What just happened with North Korea?

Aug. 23, 2017, 03:34 PM.

Over the past two weeks, America and the world experienced another serious crisis in Korea that frightened many people into believing that a nuclear war was about to break out any moment.

The tension dissipated with last Monday’s declaration from Kim Jong Un that he would “watch a little more” the “conduct of the Yankees” before considering plans to test-fire three missiles towards Guam. His announcement was followed by a tweet from President Trump praising Kim for his “very wise and well reasoned decision” and saying that the “alternative would have been both catastrophic and unacceptable!"

But the big questions about the war scare were: How did it begin? Why did it end? And what comes next?

The latest standoff was sparked by the same combination of forces that led the United States into invading Iraq in 2003: leaked reports from US intelligence, a media willing to believe almost anything about “the enemy,” in this case North Korea; and an arrogant and power-mad president, Donald Trump, who is in deep trouble at home for his aggressive behavior towards critics and appalling statements on race and immigration.

On August 8, someone in US intelligence leaked a Defense Intelligence Agency report to the Washington Post saying that Kim Jong Un could have a nuclear-tipped ICBM capable of hitting the United States by 2018, “crossing a key threshold on the path to becoming a full-fledged nuclear power.” The leak immediately became the story of the day, sparking CNN and other cable networks to jump into action with alarming tales suggesting that Kim now had the capability to nuke any city in the United States.

As one US journalist wrote in the leftist publication Counterpunch, “fourteen years after the disaster in Iraq was sold to Americans on the pretense of WMDs, which never existed, the mainstream media continue to push war hungry narratives.”

The DIA claim may have been a huge exaggeration. After analyzing North Korean data, several analysts pointed out in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that the Hwasong-14 missile fired in recent tests “is a sub-level ICBM that will not be able to deliver nuclear warheads to the continental United States.”  But those doubts, which were almost certainly included in US intelligence reports provided to Trump, didn’t stop the president.

Hours after the Post story came out, he issued his apocalyptic warning that North Korea would face “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if it continued to threaten the United States. He ended the week by saying that US forces in Asia were “locked and loaded” and ready for battle.

Those threats became more real on August 11, when NBC News broadcast a detailed report that the Pentagon has plans to strike “approximately two dozen North Korean missile-launch sites, testing grounds and support facilities” using B-1B heavy bombers stationed at Anderson Air Force Base in Guam. “Pairs of B-1Bs have conducted 11 practice runs of a similar mission since the end of May, the last taking place on Monday,” NBC said. Reporter Cynthia McFadden added that the B-1Bs could fire their missiles from outside of Korean airspace, thus making it possible to launch unilateral strikes.

What happened next was hardly surprising. North Korea’s KCNA declared that the North’s “Strategic Force” was “carefully examining” plans for making “an enveloping fire” at areas near Guam with medium and long range missiles, and were only awaiting the command from Kim Jong Un. Because of the long history of B1 flights to Korea from Guam, the historian Bruce Cumings wrote in the Guardian, North Korea’s statement had “a concrete, predictable nature.”

To the US media, however, it was seen as a declaration of war. Every network sent correspondents scurrying to Guam, where they interviewed local residents and government officials about the fears about a potential attack. Many of these reports, such as this broadcast on CBS News, turned into sheer war propaganda for the Pentagon and its fleet of bombers (“backed up by plenty of firepower,” they “regularly fly over the Korean peninsula and would be used in a potential conflict.”)

Then, over the weekend, US officials downplayed the threat while warning that an attack on Guam would be met with force. “If they fire at the United States, it could escalate into war very quickly,” Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis declared. On Monday, came Kim Jong Un’s declaration about the need to “defuse the tensions” around Guam following his visit to the Korean People’s Army Strategic Force Command.

Although Yonhap and other Korean media ran Kim’s statement, it wasn’t described as a breakthrough until the Wall Street Journal filed a story late that night that the North “had pulled back its threat to attack a U.S. territory.” After this, it still took several days for the US cable networks to admit that the situation had changed. This was particularly true of CNN, which had feverishly reported every new development in the standoff. It didn’t report Kim’s shift until Trump tweeted about it on Wednesday, 36 hours after the story first broke.

Fox News and other conservative media, of course, said Kim’s about-face was due entirely to Trump’s tough statements and threats. In fact, those statements were seen by some of Trump’s advisers as ill-advised and dangerous, which is why they spent the weekend after his “locked and loaded” comments trying to defuse the crisis. One of the strongest signals came from CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who has been surprisingly candid about North Korea’s justifications for building a new arsenal.

Last Sunday, he took to Fox News to offer assurances that “nothing imminent” was about to happen with North Korea. He added: “What I’m talking about is, I’ve heard folks talking about that we have been on the cusp of a nuclear war. No intelligence that would indicate we are in that place today.” The same day, H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, told NBC that Trump is determined to “resolve the crisis short of a military conflict.”

Still, it was clear from statements from the administration that the shifts in both Washington and Pyongyang came after intensive discussions with China as well as possible back-channel communications with Pyongyang. Kim Jong Un’s desire to defuse tensions, for example, was published hours after China told the United States that it would immediately impose a ban on imports of North Korean coal, iron and seafood as part of its enforcement of the recent sanctions passed by the U.N. Security Council.  

