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Seven Steps to a Saner U.S. Policy Towards North Korea

There are seven postulates that ought to inform U.S. policy regarding North Korea.

First, our objective. Nothing is more important than to be clear about what we are trying to accomplish. Our purpose should be to provide for our own security and that of our allies, especially South Korea and Japan, while avoiding war. Our purpose should not be regime change in Pyongyang or forcing Kim Jong-un to abandon his nuclear weapons program. Both of those may be desirable. Neither is worth a large-scale war.

Second, the adversary. Kim Jong-un is a loathsome dictator who presides over a repressive state that keeps its impoverished people in bondage. That said, and notwithstanding his consistently provocative behavior, no evidence exists to suggest that Kim is irrational. Of course, speaking with absolute certainty on these matters is impossible. Yet the pattern of Kim’s behavior is not that of someone courting suicide. It appears far more likely that, working from a position of extreme weakness, he is employing one of his very few available assets to ensure the survival of the North Korean regime. Kim is not “begging for war,” as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations foolishly claims. He is merely sabre rattling, hoping thereby to keep his enemies at bay and to dissuade his few friends from selling him out.  

Third, the regional context. The North Korean crisis is a subset of a much larger development, namely, the ongoing redistribution of power in East Asia that is rendering obsolete the post-1945 order. Victory in World War II elevated the United States to the status of regional hegemon, a status symbolized even today by the presence of U.S. forces in Japan, South Korea, and outposts such as Guam. China’s rise to great power status poses a direct challenge to American primacy, while necessarily prompting anxiety among those accustomed to outsourcing their own security to the United States. Of far greater moment than North Korea is the challenge of creating a new regional order that accommodates China without doing great harm to U.S. interests or creating panic among China’s neighbors. In that regard, while a war on the Korean Peninsula would be a disaster, a war between China and the United States would be an unfathomable catastrophe. U.S. policymakers must never lose sight of that greater danger.


Fourth, the allies. U.S. behavior over the past couple of decades has done little to inspire confidence among our friends and allies. We specialize of late in starting needless wars that we then cannot finish. We promise liberation and democracy, but sow chaos. Then we elect the preposterous Donald Trump president. Small wonder that once reliable allies think we’ve taken leave of our senses. Affirming that view by blundering into a needless war in Korea would be the height of folly. To repair damaged relationships and restore trust in American leadership, it is essential that the U.S. response to North Korea demonstrate that the United States remains capable of prudent action undertaken in concert with others after due consultation. No more our way or the highway. No more you are either for us or against us. In that regard, overheated rhetoric threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen” or making reference to wars of “total annihilation” is not helpful.

Fifth, the media. The national media is obsessed with Trump and is determined to bring him down. Why pretend otherwise? The attacks that the New York Times and Washington Post directed at Richard Nixon back in the days of Watergate or at Reagan during Iran-Contra seem tame by comparison. Apart from Fox and a handful of outliers, just about anyone capable of reaching a wide audience piles on. Trump may well deserve every bit of obloquy heaped on his head. You won’t find me rising to his defense. Yet with regard to Korea, hyping the crisis as a way of playing up the gap between Trump’s Make-America-Great-Again promises and actually existing reality accomplishes one thing only: It fuels a full-fledged war scare, which serves only to increase the risk of miscalculation. In any earlier time, a call from the White House might persuade select editors and producers to tone down their coverage. In this instance, news executives who care about the well-being of their country, not to mention the planet as a whole, might do so of their own volition.

Sixth, strategy for the near-term. Experience during the seven decades since Hiroshima and Nagasaki shows that deterrence works. It can work with a nuclear-armed North Korea as well. Yet effective deterrence requires not only possessing a credible retaliatory capability—we’ve got that in spades—but conveying to a potential attacker and to all other interested parties an unmistakable intention to respond forcefully to any attack. This is best accomplished by employing language that is clear and unambiguous. Back in January 1954, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles put the matter simply: “The way to deter aggression is for the free community to be willing and able to respond vigorously at places and with means of its own choosing.” Dulles was speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations—and to the Soviet Politburo. To make his point, Dulles had no need to resort to histrionics. President Trump and his advisers should heed his example.

