The big question is how long can this stand-off continue, writes Alan Philps
Is there a way North Korea and the US can be walked back from war?
Tensions have been rising on the Korean peninsula since the North Korean regime tested its Hwasong-15 missile, with a range apparently able to hit most of the continental United States. HR McMaster, the US national security adviser, has said that the potential for war is getting closer every day. Washington, which has already put in place a tough range of sanctions, some with the support of China, has floated the idea of a naval blockade, which Pyongyang said would be an act of war.
The big question is how long can this stand-off continue, and how might the two sides be walked back from a disastrous war?
Diplomats are now pointing to early next year as the crisis point when the tinder might be set alight by a misunderstanding or an act of bravado. Surprisingly, the date that people are talking about is February when South Korea holds the 2018 Winter Olympics in the town of Pyeongchang, 80 km from the demilitarised zone which separates the two Koreas.
By a twist of fate, this is the same time when the US and the South Korean armed forces usually hold annual military exercises, some of the largest between the US and an ally. Pyongyang sees these war games as a likely cover for invasion – it is the oldest trick in the strategy book to use a military exercise as the springboard for war.
In its current state, with nuclear weapons ready and tested but its missile delivery systems still needing a year or two to perfect, North Korea will no doubt see the exercises as a threat to the regime. As things stand, Pyongyang will not want the Winter Olympics to be a success for its rival to the south.
The South Koreans want the reclusive regime’s athletes to attend, but no decision has been made. What is in everyone’s mind is that in 1987 North Korea agents blew up a South Korean airliner with the loss of 119 passengers and crew. The surviving bomber is said to have revealed that one of the purposes was to ruin the Seoul Olympics the following year, by scaring foreigners off.
So the month of February has all the makings of a diplomatic crisis point that must be negotiated if war is to be averted. It is reported that South Korea has asked the Americans to delay the military exercises not just beyond the Winter Olympics, which end on February 25, but also beyond the Paralympic Games which run until March 18.
For history buffs, this is an excellent idea. In ancient Greece, the Games were accompanied by a truce so that none of the warrior states could take advantage. In recent times, the revival of that tradition has been widely promoted in the pious hope of further peace, but never have the Games been so finely balanced on the edge of war.
In the real world, an Olympic truce still looks like a good idea. But it is not cost-free. For the Americans it would appear that they were buying into the North Korean narrative that US troops are the cause of instability in the peninsula, rather than a shield to defend South Korea from a despotic and vengeful regime from the north.
A delay would certainly suit China, which has a “freeze for freeze” plan for the peninsula – North Korean to halt the development its nuclear weapons in exchange for Washington winding down its military exercises with the South Korean armed forces. The US has rejected this idea.
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It has to be asked, however, what alternative there is which does not set the Korean peninsula ablaze and send huge waves of refugees into China. The least bad option in the eyes of many analysts is for Washington to reconcile itself with a nuclear-armed North Korea which is contained by its treaty ally, China. But this is not what US president Donald Trump has stated he wants. He has said he will never allow Pyongyang to threaten the US with nuclear annihilation.
But that does not mean there is no possibility of a negotiated settlement. After the last missile test, Kim Jong-un declared that he had achieved his goal of developing a rocket missile system he needed to defend his country from US attack. If he believes that, he can take the step of sitting down with the Americans to discuss a freeze. As for Washington, it can say its sanctions have brought Mr Kim to the negotiating table, and China can claim to have spared the world an unthinkable war by protecting its ally while also joining in the US sanctions.
All this sounds somewhat unreal at the moment, but not out of the question. On Tuesday, Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, indicated a softening of the US position, saying Washington was ready for direct talks with North Korea “at any time” and without preconditions, provided there was a period of quiet without nuclear or missile tests. But the White House insisted that Mr Trump’s views had not changed.
These diplomatic exchanges do not take place in a vacuum, however. The fate of the Iran nuclear deal, which has suspended the country’s nuclear programme in exchange for limited sanctions relief, will weigh heavily on the fate of Korean peninsula. Mr Trump has declared the agreement with Iran the “worst deal ever” and wants it renegotiated, a stance which could fatally undermine it, perhaps as early as next month.
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, has said North Korea needs to be convinced that a future American administration will not reject a nuclear agreement in a couple of years. "North Korea needs security guarantees, especially when Washington is about to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal."
An Olympic truce next year is a hopeful sign on the horizon, and could yield positive results. But the path is filled with pitfalls and potential misunderstandings, any one of which could tip the balance to war.