End Game for the Korean Peninsula

Over the last month the media has led the world to believe that North Korea, the United States and South Korea are standing eyeball to eyeball on the brink of war.

Secretary Kerry's comments after meeting with his Chinese opposites State Councilor Yang Jiechi, and Foreign Minister Yang Yi, and later President Xi Jinping, and Premier Li Keqiang were guarded. However, upon arrival in Tokyo Kerry reiterated his call to North Korea to denounce nuclear weapons before six party talks could be resumed. It looked like Secretary Kerry had fired the last shot in anger.

Then for a few days with the Boston Marathon bombing, not a story could be found about this tense situation, as if it had just gone away. Since the Boston saga, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey declared that the Foal Eagle joint military exercises with South Korea will continue indefinitely. The extension of these exercises gives North Korea 'little room to move.

Then the Chinese Chief of Staff General Fang Fenghui warned Dempsey on his visit to Beijing on April 22 that there would be another North Korean nuclear test. The media reported the movement of short range missile launchers to where the North already has Musudan medium range missiles deployed on the East Coast, where some commentators hinted of a missile firing on April 25th to commemorate the anniversary of the formation of the armed forces - which didn’t come off.

All the rhetoric and movements of hardware is part of the continuing cycle of tension the Korean Peninsula has been used to over the last 60 years. To see how any possible endgame could occur, perhaps it would be a good idea to briefly examine each party's views and interests in this situation.

From a South Korean perspective, the threats from the North are similar to the ranting of an immature child seeking attention. These outbursts are most often harmless, but if challenged incorrectly could lead to incidents. Consequently there is some unpredictability in this uneasy relationship. The closure of the Kaesong Industrial Zone probably has more to do with a sense of touchiness felt by the North over the South's strong rhetoric and participation in what it sees as overzealous acts in the Foal Eagle exercises. This is almost a separate issue to the tensions between the North and US, as Kaesong represents a symbolic connection between the North and South.

Most people in the South are putting up with these tantrums and going about with their everyday lives, as can be seen on the streets of Seoul. With South Korean President Park Geun-hye's mother assassinated by a North Korean agent, there are indications that she will take a strong line. However Park will most likely follow US counsel, indicated by the arrangements being made for her to address the US Congress upon her visit to Washington next month.

Japan has had enough and most probably seeks a continuation of the status quo within the peninsula and would be skeptical of any possible solution. The detection of radioactive fallout from a North Korean nuclear test last February is testing Tokyo's patience. Given Japan's history, there is a strong preference for a denuclearized peninsula and consequently Japan supports the six party talks process.

China is a major stakeholder and Korea is a complex issue. North Korea is an ally of China, although philosophically and economically they may have drifted apart. However North Korea acts as a buffer between China and US forces, and for this reason China is relatively happy with the status quo. Any change in the status such as an economic collapse would force China's hand by needing to physically occupy the North or accept its absorption into South Korea, which could mean US troops right on the Chinese border. With Obama's "Asian Pivot" looking more like a strategic competition doctrine with China, this would be a paramount concern.

Any change in the status quo would throw open the present balance of power which would have to redefined through strategic competition with the US, and would be drawn out and costly. China may not be ready for this challenge. Fang said a few days ago that North Korea possessing nuclear weapons would not be in China's interests either. In the long term this would become an inconvenient problem for China just as much as for the US.

The most difficult scenario for China to contend with would be a thawing in relations between the US and the North. This would potentially weaken Chinese influence with North Korea, and be seen as a form of US encirclement. This crisis is testing China's new leadership and the China-US relationship, preventing any breakthrough in finding new ways to define and manage this relationship.

The Chinese leadership is probably bemused with the immaturity of both the US and North Korea over the last few months, and the recent Kerry trip to Beijing indicated there are still a number of unresolved issues such as cyber security and exports of certain technologies the US is blocking. So Kerry's trip actually showed how far away each other the two are on their views about the Korean Peninsula.

The way ahead towards resolution and a great leap forward

What needs to occur now is dialogue, something that's been neglected. The Clinton negotiations and South's then President Kim Dae-jung's "sunshine policy" led to some positive results, where the Kaesong Industrial Zone stands as a symbol of that period. And perhaps that's why it still remains closed today.

