Kim Jong-un Leaves an Opening for De-escalation. Should the United States Take It?

A B-1B Lancer aircraft sits in the aircraft parking area at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D.

If U.S. policymakers can look beyond the perennial bluster of Kim Jong-un, then they should see an opening to avoid escalation.

North Korea’s fear of the B-1B is based in large part on the erroneous assumption that the bomber carries nuclear weapons. This threat perception may be out of line with reality, but it plays an important role in North Korea’s coercive diplomacy. The United States could take advantage of North Korea’s fears. Temporarily halting B-1B flights out of Guam would be a major concession to Pyongyang with little negative impact on Washington’s ability to deter North Korea with other military forces stationed in the region. Agreeing to freeze B-1B flights would be a low-cost way to test whether or not North Korea is serious about de-escalating tensions.

Freezing annual U.S.-South Korean military drills is also on North Korea’s coercive diplomacy wish list, but this would be less likely in the near term. However, changing some aspects of the exercises could serve as an olive branch to Pyongyang without requiring a complete freeze. For example, during the Foal Eagle exercises earlier this year, F-35 jets and U.S.-South Korean special forces practiced attacking North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities. Canceling this portion of future exercises would make it harder for the United States and South Korea to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons in a conflict, but this could reduce the incentives that North Korea currently faces to “use or lose” its nuclear weapons early in a crisis.

Giving in to North Korean coercive threats is an unappealing and risky choice for the United States. However, acceding to some North Korean demands could offer valuable information about the country’s willingness to negotiate, and there are ways for the United States to minimize the costs of acquiescence.

Refusing to budge on North Korea’s demands may force Pyongyang to back down, but if this assumption is false, then the United States would face pressure to further escalate current tensions. Kim Jong-un has provided the Trump administration with a potential off-ramp to de-escalate the current crisis. There are risks to taking it, but continuing down the current path is unlikely to bring victory.

Eric Gomez is a policy analyst for defense and foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute.

Image: Department of Defense

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