By Hyun Lee
The sixty-day clock has run out. After two months of relative quiet, North Korea test-launched another missile in the early morning hours of November 29 (local time). This time, it launched the Hwasong-15, confirmed to be an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that reportedly flew 700 miles in 53 minutes before landing in the sea west of Japan. The missile reached an unprecedented altitude of 2800 miles, more than ten times the height of the International Space Station and is said to be capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to anywhere in the United States.
Last month, Joseph Yun, the U.S. State Department’s top official on North Korea policy, had told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations that if North Korea halted its nuclear and missile tests for sixty days, the United States would resume direct talks with Pyongyang, according to the Washington Post. His comment echoed those of State Secretary Rex Tillerson: “The best signal that North Korea could give us that they’re prepared to talk would be to stop these missile launches. We’ve not had an extended period of time where they have not taken some type of provocative action by launching ballistic missiles. So I think that would be the first and strongest signal they could send us is just stop, stop these missile launches.”
The last North Korean missile test before this latest one was the launch of an intermediate-range ballistic missile on September 15, a little more than sixty days ago.
Rather than reach out for talks, as Yun had said, the United States chose to ramp up military exercises. Earlier this month, it sent three aircraft carriers—the USS Ronald Reagan, Theodore Roosevelt and Nimitz—and their multi-ship strike groups as well as B-1 bombers to the area to participate in four days of exercises with South Korea and Japan. Next week, the air forces of South Korea and the United States are scheduled to hold another exercise. Vigilant Ace, which will run from December 4 to 8, will deploy six F-22 Raptor stealth fighters and F-35 aircraft. About 12,000 U.S. personnel will participate with South Korean troops while 230 aircraft will be flown at eight U.S. and South Korean military installations, according to a news statement released by the U.S. Seventh Air Force. The U.S. Marine Corps and Navy troops will also participate.
Events could have taken a different turn had the United States matched Pyongyang’s restraint by halting the war games, says Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov: “If Pyongyang’s demonstrated restraint over the past two months was met with similar reciprocal steps on behalf of the United States and its allies then we could have moved to the start of direct talks between the United States and North Korea.”
After the latest missile test, Kim Jong-un declared North Korea “a full-fledged nuclear force.” He added that his country’s nuclear weapons are aimed solely at “defending the sovereignty of the nation from the US nuclear threat and protecting the peaceful life of the people” and that no other country is under threat from his country’s nukes.
By not following through with overtures for detente after its own sixty-day deadline, the United States blew its last chance at negotiating with North Korea before it declared itself a de facto nuclear weapons state. Now it seems its only options are: war to denuclearize North Korea by force—which would claim millions of lives and destabilize the entire region as well as the global economy—or a Peace Treaty to finally end the sixty-five year old Korean War and the withdrawal of its troops from the Korean peninsula.
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