Recent threats by North Korean leaders to attack America with nuclear weapons raise alarm. North Korea, despite impoverishment, can inflict great harm, and persists with hostile actions as well as unnerving rhetoric. Youthful leader Kim Jong Un appears in full control, but evidence suggests the military calls the shots.
We believe North Korea has six nuclear weapons, the makings of several more, plus reproduction potential. Moreover, they have exploded weapons to assure yield and tested missiles that with further engineering could be fitted with nuclear weapons to reach America.
Would they be crazy enough to attack? No, I do not believe they would given risk of major retaliation, but their threats must be taken seriously because they have dangerous weapons and behaved recklessly in the past.
Moreover, North Korean actions have raised prospects for nuclear proliferation. South Korea abandoned development of nuclear weapons when Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger persuaded former President Park Chung-hee in 1974 to accept protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. During my tour as commander of all forces in South Korea from 1979 to 1982, I verified that nuclear programs had stopped even though the North Koreans were avidly pursuing them.
A recent poll in South Korea reveals that two-thirds of citizens believe they should acquire nuclear weapons due to ominous behavior of North Korea, and because of political statements by President Obama and officials such as Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and Sam Nunn that call for the United States to pursue a global goal of zero nuclear weapons. Such a policy would take away the U.S. nuclear umbrella. A few legislators in the Japanese parliament have spoken about acquiring nuclear weapons. So unless change occurs in the situation with North Korea, nuclear proliferation could emerge with dangerous implications.
For years we have tried to persuade the North Koreans to abandon their nuclear weapons program. We have urged the Chinese, who retain an alliance with North Korea, to join this persuasive effort. During several trips to China, including one as U.S. Army chief of staff, I was told by political and military leaders that they valued their relationship with North Korea but, frankly, the relationship was difficult and North Koreans did not take kindly to advice.
Obviously, our policy of trying to persuade the North Koreans to abandon their nuclear program has failed. Given recent statements by North Korean officials, no basis exists for any optimism about persuading them to give up nuclear weapons because they are convinced the weapons guarantee security and national independence.
Our policy for decades has been to impose severe sanctions and to isolate the country in hope that suffering will force leaders to abandon hostility and abide fully with the United Nations Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty they signed years ago. We persist with this tough policy and conservative voices argue we must not reward bad behavior by easing sanctions or negotiating bi-laterally.
However, I believe our policy now must be revised.
What would this mean? Engagement with North Korea and openness could offer opportunities for beneficial change. The former governor of New Mexico and head of Google recently visited North Korea. On their return they urged more engagement.
The country of Myanmar may offer an example of beneficial change from openness. The former harsh military leadership of Myanmar realized that opening up to the outside world would provide economic aid and opportunity for growth and so their tyrannical policies and leadership have changed.
Given the close relationship between North Korea and Myanmar, this profound change and its attendant benefits could be motivational for North Korean leaders.
Accordingly, I believe we should pursue talks with North Korean leaders and include South Koreans. These talks could focus on working out a peace treaty for the Korean War, something the North Koreans seek and would ease their paranoia about security. The talks also could explore options for removing economic sanctions, perhaps in a phased manner, so that trade and development could begin.
The military sanctions should remain for now. The quid pro quo for a peace treaty and opening up economic opportunities could be North Korean agreement to abide by requirements of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to join the Missile Technology Control Regime, which would stop missile proliferation, and to halt further military provocations, including cyberattacks.
Si Chak i pan i ta - so goes the ancient and wise Korean proverb that translates roughly as "getting started is half the job." We should begin by talking with North Koreans.
Gen. John Wickham is retired from the U.S. Army and lives in Tucson.