Geopolitical moves are being made on the issue of North Korea. A day after South Korea’s new government offered to hold military talks with its neighbor to the North, the United States’ second-highest ranking military official admitted Tuesday that North Korean missiles lack the accuracy to effectively target U.S. cities.
On Monday, South Korea’s defense ministry proposed that representatives from both the South and North Korean militaries meet at the border village of Panmunjom in North Korea for talks.
“We make the proposal for a meeting…aimed at stopping all hostile activities that escalate military tension along the land border,” South Korea’s defense ministry said in a statement.
The man in charge of North Korean affairs, unification minister Cho Myoung-gyon, said his country “would not seek collapse of the North or unification through absorbing the North” and suggested a positive response from Kim Jong-un’s government would represent a show of good faith.
“North Korea should respond to our sincere proposals if it really seeks peace on the Korean Peninsula,” Cho said, adding that if “North Korea chooses the right path, we would like to open the door for a brighter future for North Korea, together, by cooperating with the international community.”
The defense ministry’s overture falls in line with the approach advocated by new South Korean president Moon Jae-in, who supports diplomatic talks with the North led by South Korea.
Recently, ahead of the G20 summit in Germany, Moon stated that “the need for dialogue” with North Korea is “more pressing than ever before” because the situation had “reached the tipping point of the vicious cycle of military escalation.”
North Korea has yet to respond to the South’s proposal.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the primary driver of the “evil North Korea” narrative, United States appeared to go against the grain and actually downplayed the effectiveness of Kim Jong-un’s nuclear weapons program — or, at least, one senior official defense official did. From Reuters:
“North Korea does not have the ability to strike the United States with ‘any degree of accuracy’ and while its missiles have the range, they lack the necessary guidance capability, the vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff said on Tuesday.”
Speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General Paul Selva said North Korea’s July 4 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test showed that the country has no hope of hitting a U.S. target with any “reasonable confidence of success” and that recent talk about its ability to strike Alaska or the Pacific Northwest is overblown:
“What the experts tell me is that the North Koreans have yet to demonstrate the capacity to do the guidance and control that would be required.”
While the general’s admission isn’t on the same level as the actual act of diplomacy just demonstrated by South Korea, the fact that the U.S. military is walking back — even if only just a step or two — a narrative it fought so hard to establish is itself worthy of commentary.
So what gives? Why, in the last two days, have both the U.S. and ally South Korea suddenly taken a softer line — again, in their own ways — on the North Korea issue? Are all parties concerned about to knock off the rhetoric and allow the Hermit Kingdom to continue to fire missiles into the sea?
Not likely. As with most other issues of geopolitical significance in that region of the world, these moves likely have far more to do with China.
On Wednesday, President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet in Washington, D.C., for annual bilateral talks, this year dubbed the “U.S.-China Comprehensive Economic Dialogue.” It will be the third meeting between the two men, after Xi’s visit to Mar-a-Lago three months ago and their discussions on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Germany.
Recently, Trump reignited concern over a trade war between the U.S. and China when he said he was considering slapping import tariffs on steel. But these kinds of tactics are nothing new ahead of economic negotiations, as the Washington Post noted last Friday:
“In 1981, the Reagan administration convinced Japan to reduce the number of cars it was exporting to the United States in a bid to boost the U.S. auto sector. In 1984, the administration used the tactic again with the steel industry, as it told dozens of countries to either limit their steel shipments to the United States or lose access to the American market.”
In an article published Sunday titled “U.S.-China trade talks sputtering at 100-day deadline,” Reuters outlined how results from economic negotiations between the two countries have been less than encouraging since Trump and Xi first met at Mar-a-Lago. The general consensus is that Donald Trump needs a major win with China to prove he’s sticking to the “America first” guns that got him into the White House.
Noting that “North Korea has cast a long shadow over the relationship” between Trump and Xi, Reuters points out that the Hermit Kingdom and its nuclear weapons program have been a hindrance to cooperation for the U.S. president:
“Trump has linked progress in trade to China’s ability to rein in North Korea, which counts on Beijing as its chief friend and ally.”
On Tuesday, the Associated Press also highlighted how Trump has used the issue of North Korea as a bargaining chip at the negotiating table with China:
“As a presidential candidate, Trump attacked China for refusing to pressure Pyongyang to back off from developing nuclear weapons. After the Mar-a-Lago summit, though, Trump praised Beijing for agreeing to help deal with North Korea. As a reward, he abandoned his vow to accuse China of manipulating its currency to benefit Chinese exporters.”
So it may be that this one-two punch from the United States and ally South Korea was a coordinated effort to ease tensions and create an atmosphere conducive to cooperation ahead of critical negotiations between the U.S. and China.
It may be that the Trump administration is signaling that it would be willing to back off on pressuring China to rein in Kim Jong-un if China is willing to make concessions on the economic front — and give Trump the win he needs.