures to South Korea. While threatening an attack, he also offered enticements around inter-Korean talks, aiming to split Seoul off from its allies on sanctions by exploiting South Korean President Moon Jae-in's anxieties around next month's winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

In the past, Pyongyang's pattern has been to escalate tensions, offer minor conciliations, collect concessions, and repeat the process. The key to breaking this unproductive cycle and compelling North Korea into credible negotiations over its nuclear program — the purpose of the sanctions — is unity among allies. South Korea certainly has unique stakes, but engagement will not end well if Seoul parts company with Washington and Tokyo.

Given North Korea's aggressive posture, a military response can't be ruled out, which is why the U.S. has kept 28,000 troops on the Korean Peninsula. Nevertheless, the high costs of military action make diplomacy the preferred route.

The bottom line: Testing Kim's willingness to engage with the South and forego provocations through the Olympics makes sense, but bribing Pyongyang in exchange for "good" behavior would be a mistake.

Daniel Russel is the diplomat in residence at the Asia Society Policy Institute and a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

Expert Voices

Fear and loathing on China’s border with North Korea

The Friendship Bridge connects Dandong, China, and Sinuiju, North Korea. Photo: Andy Wong / AP

Along China's side of the 900-mile border it shares with North Korea, tension and resentment of the neighboring regime are slowly building.

The economy in China's underdeveloped Northeast, which lags far behind the prosperous urban centers, has taken a huge hit due to sanctions. Where do locals place the blame? While they fear military action by President Trump, their anger is directed squarely at Kim Jong-un, whom they hold responsible for heightened friction.

In the border city of Dandong, where shop signs are in Korean and local vendors sell North Korean cigarettes and beer, traffic and trade have dwindled, though the Friendship Bridge across the Yalu River is not quite closed, despite claims by central authorities in Beijing. Ambitious development projects begun in partnership with Kim Jong-un's China-friendly uncle, Jang Song-taek, were shelved after Jang was executed for "counter-revolutionary" activities.

Meanwhile, fears of basic security still loom over these communities. A local newspaper recently published a primer for residents on how to deal with radioactive fallout from an accident or airstrike against North Korean nuclear sites.

Why it matters: As China's old alliance with North Korea erodes and its fear of nuclear fallout grows, there is an opportunity for meaningful U.S.–China cooperation to stop the threat from Kim Jong-un.

Expert Voices

The possibility of a warning shot

From our Expert Voices conversation on war with North Korea.

It would be wrong to say there are no military options for dealing with North Korea. But it is fair to say that no military option is without risk to U.S. and allied interests. What we — and Kim Jong Un — need to keep in mind, however, is that his nuclear ICBM program, combined with his refusal to negotiate, are narrowing the risk gap between doing nothing and taking action.

What types of military actions might precipitate compromise, not catastrophe? Perhaps one is a sharp, short "warning shot" fracturing North Korean complacency while discouraging retaliation — the equivalent of the horse's head on the pillow that "makes Kim an offer he can't refuse". Perhaps another would be the demonstration of a game-changing new military technology. (Think DARPA's special "liquid lasers" — essentially a Sci-Fi Ray Gun capability so advanced that it could neutralize Pyongyang's missiles, rockets and artillery.) Negotiations might look better to the Young General at that point.

Bottom line: Such options are a bit far-fetched and neither is risk free. Remember: although the immensely capable U.S. Military is ready to "fight tonight," its mission is to prevent war, not to start one.

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