Stop the nuclear war exercises in the Korean Peninsula, then we should also cease our nuclear tests."
Ri further stated that
"It is really crucial for the United States government to withdraw its hostile policy against the DPRK and as an expression of this stop the military exercises, war exercises, in the Korean Peninsula. Then we will respond likewise."
Responding to these statements, President Obama said at a news conference
. . . In terms of overtures, we don't take seriously a promise to simply halt until the next time they decide to do a test these kinds of activities. What we've said consistently, dating back to the six-party talks, is that if North Korea shows seriousness in denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, then we will be prepared to enter into some serious conversations with them about reducing tensions and our approach to protecting our allies in the region. But that's not something that happens based on a press release in the wake of a series of provocative behaviors. They’re going to have to do better than that.
In the same AP story, South Korea's Foreign Ministry reportedly released a statement that called the North's proposal "not worth considering." The ministry noted that the North's suggestion is nothing new, and said that the comment was just part of its maneuvering to wiggle out of the difficult situation created by stronger international sanctions.
These dismissive responses don’t seem right to me. The AP story noted that Ri’s words stood in contrast to the often bombastic verbiage used by North Korean media in reporting on such developments, and I am concerned that the United States and South Korea are giving short shrift to an opportunity to call North Korea’s bluff.
The large-scale Foal Eagle exercise involving South Korean and U.S. military forces will terminate on April 30. Taking Ri’s words literally would mean that North Korea would cease nuclear testing on May 1. No one believes that is what he meant, but here’s a way to build on those words.
Specifically, the United States and South Korea could announce that they will refrain from conducting another “Foal Eagle”-like military exercise for as long as North Korea refrains from nuclear testing or ballistic missile testing.
For approximately one year (i.e., the time between planned Foal Eagle exercises), the United States and South Korea lose nothing by upholding this commitment—they weren’t planning to undertake such an exercise anyhow.
North Korea could publicly accept the U.S./South Korean offer without losing much in the short term either. It has conducted four nuclear tests, in 2006, 2009, 2013 and 2016, which suggests an ability to conduct a nuclear test every 3-4 years. Missile tests have been more frequent, and provide some leverage for the United States and South Korea—if and when North Korea conducts a nuclear or a ballistic missile test, the United States and South Korea can revoke their commitment to refrain from Foal Eagle exercises in the future.
The proposed approach has two advantages. In the longer term, taking unilateral steps to reduce tensions that are explicitly coupled to the other side’s actions could encourage North Korean restraint. (This approach is modeled loosely on the “Graduated Reduction in Tension” theory first advanced by Charles Osgood. See, for example, http://www.colorado.edu/conflict/peace/treatment/grit.htm.) In the shorter term, the proposed coupling changes the rhetoric of the relationship—and in particular North Korean acceptance of this approach would be an acknowledgement that restraint on its part might be related to and have influence on restraint by the United States and South Korea.
One sticking point in this proposal is a likely argument over what counts as an exercise that is “like” Foal Eagle. One possible definition, just for the sake of specificity, could be an exercise that did not involve B-52, B-1, or B-2 bombers at all, or kept them out of a specified geographic area several hundred miles away from the Korean peninsula.
In any case, changes in North Korean rhetoric may be entirely a sham. But calling its bluff, if it is indeed a bluff, has diplomatic and political advantages. And if it is not a bluff, then perhaps some progress is possible.
Update: A colleague pointed out that resumption of large-scale military exercises in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear ballistic missile test could be escalatory. One way to approach that particular problem is to continue today’s practice of announcing the schedule for such exercises in advance, and then refrain from conducting the exercise if North Korea continues to refrain from such tests. If and when they resume tests, the United States and South Korea can simply revert to the announced schedule.