Seventh, strategy for the longer term. Deterrence won’t solve the problem posed by North Korea, but will keep that problem within manageable bounds. Making the problem go away will require progress toward the larger challenge of reconfiguring the distribution of power in East Asia. As others have noted, the one country with sufficient leverage to influence North Korean behavior is China. In his first encounter with President Xi Jinping, Donald Trump seemed to think that Xi would happily do his bidding and bring Kim Jong-un to heel. That was never going to happen. As a self-described master at cutting deals, Trump ought to know that Xi will expect something in return. What does Xi want? Broadly speaking, he wants recognition of the fact that China has now emerged as a global power of the first rank. That, in turn, implies hammering out the terms of a new power sharing arrangement that will provide for the stability of East Asia in the present century—a Grand Bargain, if you will. Negotiate that Grand Bargain—a task worthy of a Metternich, a Bismarck, or a John Quincy Adams—and the North Korea problem subsides into insignificance.

Unfortunately, an administration top heavy with generals, burdened with a somnolent secretary of state, and headed by a bombastic and unprincipled chief executive is almost surely incapable of recognizing either the problem or the opportunity that it faces.

Andrew Bacevich is The American Conservative’s writer-at-large.

30 Comments (Open | Close)

30 Comments To "Seven Steps to a Saner U.S. Policy Towards North Korea"

#1 Comment By Gazza On September 8, 2017 @ 6:20 am

Unfortunately, a “Grand Bargain” with the DPRK (ie security guarantees in exchange for shelving the weapons program) is unlikely to be feasible due to the current dysfunctional state of US party politics. Any agreement negotiated by one party will be sabotaged by the other one a change of Administration, as we are currently seeing with the Iranian nuclear pact. The DPRK will not give up their strategic nuclear deterrent when the most likely outcome is that a future POTUS will abrogate the treaty out of ideological convictions, or worse, out of domestic political concerns.

#2 Comment By Fred Bowman On September 8, 2017 @ 8:10 am

Andrew, you leave a very tall order for the current resident of the White House. Granted your suggestions would be common sense for a more capable President and his/her administration but unfortunately I don’t see that happening.

#3 Comment By James Drouin On September 8, 2017 @ 9:02 am

This article was nothing more than a whole lot of verbiage that could have been summarised in FOUR words:

“More of the Same.”

And it is a perfect example of the delusion that is the existential core of liberalism.

#4 Comment By MEOW On September 8, 2017 @ 9:03 am

These are logical steps. Then when has deep government been subject to the normally accepted rules of logic? They have seized near absolute power and they plan to hold onto this power, absolutely. Good luck future generations.

#5 Comment By Johann On September 8, 2017 @ 9:30 am

Ditto what James Drouin said.

In addition, China actually enjoys having a pitbull dog snarling and snipping at the US and its Pacific allies. Here is what will fix that.

We should encourage South Korea and Japan to develop nuclear weapons. No really. I predict that if South Korea, and especially if Japan even starts making noises about “maybe we should get nukes”, it will scare the hell out of China and China will get serious about taking the nukes away from their nasty pet NK.

#6 Comment By Slugger On September 8, 2017 @ 9:52 am

Our government has long had a policy of pointing out an external enemy who is worse than Hitler of whom ordinary citizens must be terrified and against whom all measures are acceptable. Any failure to comply with every edict of our government is treasonous cooperation with the worse than Hitler guy. Anything short of total war is another Munich capitulation. The evilest person on earth is replaced from time to time by an even worse guy. As long as this tool is used to mobilize our public, I fear a rational foreign policy can not exist.

#7 Comment By Michael Kenny On September 8, 2017 @ 11:05 am

Mr Bacevich both misses the point and gets it at the same time! North Korea isn’t “about” North Korea. It’s “about” Trump. The point is to hype up the crisis and then have Trump back down, thereby humiliating him. Kim is being very helpful, indeed. He is goading Trump to attack him, being certain that Trump won’t do that. Something similar is being done in Afghanistan: bog Trump down in an unwinnable guerrilla war. Trump needs a victory to validate his presidency and he is slowly being pushed towards the main event: getting Putin out of Ukraine. If Trump is defeated everywhere else, then he has to fight Putin, the advantage for him being that he kills Russiagate stone dead.

#8 Comment By Daniel (not Larrison) On September 8, 2017 @ 12:11 pm

Slugger, wiser words have never been spoken. Sadly.

#9 Comment By peterc On September 8, 2017 @ 12:16 pm

The North Korean situation is the result of the Truman doctrine (Korean war) combined with the more recent experiences of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi.
North Korea’s leader and his associates want to avoid the fate of the former leaders of Iraq and Libya – and a nuclear deterrent works.
The Korean war was temporarily stopped 60 years ago.
It is time to let the Koreans solve their issues without us – this is one sane step!

“U.S. behavior over the past couple of decades has done little to inspire confidence among our friends and allies. We specialize of late in starting needless wars that we then cannot finish. We promise liberation and democracy, but sow chaos.” is so true.

