US must talk to North Korea even as it applies pressure: PM

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong give a wrap-up interview to the media, of the working visit to Washington DC.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong give a wrap-up interview to the media, of the working visit to Washington DC. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Even as the United States applies pressure on North Korea to rein in its nuclear activities, it has to talk to Pyongyang to avoid a miscalculation, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Wednesday.

It also has to work with China and Russia, and have South Korea and Japan on its side in dealing with the crisis, PM Lee said at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

"You always have the risk of a miscalculation. This administration has made some very strong statements, but at the same time you have made clear that you do not want to go to war," he said.

"The North Koreans are not suicidal. They are taskmasters at thunders and alarums, and not without success. If you are lucky, you could get past this hard point. If you aren't, you could have a miscalculation."

Moderator Evan Osnos had asked for his assessment of how serious the risk of military confrontation was, and what the US should do to avoid it. PM Lee noted that what was different with Pyongyang's latest provocations was that it had more powerful missiles, thereby raising the stakes, yet this "does not yet qualitatively and suddenly change the picture", as the risks were always there.

"You have to apply pressure, you also have to talk. You cannot not talk because if you don't talk, it doesn't get anywhere. If you only talk, then nothing happens.

"You will just be strung out. It has happened so many times before."

PM Lee added: "To play this game, you need to work with the Chinese. And the Russians must be somewhere in the picture. Most of all, you must have the South Koreans and the Japanese on your side.

"You have to have that diplomacy as well as that realpolitik."

Was he confident of dialogue before confrontation, Mr Osnos asked. PM Lee said this was a reasonable proposition, but "whether dialogue would reach an outcome before you have a confrontation, I cannot say".

The North Korean crisis also featured in PM Lee's meetings with President Donald Trump on Monday and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster on Tuesday. It will be high on the agenda when Mr Trump visits Asia from Nov 3.

Defence Secretary James Mattis told journalists after a meeting in the Philippines of defence ministers from Asean and its regional partners: "The more we do together today, the greater the chance for enduring peace in the future."

"That is really what it is all about, to keep DPRK efforts firmly in the diplomatic lane for resolution," he said, using the North's official name.

But analysts are worried about bellicose rhetoric from Pyongyang and Washington. North Korea's leadership sees Mr Trump as provocative, North Korea expert Sue Mi Terry of the Bower Group Asia said last week.

"But they also don't want to invite a reaction from the US," she said at a debate in Washington, warning that while a military option for dealing with North Korea's threats was formerly "unthinkable", there is a different situation now.

"North Korea is near the end of its (nuclear) programme, and we have a different leadership (in America) which is not a little bit unpredictable," she said. "Everybody is nervous for different reasons because they feel they can't count on consistency from Washington."

Ms Jean Lee, a fellow at the Wilson Centre, said the North Korean leadership had to show its people they were strong as well, and may be looking for an opportunity to step back.

"We have had a somewhat predictable pattern of escalation, and we will go into a quiet period, and there will be behind-the-scenes negotiation. But right now, we are not allowing that to happen," she said. "We need to allow a face-saving quiet period."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2017, with the headline 'US must talk to N. Korea even as it applies pressure: PM'. Print Edition | Subscribe