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, “the timing of the announcement was a response to Mr. Trump’s plans to kick off a probe into China’s alleged theft of US intellectual property.” The New York Times added later that the White House had held off from announcing the probe “to secure China’s support” for the UN sanctions on North Korea. Later in the week, Steve Bannon, Trump’s controversial political adviser, admitted that Trump’s focus on China and its trade deficit with Beijing was the driving factor in his North Korea policies.

“To me, the economic war with China is everything,” he told The American Prospect, a liberal magazine that has been critical of China’s trade policies. He also added some thoughts on Korea. “There’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats], forget it,” he said. “Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.” Bannon was fired 24 hours later after his comment.

Another factor in the rapid end to the tensions may have been President Moon Jae-in’s response to reports about the possibility of a unilateral US strike on North Korea. It hardly seems like a coincidence that, hours after NBC reported on the Pentagon’s plans to hit North Korean missile sites, Chung Eui-yong, Moon’s national security adviser, spoke to McMaster and agreed to “discuss in advance” any military steps they could take to contain North Korea.

Then on August 15 came Moon’s extraordinary speech insisting that “only the Republic of Korea can make the decision for military action on the Korean Peninsula.” This was widely seen in the US as a direct warning to Trump about taking unilateral action, and was displayed as a front-page story in the New York Times. Moon was also responding to critics from the opposition parties that he has appeared weak and ineffectual as Trump’s threats dominated the news over the past several weeks.

With the immediate crisis over, attention began to focus on the possibility of negotiations and how they might begin.

Mattis and Secretary of State Tillerson explained the Trump administration’s position in an unusual joint op-ed written for the Wall Street Journal. After explaining that the US had no interest in regime change in Pyongyang, they laid down their conditions for talks. “Given the long record of North Korea’s dishonesty in negotiations and repeated violations of international agreements, it is incumbent upon the [Kim] regime to signal its desire to negotiate in good faith” by ceasing its nuclear tests and missile launches, they wrote.

North Korea has already put a hold on its nuclear tests; many observers here note that its last underground explosion was in September 2016, three months before the US presidential election and eight months before South Korea’s. Now, the question is, what would Kim Jong Un get in return for stopping his missile tests?

One idea, which has the support of several former high-ranking US officials, is for the US and South Korea to either suspend or drastically scale down their war games that have been criticized by North Korea and China as a barrier to peace in the region. The idea was given added impetus last week by the New York Times, which reported that a “permutation” of a two-sided freeze “may be the best way to defuse the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.” The joint drill, Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, began on Monday.

So far, the freeze idea is a non-starter for the Pentagon. After meeting with President Moon in Seoul last week, Gen. Dunford told reporters traveling with him that the exercises were "not currently on the table as part of the negotiation at any level.” He added: “as long as the threat in North Korea exists, we need to maintain a high state of readiness to respond to that threat.”

But Bannon, in his interview, threw out an idea that’s also flatly opposed by Dunford but shows how Trump might deal with North Korea in future negotiations. Trump, he said, “might consider a deal in which China got North Korea to freeze its nuclear buildup with verifiable inspections and the United States removed its troops from the peninsula.” That echoes one of the president’s theme from the 2016 campaign, when he criticized South Korea and Japan for not paying enough for the US troops on their soil.

Meanwhile, US critics of Trump’s policies are looking back to the Bill Clinton administration and how it handled the 1994 crisis with North Korea over its decision to abandon the Nuclear NonProliferation Treaty. Last week, 64 Democratic lawmakers released a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson expressing “profound concern” about Trump's threatening comments and supporting Tillerson’s proposals for direct talks with Pyongyang.

In a significant passage, they urged him to “make a good faith effort to replicate” the success of the 1994 Agreed Framework in which North Korea froze its nuclear program for over 10 years. The current situation, of course, is very different: in 1994, North Korea had yet to explode a nuclear bomb, and had only tested a few missiles. Still, the conflict over NPT almost led Clinton to launch a pre-emptive strike on North Korea’s nuclear facility, an action that was called off after Jimmy Carter flew to Pyongyang and negotiated a preliminary settlement with North Korean leader Kim Il Sung.

It’s important to remember, former US diplomats say, that Pyongyang traded its nuclear program in return for an end to enmity – the same demand they are making today. “What people don’t know is that North Korea made no fissile material whatsoever from 1991 to 2003,” Leon V. Sigal, a former State Department official who directs a Northeast Asia security project at the Social Science Research Council in New York, told Newstapa. “That’s a pretty good deal.” The framework collapsed in 2003 amidst accusations from the Bush administration that the North had started a secret uranium program, which Pyongyang denied.

Despite the propaganda onslaught of the last two weeks, most Americans support a negotiated solution to the tensions with North Korea. According to a Quinnipiac University national poll released on August 16th, 86 percent of US voters support the U.S. and its allies "negotiating a deal with North Korea to prevent them from using nuclear weapons,” with 60 percent saying that they expect the issue to be resolved diplomatically.

Now, they say, it’s up to the Trump administration to make the peace.

On Tuesday, Tillerson seemed to shift towards dialogue when he noted that Pyongyang has gone for two weeks without a missile test. “We hope that this is the beginning of the signal we’ve been looking for,” he said, according to the New York Times. “Perhaps we’re seeing our pathway to sometime in the near future of having some dialogue.”