Reasonableness must prevail
If doing so didn’t carry such a huge risk, it would be tempting to simply ignore North Korea and its new leader, Kim Jong Un. After all, Kim must surely recognize that if he were to carry out his repeated threats to launch a nuclear weapon against his country’s perceived enemies he’d be virtually guaranteeing his, and his nation’s, own demise.
But what if he truly doesn’t recognize that? What if he actually believes his own message? That’s the problem, and it’s a huge one for the United States, South Korea, Japan and even China.
Not enough is known about young Kim (he’s thought to be about 30 years old) to be able to judge with confidence whether he’s irrational or merely engaged in a carefully constructed propaganda stunt designed to convince the nation’s military that, despite his youth, he’s a bold and effective leader.
And so this past week Secretary of State John Kerry paid visits to South Korea, Japan and China, all key players in any solution to the North Korea problem. In Beijing, he was hoping to persuade Chinese leaders to apply pressure on Kim to dial back his barrage of bellicosity and lower the danger of a major miscalculation. And as North Korea’s neighbor and worried ally, China is critical to any solution to the present problem.
Sunday, in Japan, Kerry said the United States was prepared to reach out to Kim but only if he made the first move.
“We need the appropriate moment, appropriate circumstance,” Kerry told reporters, and although he did not specify what he believed that first move should be, it has long been understood that the United States wants North Korea to publicly commit to abandoning its nuclear ambitions and to stop threatening its neighbors.
The United States recently canceled military exercises and softened the tone of its statements about the North Korean situation in a bid to create a better atmosphere for talks with Kim.
“What we really ought to be talking about is the possibility of peace,” Kerry said during a joint news conference with Fumio Kishid, Japan’s foreign minister. “And I think there are those possibilities.”
Kerry earlier had warned that North Korea’s belligerent behavior threatens the entire Pacific region. China’s chief foreign policy official, Yang Jiechi, called for an end of the tension through peaceful dialogue.
If Kim interprets such diplomatic language correctly, he’ll recognize Yang’s words as a clear warning that his nation’s only friend, economically and militarily, does not want him doing anything that might trigger a new Asian war. But can the inexperienced Kim read those diplomatic tea leaves correctly?
“People in the region understand what the balance of power is in the situation,” an optimistic Kerry said at the end of his day of meetings with President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders. “Everybody is hoping that reasonableness will prevail.” But is Kim part of that “everybody”?
China also declared that a new missile launch by the North Koreans would be “unwanted and unwarranted,” according to Kerry.
Nearly four years after the last international negotiations involving China and the United States ended in failure, it is encouraging at least that there is talk about scheduling a new set of talks, with South Korea included, in a bid to reduce tensions in the region.
That’s all to the good. But unless the seemingly immature North Korean agrees to Kerry’s terms, or until the world’s diplomats develop far more confidence in their reading of Kim Jong Un’s behavior and thinking patterns, the tensions will remain dangerously high.