Just when the crisis in US-North Korean relations could not seem more bleak, this week sees a chance that the two sides could be moving quietly towards a diplomatic resolution. The arrival of senior United Nations diplomat Jeffrey Feltman in Pyongyang for four days of discussions with top officials was reported as a “very rare” event.
Feltman is the most senior American official in the United Nations secretariat, serving as the chief of political affairs under Secretary General Antonio Guterres. The last time such a senior UN official reportedly visited North Korea was six years ago. The delegation this week comes at the request of Pyongyang.
The US State Department said that Feltman was in North Korea on behalf of the United Nations, and that he was not conveying a message from Washington. Nevertheless, there are grounds to believe that the diplomat’s “wide-ranging” discussions with senior North Korean officials is an opening for tentative talks between Washington and Pyongyang to resolve the deepening crisis over the latter’s nuclear weapons program.
Before his UN appointment in 2012, Feltman (58) worked in the US State Department for nearly 30 years. His posts included sensitive Middle East areas: Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain. Officially, he may be on UN business this week in Pyongyang, but it seems plausible that this career US diplomat will, in addition, convey a significant political signal from Washington that formal talks are on.
Washington’s public position is that no talks with North Korea are on the agenda until Pyongyang halts its nuclear weapons program. However, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said recently there was the possibility of “talks about talks” in the future. President Donald Trump while threatening “fire and fury” on North Korea has also at other times hinted that he is willing to engage in diplomacy with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
For its part, North Korea has said it will never unilaterally give up its nuclear weapons program as a deterrent to what it calls US aggression.
Escalating rhetorical jibes between the two leaders over the past several months might suggest that there is minimal chance for diplomacy. Trump has disparaged Kim as “Rocket Man on a suicide mission”; while Kim has mocked the American president as “a stupid old dotard”.
Russia and China have urged all sides to engage in negotiations in order to calm roiling tensions, which have mounted over the past year from dozens of missile tests being conducted by North Korea, as well as from provocative military exercises carried out by the US and its South Korea and Japanese allies.
Last week, North Korea launched its biggest Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) yet, a Hwasong-15, which various analysts said demonstrated the capability for a nuclear strike on any part of the US mainland, including the capital Washington DC. Pyongyang announced that the test launch proved that the country had completed its quest for acquiring nuclear weapons capable of hitting the US.
Then this week, US forces conducted their biggest-ever warplanes drill with South Korea, involving some 230 aircraft, including B1-B nuclear-capable bombers and reportedly for the first time stealth F-35 and F-22 fighter jets. The massive air-force mobilization came despite appeals from China and Russia for a suspension. There were also warnings from North Korea that the US bombing rehearsals were leading the Peninsula to the brink of nuclear war.
Trump’s top national security advisor General HR McMaster recently added to fears of a full-on conflict breaking out when he described the situation as a countdown to war. Trump has also on several occasions warned that he would “totally destroy” North Korea if the US or its allies were threatened. A threat which was again repeated last week by the US ambassador the UN Nikki Haley. Pyongyang has, in turn, said that such rhetoric amounts to a declaration of war by the US.
The re-listing on November 20 by Washington of North Korea as a “state sponsor of terrorism” is another incendiary factor in an already explosive geopolitical mix.
However, in spite of the imminent danger of all-out armed conflict, there are reasons to believe that both sides are willing to pull back.
Bellicose posturing by Trump and his aides cannot disguise the fact that Washington does not have a realistic military option in dealing with North Korea. Negotiation is the only viable option to resolve the long-running crisis, as China and Russia have both consistently urged.
Many American weapons experts, including Siegfried Hecker, the former head of Los Alamos Laboratory, reckon that North Korea has the capability of 30 to 60 nuclear weapons. An underground test in September points to the possession of a H-bomb with a 10-fold explosive power of the A-bombs dropped by the US on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“There is little doubt that North Korea could mount a nuclear warhead on a missile that could reach South Korea or Japan,” according to Siegfried.
That capability alone – if not also the now very real possibility of hitting the US mainland – places millions of lives at risk, if Washington were to go to war with North Korea.
Over the past decade since North Korea’s first nuclear test explosion in 2006, the country’s military defenses have progressed at an astonishing rate, despite the ratcheting up of economic and diplomatic sanctions by Washington. Most of North Korea’s weapons development has occurred under the current leader Kim Jong-un who took over six years ago after the death of his father Kim Jong-il. Four of the country’s total six nuclear tests have taken place under the watch of the 30-something-year-old incumbent.
Having now achieved the stated goal of possessing a nuclear deterrent force capable of hitting the US, Pyongyang may feel it is finally in a position to talk with Washington on a mutual basis.
South Korean diplomat, Kim Hong-gul, who met the North Korean leader six years ago at his father’s funeral, said that the recent test of the ICBM purportedly capable of striking the US, could paradoxically be a harbinger of future talks between Pyongyang and Washington.
In an interview with Bloomberg this week, the South Korea diplomat said of the ICBM test launch: “It could be a flare signaling the start of the negotiations. On completion [of nuclear forces], Kim wouldn’t need to test missiles anymore, so he could suggest a conversation with the South and the US, possibly in his New Year speech, while refraining from further tests.”
It seems significant that the day after the latest ICBM test, on November 30, Pyongyang confirmed its invitation to the UN for high-level discussions. Within days, the UN reciprocated by sending Jeffrey Feltman, the seasoned former US State Department point man, to Pyongyang this week.
It is not known if Feltman will meet with Kim Jong-un during his four-day trip, but he is scheduled to hold talks with North Korea’s most senior diplomat, foreign minister Ri Yong-ho.
Notably, too, Feltman’s visit to Pyongyang follows a high-level delegation from Beijing to North Korea, the first such trip by Chinese diplomats after a two-year hiatus.
Bloomberg also reports: “Russian lawmaker Vitaly Pashin, who recently visited Pyongyang, said Monday that North Korean officials are ready for one-on-one or multiparty talks now that they’ve become a nuclear power capable of striking the US mainland.”
The standoff between the US and North Korea is much too grim, and the stakes are much too high, for any side to crow about one-upmanship.
But maybe – just maybe – the brinkmanship shown by North Korea to persist with its nuclear program in the face of US threats has paid off by forcing Washington to come to the negotiating table in order to resolve the standoff peacefully through a political settlement.
So much for Western depiction of the North Korean leader as a “madman”. His cold-blooded logic may spare the world from a nuclear war incited by the crazies in Washington.