The North Korean nuclear crisis that escalated tension between the North and the US to stoke fears of war on the Korean Peninsula has certainly reached a decisive point.
US President Donald Trump’s Asian tour next week will heavily affect how the crisis will evolve, as he is scheduled to discuss North Korea with key leaders in the region, including South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
It is too early to predict on what the leaders will agree -- and disagree -- and what course of action North Korea will take, but the latest developments may raise guarded optimism that things, will at least not get any worse.
The first such sign is that North Korea, which had persistently ratcheted up tensions by successive provocations this year, has made no meaningful provocation since it conducted its sixth nuclear test on Sept. 3 and test-fired an intermediate-range ballistic missile on Sept. 15.
Given that the North had previously fired as many as 15 missiles, including what are believed to be intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the US mainland, the North’s inaction for 1 1/2 months could be interpreted as a positive sign.
In another hopeful sign, the North sent back last Friday a South Korean fishing boat and crew that it had seized in the East Sea for violating its territorial waters while trying to catch fish.
Considering the Pyongyang government usually maintains hostility toward South Korea too when it confronts the US, the case also may be seen as a positive sign for the future development of the situation.
Then a clear US message of peace came from none other than US Defense Secretary James Mattis, who visited South Korea ahead of the Nov. 7-8 state visit by President Trump.
During a visit to the border area, Mattis said that the goal was not war but rather the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
The scene of the head of the US military, who donned a civilian suit, rather than a military uniform, preaching a peaceful solution to the crisis while North Korean soldiers looked on from across the border carried symbolic significance.
The Pentagon chief’s emphasis on a negotiated settlement came amid speculation that Pyongyang and Washington were in unofficial contact to explore the resumption of dialogue.
US Congress is also moving to preclude war between the US and North Korea following the war of words between Trump -- who even insinuated a pre-emptive strike against the North -- and the North’s Kim Jong-un who threatened to strike the US with a nuclear missile.
Congressman John Conyers, Jr. and Sen. Edward J. Markey led more than 60 members of Congress in introducing a bipartisan, bicameral legislation to prohibit Trump from attacking North Korea without the approval of Congress.
But North Korea should not mistake all these recent developments as efforts to appease it. While in Seoul, Mattis rightfully made it clear that the North would be defeated with a “massive military response” should it attack the US or its allies.
He also said that diplomats were most effective “when backed by credible military force.” Before and after Mattis’ visit to South Korea, the US military built up its presence in the region by bringing three aircraft carrier fleets, following frequent fly-bys and bombing drills involving US strategic bombers like the B1-B. Mattis and Song also agreed to push rotational deployment of US strategic assets in and around the peninsula.
North Korea should look squarely at the reality. It will never be allowed to become a nuclear state and it will ruin itself if it continues to stick to its nuclear and missile programs. The only way for it to survive is to refrain from making further provocations and respond favorably to the US and international efforts to resolve the crisis peacefully.