Donald Trump has now completed his tempestuous voyage from campaigning and transitioning to governing. And governing effectively means making tough choices and trade-offs among options, which often range from bad to worse. Nothing could be closer to the truth than when dealing with the danger posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. That is certainly clear today after Kim Jung Un’s veiled threat in his New Year’s speech to begin testing an intercontinental ballistic missile that could attack the United States followed by last week’s rampant media speculation that Pyongyang was about to do so coinciding with President Trump’s inauguration. The danger is imminent, an effective strategy is needed and the menu of options is unpalatable. More sanctions will not work. The use of U.S. military force will be ineffective and carries great risks. And engineering regime change is a fool’s errand. Trump’s only realistic option for stopping North Korea’s nuclear march is this: reinvigorated diplomacy, followed by significantly ratcheting up the pressure if it fails. Can he do it? Will he?
The North Korean threat has grown worse over the past eight years because the Obama administration, forgetting Einstein’s definition of insanity, clung tenaciously to four flawed assumptions: first, that China would do America’s bidding against the North; second, that North Korea could not survive without greater economic integration with the international community; third, that time was on our side; and finally, that the United States could count on the North to always renege on its commitments. By holding itself captive to these assumptions for so long, the United States is now stuck in a policy no-man’s land, with neither crippling sanctions nor vigorous diplomacy. Worse yet, ignoring this problem is no longer an option since it only guarantees that the dangers posed to the United States and its allies by North Korea’s unconstrained development of missile and nuclear capabilities will metastasize.
What are these dangers? Many experts have argued that the threat of a North Korean ICBM attack against the United States has been overblown. In this view, Kim is not suicidal—he prizes above all else the survival of the family dynasty and North Korea, and he would therefore be deterred from attacking the United States by the certain prospect of massive U.S. retaliation and regime change. These are credible arguments that can be neither proved nor disproved. All things being equal, however, the U.S. would be safer if Kim did not have the ability to launch a nuclear-tipped missile.
And there are other serious dangers. These include a growing threat to U.S. allies and forces in Northeast Asia, calling into question current military plans to defend South Korea and Japan; strains on the cohesion of those alliances as both countries question the continued viability of America’s deterrent capacity; an escalating crisis in U.S.-Chinese relations if Washington immediately presses Beijing to tighten the sanctions noose and deploys additional military capabilities on the peninsula; the increased risk of a crisis if both Korea and Japan improve their own capabilities for preemptive strikes and the North responds by putting its forces on a higher state of alert; mounting danger that local provocations will trigger a wider conflict because the North, with a growing nuclear arsenal, would feel more emboldened to act provocatively; the proliferation of North Korean nuclear weapons technology, because Pyongyang, with a larger stockpile, would feel more confident that it could deter the United States and the international community from responding; the possibility that Japan and South Korea will build their own nuclear weapons to deter North Korean aggression; and increasing dangers of a larger pile of “loose nukes” if North Korea becomes unstable.
The new administration essentially has four options to reduce these threats. The first is to immediately seek an Iran-style campaign to impose draconian sanctions on North Korea to force it back to the negotiating table. President Trump seems to think that trash-talking China—the key player in such a campaign because of its economic ties to Pyongyang—for not lifting a finger to help with North Korea will do the trick. But this approach is doomed to failure: China will not cooperate since it views stability in the North as a paramount national interest and is suspicious that Washington’s real agenda is regime change. Moreover, it will only create more opportunities for the North to further advance its WMD programs by taking advantage of the growing rift between Washington and Beijing.
The second option, military strikes to remove the North Korean ICBM threat before it menaces the United States, has low odds of success; it would also be opposed by Korea and Japan and draw China into what could be a second Korean War. The third option, seeking regime change in the North to end the threat, would at best be a long-term approach since it will prove impossible to quickly topple the authoritarian regime in Pyongyang that has been in power for six decades. And at worst, the U.S. and others would spend years hoping its strategy would work while the immediate threat grows.
A fourth option, serious coercive diplomacy, stands the best chance of success. It would lead with diplomatic engagement with the North backed by the threat of robust military and economic actions to protect the United States and its allies from an expanding North Korean nuclear program. By necessity, because the North’s nuclear program is far along, the objective of coercive diplomacy would be the gradual denuclearization of North Korea in phases within a broader framework of concluding a comprehensive peace agreement that would, in the eyes of Pyongyang, end the U.S. “hostile policy” toward the North. Such a step-by-step process would be designed to secure the immediate U.S. objectives of capping and reversing the North’s nuclear and missile programs. As long as all parties understand that denuclearization is a process that won’t happen immediately, such an initiative would not mean that the U.S. is accepting North Korea as a nuclear state.
Can President Trump, who has talked endlessly about his deal-making prowess, succeed where others before him have largely failed? His administration has a shot at the brass ring if it is willing to try its hand at serious negotiations. Past U.S. strategy toward North Korea has emphasized either diplomacy or confrontation but has never integrated the two tracks with significant incentives to secure U.S. objectives and significant disincentives to punish Pyongyang if it rejects a serious and credible offer of negotiations. President Trump might also be best positioned to deal with domestic opponents—Republicans who will argue that seeking any deal is a waste of time. And he could bring along South Korea, our key ally, whose government may well shift soon from its current emphasis on sanctions to an approach more open to diplomacy with the likely impeachment and replacement of President Park Geun-hye.
A first step in this process would be for President Trump to reach out directly to the North Korean leadership, sending a private message that his administration is willing to explore peaceful paths forward. The purpose would be to start preliminary talks without preconditions to explore whether diplomacy has a chance. The North could well be open to such an initiative; despite dire predictions from pundits, Pyongyang has kept its powder dry since its September nuclear test, watching and waiting to see what approach the new U.S. administration will take. But time is also short, with new U.S.-South Korean Joint military exercises scheduled to start in February that could trigger a very strong North Korean response, particularly if those exercises are publicly portrayed, as they have been in the past, as practicing the decapitation of the North Korean leadership or include over-flights of American bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
If this initial effort at diplomacy fails, the Trump administration would be on a much firmer foundation—having proved the North’s diplomacy was a ruse and faced with a growing ICBM threat—to contain the threat by significantly raising the pressure. It should move forward with: 1) expanding the national missile defense system as well as regional missile defense systems in Japan and South Korea; 2) continuing to bolster offensive strike capabilities in the region to enhance deterrence of the North; 3) reevaluating the overall U.S. military force posture in Northeast Asia since the growth of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal will have a direct impact on military strategy to protect our allies; 4) making rotational deployments of aircraft capable of carrying conventional and nuclear weapons as well as U.S. nuclear submarines to South Korea; and 5) seeking stronger expanded multilateral sanctions at the United Nations, while also enacting them unilaterally, that would have greater economic bite on the North.
A new policy that tries negotiations first, and then puts intense pressure on the North if its intransigence scuttles diplomacy, is no guarantee of success, but the risks of trying this approach and failing are far outweighed by the costs and consequences of applying more sanctions, military force or seeking regime change. To paraphrase what Winston Churchill said about democratic forms of government, negotiating with the North is the worst option except for all others.