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Menon’s arguments are quite rational, but with the current American Republican Administration having rational arguments doesn’t count for much.

 

“Here’s a prerequisite for avoiding war in Korea: stop believing in the North’s denuclearization, attractive and desirable as it might be (if achieved through diplomacy).

It doesn’t follow, however, that war can’t be avoided.  Kim Jong-un and his inner circle are not, in fact, irrational beings immune to deterrence.  Their paramount aim is to ensure the survival of the North Korean state. Starting a nuclear war would destroy it.  Yes, many people have perished in North Korea (whether due to repression or famine), but deterrence worked in the cases of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and China’s Mao Zedong, both of whom enacted policies that killed millions. Mao supposedly even boasted that China could survive a nuclear war because of its huge population.

Coming to terms with the reality of a nuclear-armed North Korea and trusting in deterrence may not sound like a perfect ending, but under the circumstances it’s undoubtedly the best way to avert catastrophe.  And that, unquestionably, is the urgent task.  There are other ways, down the line, to make the Korean peninsula a better place through dialogue between the two Koreas, by drawing the North into the regional economy and reducing troops and weaponry on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone.  These shouldn’t be ruled out as infeasible.

For them to happen, though, South Korea would have to separate itself from Trump’s war plans by refusing to allow its sovereign space (land, sea, and air) to be used for such a preventive war.  The symbolism would be important even if Trump could strike in other ways.

Seoul would also have to build on two recent positive developments that emerged from a surprise January 9th meeting between the Koreas.  The first is the agreement on Kim Jong-un’s proposal (initially advanced by the South last June) to send a North Korean contingent to the February Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.  The second flowed from South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s follow-up idea of restoring the hotline between the countries and beginning discussions of how to tamp down tensions on the peninsula.  (Pyongyang shut down the hotline in February 2016 after South Korea’s conservative government closed the Kaesong joint industrial zone located in the North, which then employed more than 50,000 North Koreans.)  Moon’s suggestion doubtless eased the way for the subsequent agreement to hold future military talks aimed at reducing the risks of war.

There are further steps Seoul could take, including declaring a moratorium on military exercises with the United States — not just, as now (with Washington’s consent), during the February Olympics and the Paralympics that follow and end in March, but without a preset time limit. While such joint maneuvers don’t scare Pyongyang, moves like flying American B1-B bombers and F-15C fighter jets in international airspace off North Korea’s coast do ratchet up the tension.  They increase the chances of one side concluding that the other is about to attack.

Trump may continue his threats via Twitter and again denigrate the value of negotiations with Pyongyang, but South Korea is a powerful country in its own right. It has a $1.4 trillion economy, the 11th largest in the world (versus North Korea’s paltry $32.4 billion one), and ranks sixth in global exports.  It also has a formidable military and will spend $34 billion on defense in 2017 — more than North Korea’s entire gross domestic product.  It is, in short, anything but the Asian equivalent of a banana republic for which Donald Trump should be able to write the script.

Trump’s generals and the rest of the American foreign policy establishment won’t welcome independent initiatives by Seoul, as witness the condescending remark of a former official about the hazards of South Korea “running off the leash.”  Predictably, mainstream warnings have already begun.  Cunning Kim Jong-un wants to drive a “wedge” between the United States and South Korea.  He’s trying to undo the sanctions.  Agreeing to talks with Pyongyang will only communicate weakness.  The United States must demonstrate its resolve and protect its credibility.  And so it goes.

Policies based on these shibboleths, which portray South Korea as an American dependency, have brought us to the brink of war.  Continuing them could push us over the edge. “

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