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Monday, 13 November 2017 08:29

"Freeze for Freeze": Our Best Hope for Peace With North Korea

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Missile 1114wrp opt(Photo: Farrukh / Flickr)The escalating war of words between Trump and Kim Jong-un has put the world in more imminent danger of nuclear holocaust than at any time since the end of the Cold War. The US should revisit a vital proposal, known as the "freeze for freeze" approach, which offers the best hope for jump starting diplomacy with North Korea and turning our nation back from the brink.

Under this proposal, the US and South Korea would freeze their joint military exercises in the region in exchange for North Korea freezing its testing of ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads. This would achieve highly desirable goals for both nations, namely assurances for the US that North Korea is not making progress towards a nuclear-tipped ICBM that can reliably strike the US mainland, and assurances for North Korea that the US and South Korea are not preparing for war.

North Korea has already voiced willingness to consider a "freeze for freeze" approach. During a June 21 interview, North Korean Ambassador Key Chun-yong explained that "Under certain circumstances, we are willing to talk in terms of freezing nuclear testing or missile testing. For instance, if the American side completely stops big, large-scale military exercises temporarily or permanently, then we will also temporarily stop." Russia and Germany have also voiced support this proposal, as have American nuclear policy experts like former Secretary of Defense William Perry.

While many believe the "freeze for freeze" approach is viable, current administration officials have so far balked at the notion. US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley for example called the "freeze for a freeze" strategy "insulting," arguing that "when a rogue regime has a nuclear weapon and an [intercontinental ballistic missile] pointed at you, you do not take steps to lower your guard. ... No one would do that. We certainly won't." That thinking conveniently ignores that North Korean strategists are more or less saying the same thing about their nuclear and ballistic missile tests, which they see as their "guard" against US intervention.

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Fortunately, at least in this case, President Trump is known for his willingness to alter his positions on long-held policy positions. And despite publicly chiding Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for "wasting his time" in pursuit of dialogue with North Korea, Tillerson has since said that the president "has made it clear to me to continue my diplomatic efforts, which we are, and I've told others those diplomatic efforts will continue until the first bomb drops."

The administration's current approach --  military posturing, threats and sanctions --  has only served to exacerbate tensions and increase the risk of accidental conflict. Diplomacy is still the best and only viable option for addressing concerns over North Korea's nuclear weapons program, and the "freeze for freeze" approach is still our best hope for getting the conversation started.


Hassan El-Tayyab is the policy and organizing director of Chicago Area Peace Action.