CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (August 17, 2017)—Following North Korea’s July 28 test of a missile capable of striking the United States, tensions between the two countries and the risk of military confrontation have escalated to new heights. Fueling these tensions were over-heated threats by both countries as well as military actions, including U.S. nuclear-capable bombers flying over the Korean peninsula. In response, North Korea threatened to fire missiles over Japan into the waters surrounding the U.S. territory of Guam, which serves as a base for U.S. bombers in the region.
Over the last several days, both countries have tamped down their rhetoric. U.S. secretaries of state and defense have stated that the U.S. goal is not regime change in Pyongyang or accelerated unification of the peninsula, and have repeated that “diplomacy is our preferred means of changing North Korea’s course of action.” For its part, North Korea has said it will hold off on launching missiles toward Guam to see what the United States does next. Even so, the situation remains precarious.
Below is a statement by David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“Both the United States and North Korea are considering military options in response to mounting tensions between the countries, increasing the risk that the situation could lead to a military conflict. To avoid this outcome, the United States should take several common-sense steps.
“First, it should pursue direct, informal talks with Pyongyang—without preconditions—to reduce tensions and establish a direct line of communication, which is critical to avoid a crisis. These talks could lead to more formal diplomatic efforts later, but it is important for the two countries to begin talking immediately. The United States should take the initiative in pursuing such talks.
“Second, the United States should postpone or significantly restructure the joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises that are scheduled to begin next week. Pyongyang sees these large, recurring exercises as threatening and aggressive, and in the current context they might provoke the North to carry out its plan to fire missiles toward Guam. The United States argues these exercises are an important part of its defense pact with South Korea. However, smart military planning means ensuring that exercises do not enflame an already tense situation. South Korean President Moon would clearly agree with this assessment.
“Initiating bilateral talks and postponing or restructuring U.S.-South Korean military exercises would not be a sign of weakness or accommodation, but would be a rational approach to reducing the risk of a conflict started by mistake or by a misinterpretation of events. As a super power with the strongest military force in the region, the United States has both the responsibility and the means to defuse this dangerous situation.”