Once Again, North Korea Is Reaching Out to the South. We Should Be Receptive, but Wary.

It has become tradition among North Korea watchers to dissect Pyongyang’s annual New Year’s Day speech for clues of potential policy changes.

Each year, some experts interpret benign-sounding passages as indicating North Korean reform or greater willingness to engage diplomatically with Washington or Seoul. Others interpret passages that extol North Korea’s military accomplishments as threats of imminent attack on the U.S. or its allies.

To get the full picture, it is important that we assess each benign or bombastic passage within the broader context of the speech, as well as in comparison with speeches in previous years.

Even more importantly, however, is to assess them in light of the actions North Korea has taken after past New Year’s Day speeches.

How ‘New’ Is This New Year’s message?

North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s speech reiterated many of the same themes from previous iterations—blaming others for tension on the peninsula, vowing to uphold the socialist economic system, calling for vigilance against foreign and internal enemies, and extending an olive branch to South Korea.

But this year, Kim referenced the upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea as a way to appeal for working toward Korean unification, without outside (i.e. U.S.) involvement.

After complaining that the new progressive South Korean government was no better than its conservative predecessors, Kim declared that “we should improve the frozen inter-Korean relations and glorify this meaningful year as an eventful one noteworthy in the history of the nation.”

Kim hinted that “we are willing to dispatch our delegation [and] the authorities of the North and the South may meet together soon. … It is natural for us to share their pleasure over the auspicious [Olympics] event and help them.”

The progressive Moon Jae-in administration responded quickly by announcing its intention to reopen military hotlines and resume inter-Korean meetings—both of which Pyongyang had previously closed.

But as is characteristic of the North Korean regime, Kim imposed conditions on improving inter-Korean relations, declaring that Seoul “should respond positively to our sincere efforts for a détente [by] discontinu[ing] all the nuclear war drills they stage with outside forces, as these drills will engulf this land in flames and lead to bloodshed on our sacred territory.”

Pyongyang has long blamed allied military exercises—but not its own—as an obstacle to improved relations.

Pyongyang’s offer to attend the Olympics may seem novel, but almost all of its past New Year’s Day speeches have called for Seoul to resume the dialogue that Pyongyang had severed, or to reduce the tensions that North Korean had escalated with its provocations, threats, and deadly attacks.

None of those gestures from North Korea were ever matched by a change in the regime’s behavior.

Should North Korea Be Welcomed at the Olympics?

In the 1960s through the ‘80s, the international community was appalled by South Africa’s apartheid regime and thus banned the country from participating in Olympics.

But in response to North Korea’s far more egregious human rights violations—which the United Nations has ruled to be “crimes against humanity”—the world allows and even encourages Pyongyang to participate.

Why the double standard?

The international community has long tried, and failed, to moderate North Korean behavior and bring about political and economic reform by asking Pyongyang to participate in sporting and other cultural events. Yet with each new attempt, optimists breathlessly anticipate that this time, the appeasement will work.

The 2000 Sydney Olympics was one such example. Taking place only six months after the historic first inter-Korean summit, the sight of North and South Korean athletes walking together behind a non-national unification flag was uplifting and a sign of hope.

Yet behind the scenes, North Korea had demanded and received a secret payment from Seoul, along with payment for the North’s uniforms, and agreement that the North’s delegation would not be outnumbered by the South’s. This prevented many South Korean athletes and coaches from marching into the stadium as part of the Korean entourage.

An inspiring sight to be sure, but as with visits by symphonies and other cultural and sporting envoys, this gesture failed to alter North Korea’s policies and real-world behavior.

Similarly, other attempts at sports diplomacy at events in South Korea—including the 2002 Asian Games, the 2003 University Games, the 2005 Asian Athletics Championship, and the 2014 Asian Games—all failed to improve inter-Korean relations. In 1987, Pyongyang downed a civilian airliner in an attempt to disrupt the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

But as the world seeks to isolate and pressure North Korea for its repeated violations of United Nations resolutions, it should ask itself: Why is Pyongyang still allowed to participate in the Olympics, but South Africa was shunned?

Reducing the Potential for Conflict  

During the last year, the danger of military hostilities on the Korean Peninsula has risen precipitously due to North Korea’s growing military capabilities, particularly as it closes in on the ability to target the U.S. homeland with nuclear weapons.

The Trump administration’s own messaging toward North Korea has also inflamed tensions. It has signaled willingness to initiate military strikes on North Korea, even without indications of imminent regime attack. This has escalated tensions and unnerved allies. Conflicting policy statements from the administration and the president’s bombastic tweets have unnecessarily antagonized the situation.