Does the North really have the capacity and intention to carry out its threats? Creating a crude nuclear bomb is one thing. But miniaturizing it and turning it into a warhead that can be delivered on a precision missile is another. That's a great leap forward in technology that took the US, Soviet Union, China, France, Pakistan, and India years and a great number of tests to achieve. The Musudan missile supposedly on alert for firing on the east coast has never been tested.

There is a massive difference between the leader of North Korea and the United States. The leader of North Korea Kim Jung-un is a young 28 year old trying to come out from the shadow of his father and grandfather, who has almost divine status among the people. Kim Jung-un has to assert his authority domestically and hold up to what he would see as US aggression. He knows what is happening to dictators around the world, and would feel a great sense of insecurity. North Korea is an insular society that has grown into one displaying signs of paranoia.

The only defense mechanisms Kim has at his disposal is the repertoire of rhetoric and actions he inherited from his father. They have worked in the past and US pressure is forcing him to maintain these known patterns of behavior. It is currently very difficult for Kim Jung-un to adopt any new patterns of behavior when the same cycle of tensions are being played out.

During the 2008 US Presidential election campaign, many people were sold on Barack Obama's promise to deal with the world's problems in a different way. Apparently the Nobel Peace Prize Committee reaffirmed these aspirations by awarding President Obama the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize in anticipation. But President Obama found dialogue not so easy, and also had establishment constraints around him. For example, presidential advisors over the years have seemed to lack one important quality, the ability to understand how other countries see the US. In this way he is not in a dissimilar predicament of Kim Jong-un.

The US approach has always been adversarial as this is the easiest option, supported with a mighty military machine. Since the Korean War, the US has relied upon the dogma of military force to underpin its diplomacy. Relationships and personal networks between the two countries just don't exist. This approach didn't work and President Obama's Secretary of State in his last term Hillary Clinton, did not actually pull off any major international breakthroughs.

However when we look at both men, where would we suspect the most maturity resides? And this is President Obama's great opportunity for legacy, the opportunity to change the game. Kim Jung-un sent a message via the basketball player Dennis Rodman "ask Obama to call me", might be interpreted to mean that "I am here and just maybe you have misjudged me. Let's get together and see what could happen". Maybe the significance and symbolism of Dennis Rodman being a basketball player and black - has been lost in the perception that he is decidedly an eccentric character.

There are well known parallels to this. China had just gone through the turmoil of the Cultural revolution with the founder Mao Zedong at the helm when President Richard Nixon made the historical trip to Beijing. And remember ping pong was a sport very importantly symbolic of the thaw in relations between the two countries. Through engagement China changed. So why not basketball?

Jimmy Carter left a legacy with the Middle East Accord between Egypt and Israel, and Reagan made his legacy with his role in the fall of the Iron Curtain across Eastern Europe and the end of the Soviet Union.

This is the Obama opportunity, the potential legacy for him to go down in history as one of the great US Presidents, at least in foreign relations. And this is what Americans wanted in 2008 and the Nobel Peace Prize Committee anticipated in early 2009.

The ding dong rhetoric on our screens each day is taking everybody nowhere. Each party is really saying what they want in the outcome of talks and labeling them as prerequisites. Anybody who has completed "Negotiation 101" knows that doesn't work.

So now the US has extended Foal Eagle, North Korea will continue to make aggressive comments in retaliation, and the moment for Obama's finest accomplishment is being wasted. An Obama trip to North Korea would empower Kim Jung-un to go down the road of change. It is risky, but Obama went to Burma, and Cambodia. But unlike Cambodia, Obama would be given a hero's welcome in Pyongyang and bring the best hope of peace on the Korean Peninsula in 60 years.

Obama would through his own personal charm and charisma through diplomacy achieve what all the military might of the United States has not been able to do in 60 years. But President Obama will most probably not be counseled in this manner in Washington and he would have to make this judgment with his own intuition. South Korea would also be very insecure with this initiative, and he would have to bring the South along with him.

Unfortunately, something as simple as pride and the ingrained behavioral patterns the cycle of tensions have created will prevent this scenario occurring. There is a chance Kim jung-un has been misread, and it may be time for Barak Obama to use his own 'gut feelings' on the matter rather than sticking to the 'win-lose' script currently in play. He has little to lose, a visit to Pyongyang would greatly enhance world respect for him. If he succeeded his 'Asian pivot' strategy would pay off big time.

(Murray Hunter is an Australian academic teaching in Malaysia)