The prospect of a catastrophic conflict on the Korean Peninsula is so alarming that U.S. allies and China are urging President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to soften their rhetoric and start a dialogue to find a diplomatic solution to their standoff.
Several small steps are possible to go that diplomatic route, including a halt to incendiary threats, recognition that North Korea is a nuclear-armed state and a freeze on further nuclear weapons and missile tests by Kim's regime, experts on the crisis say.
Yet, none will be easy, as Trump underscored Thursday in declaring that his previous warning to unleash "fire and fury" down on North Korea perhaps “wasn’t tough enough." His harsh comments triggered the biggest one-day drop in stocks since May.
At the same time, Trump said he was open to negotiations to try to bridge a huge gap between his goal — that Kim give up his nuclear weapons — and the North Korean dictator's insistence on retaining them as an insurance policy against being overthrown by the U.S.
Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush tried diplomacy with North Korea, but it reneged on agreements to curb its weapons programs. So while diplomacy also is risky, here is what analysts say the two sides can do to try to go down that road again and avoid military conflict:
Lower the rhetoric. “The more we threaten, the worse the situation is going to get,” said Jenny Town, assistant director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
So far, neither side has backed off the flame-throwing talk. "North Korea better get their act together or they’re going to be in trouble like few nations ever have been in trouble in this world,” Trump said Thursday.
Earlier Thursday, North Korea responded with its own threats, saying it was developing plans to fire missiles near Guam, a U.S. territory in the Pacific with a major U.S. military presence.
Acknowledge North Korea as a nuclear power. This may be the toughest for the United States. “Politically we can’t and we won’t recognize them as a nuclear power,” said David Maxwell, a retired Army colonel who is associate director of Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies.
In reality, North Korea already is. Kim has dozens of nuclear weapons and his regime has advanced dramatically in recent years its missile technology to strike U.S. cities.
“We don’t think having a dialogue where the North Koreans come to the table assuming they’re going to maintain their nuclear weapons is productive,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said.
But there are possible openings. North Korea would likely participate in discussions to halt or reduce its nuclear weapons stockpile even if it wouldn't agree initially to abandon the program, Maxwell said.
Suspend joint military exercises. Once in talks, the United States and North Korea might agree on other issues. The North has long opposed joint military exercises between the United States and ally South Korea, where 28,000 U.S. troops are stationed.
In the past, the United States has shown a willingness to negotiate over the exercises, although its concession didn't lead to a diplomatic breakthrough. Team Spirit, a joint U.S.-Korean exercise, was canceled for a time in the 1990s in an effort to get North Korea to halt its nuclear program and allow international inspectors.
Ease sanctions. The U.S. could suspend some sanctions on North Korea if it took action to curb its nuclear program. So far more than a decade of the economic sanctions have done little to halt the North's weapons development programs.
Analysts say the economic pressure is not working, mainly because China, North Korea’s largest trading partner, has not been vigorous in enforcing the sanctions.
The north’s economy grew 3.9% last year over the previous year, the largest increase since 1999, according to South Korea's central bank.
“There is always a diplomatic solution,” Town said. “It’s just a matter of if there is a political will to get past the opposition to it.”
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