U.S. and South Korean diplomats should be willing to meet North Korean counterparts if indeed Pyongyang is now prepared to engage. Washington and Seoul should emphasize efforts to reduce the potential for conflict on the Korean Peninsula, particularly measures to build mutual confidence and security.

But dialogue shouldn’t come at the cost of giving out concessions or reducing the international effort to pressure North Korea for its repeated violations of United Nations resolutions.

Nor should South Korea promise economic benefits that would themselves violate the resolutions, such as resuming the failed joint economic experiment at Kaesong.

As always, we must hold a healthy skepticism toward assertions that the North Korean leopard has suddenly changed his spots. Because, as a Korean adage points out, “the same animal can have soft fur and sharp claws.”

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The Media Is Upset About Trump’s ‘Nuclear Button’ Wars. Why We Should Ignore Them.

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump both claim to have big red nuclear buttons.

Who cares? We shouldn’t.

In his New Year’s address, Rocket Man reportedly announced he had a “red button” on his desk and he was ready to use it.

Trump tweeted back, saying that his button is much bigger.

The tweets themselves are actually not worthy of all the histrionic reporting and punditry that followed.

First, Trump doesn’t have a nuclear release button on his desk. In all likelihood, Kim doesn’t either. In both cases, the release and employment of nuclear weapons is not nearly as cavalier as the tweeting or the hysterical pundits suggest.

We are coming up on the anniversary of the premier of Dr. Strangelove. Maybe they have all seen the movie one too many times.

Second, we already know Kim has a nuclear capability. We also know his nuclear arsenal at present is not capable of doing what he claimed in the speech. Kim lies a lot. No news there.

Third, Kim’s threat was actually defensive in nature. He said he would use his nuclear arms—if attacked. That is not a new policy. Further, the likelihood of U.S. preventative military action is near zero.

Fourth, the U.S. has a much, much, much bigger and more capable arsenal than North Korea. That’s not news. The administration has frequently stated a retaliatory policy that if North Korea fired a nuclear weapon at us or our allies, we would fire a bunch back. That’s not news.

So other than the colorful metaphors, what’s new here? Nothing.

Critics fret that the taunting rhetoric could lead to miscalculation and war. Their evidence for that is less than zero.

North Korea has engaged in fiery rhetoric for decades. There is virtually little correlation between what they scream and what they actually do. Sometimes they line up. Often they don’t.

Likewise, Trump has given to Kim as good as he gets on social media. There is no evidence the rhetoric per se has heightened tensions.

Indeed, there is scant likelihood that we are inevitably marching toward war. South Korea in fact just announced that North Korea has reopened the border hotline.

What has heightened tensions is North Korea’s increasing demonstration of an expanding nuclear capability. The U.S. needs a strong and consistent strategy for that, working in concert with Japan and South Korea.

That’s all that matters. The rhetorical war does not.

The Chicken Littles are starting 2018 just like they ended 2017: by obsessively focusing on the rhetorical war of words without context, and without considering the actual interests and polices of the actors involved.

That’s why the track record of journalists and analysts who focused almost exclusively on the president’s tweets, off-hand comments, campaign speeches, and statements (some of which were reported anonymously and are therefore less reliable) was pretty dismal.

The U.S. did not abandon NATO. Trump did not hand Europe over to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He did not abandon Taiwan. And he did not do any of the things that some said he would do—basing their assessments on presidential rhetoric and little more.

Sure, words matter. But in matters of statecraft, rhetoric matters in the context of action.

It might be understandable that some obsessed about the tweets a year ago, when the administration had little policy and not much of a track record. But now it’s a year later. The administration has lots of policy on the books, including a new National Security Strategy.

The administration has also had a year of practicing foreign policy, which so far looks more conventional overall than either of the last two presidents. What’s the excuse now for going nuclear over every tweet?

While pundits and journalists choose to be distracted by every tweet, that doesn’t mean we have to. Let’s make a resolution in 2018 to be reasonable.

Maybe you hate the president. Maybe you hate the tweeting. But if you want to analyze what actual U.S. policies are, try being reasonable.

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US Arms Sale to Georgia a Long-Overdue Show of Support for Eurasian Ally

The U.S.- Georgian relationship was taken to a new level on Nov. 20, when President Donald Trump approved something that never occurred during President Barack Obama’s eight years in office. That would be an estimated $75 million deal to sell Javelin anti-tank missiles to the Eastern European republic of Georgia.

After 25 years of diplomatic relations between the two nations, Tbilisi is more deserving than ever to receive this kind of support.

Georgia is a beacon of hope for the Eurasia region and is a valued partner for the U.S. on a global scale. Since regaining its independence in 1991, Georgia has worked hard to reform its economy and governance—and with much success.

The country has had successive peaceful elections and is deeply committed to integrating into the West. According to The Heritage Foundation’s 2017 Index of Economic Freedom, Georgia is ranked 13th in the world for economic freedom, scoring even higher than the United States itself.

Georgia also has geostrategic importance for Europe’s energy security, since it’s a key transit country for oil and gas pipelines to Europe.

From 1991 to the present, Georgia’s democracy has been threatened by Russia in numerous ways—from hybrid warfare to invasion. Because of this, Georgia deserves the chance to defend its borders and its democracy against further Russian aggression. Thankfully, with the sale of these advanced anti-tank missiles, it can.

The weapons sale is important for two main reasons: symbolism and practicality. The sale is symbolic, because it demonstrates the U.S.’ support for Georgia and our alliance, while also being practical, because Georgia can use the weapons for deterrence.

In the next few weeks, the same decision should be made for Ukraine—to arm it with Javelin missiles to deter Russian aggression.

Perhaps the most important reason why Georgia deserves these weapons, however, is because it has proven itself to be a dependable and responsible ally of the United States.

An example of that stems from the war in Afghanistan. Georgia’s contribution has been the largest of any non-NATO member, with a total of 2,000 troops serving at the height of the war.

Today, Georgia still maintains more than 850 troops in Afghanistan. Georgian troops have experienced the highest per-capita death rates in Afghanistan, demonstrating their dedication to helping the U.S. in the war against terrorism.

It is important to note that Georgia is unlikely to utilize the weapons to try to take back its South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions, which Russia illegally has been occupying since 2008.

Since then, Russia has been involved in what is called a “creeping occupation,” in which Russia takes just a bit of Georgian land at a time, drawing very little attention to itself.

Each one of these acts is a blatant violation of international law, and the occupation now has become so domineering that approximately 20 percent of Georgian territory lies under Russian control.

Nevertheless, Georgia actually declared a “non-use of force” pledge, meaning that it only sees a diplomatic outcome in regaining control of the two territories. Russia has failed to reciprocate this pledge.

The bottom line is that the decision to sell these weapons is great news for Georgia, and the U.S. should continue to arm and enhance those capabilities. We should do so not only for Georgia, but for all of our allies—for the sake of America’s national security and prosperity.

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China Cutting Tariffs Just Weeks After Trump’s Asia Trip

Following President Donald Trump’s recent trip to Asia, China has released a long list of dramatic tariff cuts on a range of imported consumer goods. In fact, over 200 different products will see an average reduction of approximately 10 percent.

U.S. cheese exporters have been particularly vocal about the importance of China lowering tariffs. Demand for dairy products has been growing rapidly in China—by 100,000 metric units over the past decade—and the U.S. dairy industry could benefit from greater access to the Chinese market.

Tom Vilsack, president and chief executive of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, also highlighted the diplomatic benefits of the cuts, noting that the process will “cultivate trust and build critical relationships between the U.S. dairy industry and Chinese official institutions.”

Beyond the U.S. dairy industry, many multinational corporations with household names in America will see major financial gains.

Nestle could see an approximate sales increase of 15 percent, or $18.7 billion, as a result of the tariff cuts. Procter & Gamble Co., an American company that manufactures products for brands like Tide and Gillette, will see tariff reductions on items ranging from diapers to electronic toothbrushes.

China’s unilateral decision to cut tariffs, however modest, should prove beneficial for its major trading partners, including the United States. The cuts will also benefit the people of China, allowing them greater access to a variety of products at more competitive costs.

The Index of Economic Freedom, published annually by The Heritage Foundation, examines 12 factors of economic freedom, including trade freedom. While China’s average applied tariff rate is just 3.2 percent, import tariffs vary drastically from product to product across the Chinese economy, and often result in costly barriers for foreign companies.

Hopefully, China’s tariff reductions will be just a first step in a series of efforts to allow goods, services, and capital to flow more freely between the rest of the world and China.

To have a major impact, however, those efforts will need to include greater privatization of the state-owned enterprises that distort China’s economy, as well as significant reductions in government control of the finance and banking sectors.

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