Editor’s Note: This is the 18th installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?
On Saturday, I wrote almost nothing despite working on it for a while. On Sunday, I wrote almost 900 words in less than two hours. I had been struggling with how to end the story of the nuclear crisis in 2017 because it seemed to just keep going.
Every time Trump or the North Korean media went relatively quiet, something happened that would thrust the issue back in the news, replete with new threats and new posturing on all sides. I’m nowhere near working on the final chapters yet, but I was thinking ahead, not knowing how to address crisis termination when the crisis seemed to endure.
But after Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s speech, which extended the same empty olive branch to South Korea as every year, South Korea’s progressive government created an opportunity for dialogue by seizing on Kim’s predictable overture.
In the process, the South Korean government effectively backed the Trump administration into supporting a “freeze-for-freeze” deal — North Korea refrains from missile and nuke testing, and the alliance suspends military exercises. This is embarrassing for the Trump administration because it had categorically rejected the “freeze-for-freeze” idea on multiple occasions. It was incompatible with their “maximum pressure” approach to denuclearization.
So why did this preoccupy me so much on Saturday? Because it means the current crisis is over!
A new one could spark later this year. I’m told that nearly everyone in the administration still believes it needs to give Kim Jong Un a “bloody nose” regardless of North-South talks. But I now have a way to end the Trump-era case studies in the meantime. The North-South talks and the de facto “freeze-for-freeze” deal mean we should have an extended period of minimal war mongering.
The Peninsula was heading toward a tragic crescendo. Trump was actively shutting down off-ramps from the crisis. Kim Jong Un — or rather, South Korean President Moon responding to Kim — found a way to defuse to situation. This is good news, in a short-term sense anyway.
One of the many problems buried in the irrational exuberance over crisis deflation is that the seeds for another crisis were planted in the very artificial, incomplete way in which this one ended.
Nothing has been resolved. Tension has simply been temporarily relieved. Is the United States going to accept that North Korea will be a de facto nuclear weapons state? Is North Korea going to denuclearize? Will South Korea willingly reunify with the North in a manner that subordinates itself to the North? If the answers to these questions is “No,” then there will be another crisis, and another, until one day something breaks or somebody capitulates.
I want to be optimistic, but versions of a “freeze-for-freeze” were pursued under Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama, and all went nowhere. There’s no logic that gets you from freeze to what the Trump administration is aiming for.
That means the irreducible conflict of interests that brought this crisis on are still there, waiting to be activated by a tweet, or ignited by a military accident. As I tweeted yesterday, if Mattis wakes up one morning and says “Screw it, we need to take out a North Korean missile site,” the National Security Council, the CIA, the Joint Staff, and Pacific Command will declare “Finally!” … followed shortly by the first ever inadvertent nuclear war.
Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks.