Is there a way to avoid war on the Korean Peninsula?

The freeze-for-freeze deal suggested by China and Russia can avert a deadly showdown between the US and North Korea.

Kim watching missiles Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un watches a ballistic rocket launch drill, at an unknown location, in this undated file photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency [KCNA/via Reuters]

The situation on the Korean Peninsula – with the clear risk of a Third World War – is the most tense and dangerous peace and security issue humanity currently faces. The insanity of this situation is akin to two madmen – “Rocket Man and “Dotard” as they like to call each other – rapidly accelerating towards one another on a train-track.

As they hurtle towards each other, US President Donald Trump is unequivocal that he will not cancel the war games that are so provocative to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, while demanding his opponent give up his nuclear arsenal. In reply, Kim shouts he will not talk to Trump while military exercises are being conducted next door, and his country will never give up its nuclear deterrent.

Kim Jong-un is accelerating from one direction, in clear defiance of Trump and the international community with his nuclear and missile tests. His most recent nuclear test, over ten times larger than the one that flattened Hiroshima, has been matched by rapid increases in both the types and capacities of his missiles. This progress is driven by more missile tests during his time than all of the earlier North Korean dictators added together (86 out of all 117 North Korean missile tests were conducted during Kim Jong-un’s rule).

Trump is speeding from the other direction. He is conducting military exercises in clear defiance of warnings from both Russia and China that these exercises are, in the eyes of North Korea, becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish from actual attacks. This same problem almost lead to a nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union in 1983.

The military exercises that caused difficulties for North Korea annually (and may have been instrumental in it creating its own nuclear deterrent), peaked in scale around 1990. The number and scope of these exercises rapidly declined with the first nuclear control agreement of 1994. The war games were only re-ignited in their full capacity after North Korea broke the agreement and tested their first nuclear bomb in 2006.

Kim Jong Un knows that a freeze-for-freeze is his next best option.


Current exercises now involve troop and aircraft numbers that are equal to or even exceed historical levels. In addition, nuclear strike drills, nuclear preparedness status, a near-continuous sequence of military routines, and a new generation of weapons are taking stress levels to heights equal, if not beyond, the most tense points of the Cold War.

 Although neither side actually intends to collide with the other, they are only one accident, provocation, tantrum or paranoid misunderstanding away from a catastrophe. None of the safeguards or confidence building measures (pdf) that prevented accidental conflict during the Cold War is being applied. There is no hotline for the leaders to communicate directly with each other.

There is minimal transparency, information sharing or independent observers, so as not to misunderstand or be startled by the war games, missile or nuclear tests of the other. Neither side is predictable nor have they been unambiguous in setting down their respective red lines. Neither side is sincere, trusts the other, or communicates with respect. The recipe for war is nearly perfect.

In this very tense atmosphere, both Russia and China are proposing to the two sides a “freeze-for-freeze” or “dual suspension” agreement, as a first step towards substantive negotiations. The core of this idea is that North Korea would freeze both its nuclear explosions and missile tests, and in return, the US and its allies would suspend their large-scale military exercises that threaten North Korea.

The freeze-for-freeze deal will not solve the much larger issues of how to deal with a nuclear-armed North Korea and the likely proliferation of nuclear weapons in South Korea and Japan if this upset in the regional balance of power remains. Although this freeze-for-freeze proposal will not solve these longer-term problems, it is currently the best chance for avoiding an accidental war in the short term.

Kim Jong-un knows that a freeze-for-freeze is his next best option. He now has very powerful nuclear weapons and possibly the missiles needed to deliver them. His complementary goal is to ensure the survival of his regime, for which freezing the status quo would suit him well. He is also aware of the precedent that the Americans stopped or shrank their war games in the 1990s to pave the way to the original agreement with North Korea on nuclear weapons.

The Americans do not see it the same way. They know North Korea has complained and threatened about their military exercises for decades. They also recall that the last time they suspended their military exercises, the North Koreans cheated on the reciprocal commitments they made. The Americans are also aware that no matter how provocative their military exercises are, they are not illegal or, in comparison to North Korea’s nuclear programme, in violation of the will of the international community. For Trump, to agree to a freeze on war games would be to reward the bad behaviour of a regime that is now promising to destroy cities in the US mainland.

Despite holding the high ground on this issue, in the face of a possible nuclear conflict, the US president should not dismiss the freeze-for-freeze option. Every option to avoid war must be fully explored. The most advanced military in the world could continue to prepare in any other theatre, except next door to North Korea.

At the same time, further deployments of missile defence may still be possible in South Korea without violating the conditions of a freeze-freeze deal. Also, North Korea could be convinced to freeze its military exercises. A timeline for the freeze could be attached to the deal, and everything agreed in a temporary freeze would be without prejudice to the much larger possible settlement with North Korea.

None of this is ideal, but it is much better than the only certainty before us. The certainty is that if accidental war does occur, everyone will lose a lot more than the cost of exploring whether a temporary safety measure can be placed between two trains heading towards each other at high speed.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.