Regarding the obsession with President Trump, the media and Mr. Bacevich should get used to the fact that “the preposterous Donald Trump” is the president and it is our interest that he becomes a successful one.
His election was the response of the American voter to the hubris expressed by the political establishment – with strong support from the media – both internationally and here, in the USA.
Could it be that the media is trying to make the Trump administration more dysfunctional, so that they can say “we were right about him”?

#10 Comment By c matt On September 8, 2017 @ 12:33 pm

Well, Trump ran and was elected on a platform of less military engagement abroad. Despite the continuous policy of demonizing any non-vassal state. You can’t really blame Trump’s apparent turnaround on those who voted for him. Was the turn a known risk? Sure. But the alternative candidate didn’t even pretend to scale back foreign military adventures.

#11 Comment By Cynthia McLean On September 8, 2017 @ 1:06 pm

I totally agree that it’s time for the US to recognize the post-WWII global governance structure, with the US calling all the shots, is over. In the name of reality, we must acknowledge that China, Russia — the BRICS — have legitimate interests and find our way to a new multilateralism. Otherwise, we are all doomed.

#12 Comment By Jon S On September 8, 2017 @ 1:11 pm

The United States has worked closely with S. Korea over the last 60 years to create one of the wealthiest societies on the planet. We could do the same with North Korea. I’m sure the N. Koreans would welcome it. If given the choice, I’m sure Kim Jong-Un would prefer to be a very wealthy and secure South Korean than a frightened and murderous North Korean.

Unfortunately, we are too frightened ourselves to even consider such a gesture.

#13 Comment By Fabian On September 8, 2017 @ 2:58 pm

1) the media; I don’t understand this obsession with the media. They are a lame duck. Look at their ratings. And if they were, Trump wouldn’t be Prez. However, it is worrisome that the Prez feels pressure from them.
2) NK. China should (must) make a defense deal with them, complete with some troops at the border with SK and some anti ICBM missiles (that can be quickly converted into something more “sparky”). Like we do in SK.
China is the key and must act if they really have ambitions and if the goal is really to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

#14 Comment By Robert Riddle On September 8, 2017 @ 4:20 pm

One significant complication not mentioned is the unacceptable and inevitable fact that whatever North Korea develops will also end up in Iran. The potbelly dictator in North Korea may only want to insure his regime. The Muslim mullahs want to destroy Israel as part of a deeply-held religious mandate. Logic and rational thought is – sadly – not part of the equation.

#15 Comment By Frip On September 8, 2017 @ 8:33 pm

How come we don’t bomb North Korea?

#16 Comment By query On September 8, 2017 @ 9:16 pm

“Our purpose should not be regime change in Pyongyang or forcing Kim Jong-un to abandon his nuclear weapons program. Both of those may be desirable. Neither is worth a large-scale war.”

Why would a clean assassination of Kim Jong-un risk a large-scale war?

#17 Comment By Vitaly Purto On September 8, 2017 @ 10:20 pm

Out of 14 comments so far only Cynthia McLean mentioned invisible elephant with 8,000 nukes and REAL ability to destroy continental US. With very limited forces ISIS was destroyed in Syria while the US was practically checked out of Middle East due to catastrophic failures of its policies. Total self-delusion of both “leaders” and once toiling masses bode ill for the near future of once inspiring Republic. One of the neocon ideologue once proclaimed that “we do not need to be loved, we would prefer to be feared”. Very important advise followed by 4 administrations. Indeed love is less inspiring than hatred caused by fear. Let us see how it played in 2003. Iraqi generals, who got excellent training in the Soviet Army, were initially paid to defect from Saddam Hussein. But then they were dismissed by Paul Bremer, a faceless civilian bureaucrat for whom military honor was empty word. Now they wage war of revenge disguised as ISIS. Majority of them speak Russian. Is not it a parade of follies?
What is mightier – gold or sword? History gives us unambiguous answer. Just compare North Koreans with overfed McDonald patrons.

#18 Comment By David Gerald Fincham On September 9, 2017 @ 4:28 am

Robert Riddle: you say “The Muslim mullahs want to destroy Israel as part of a deeply-held religious mandate.”

“whatever North Korea develops will also end up in Iran.”

This is what the Supreme Leader of Iran says about Israel: “The Islamic Republic’s proposal to help resolve the Palestinian issue and heal this old wound is a clear and logical initiative based on political concepts accepted by world public opinion, which has already been presented in detail. We do not suggest launching a classic war by the armies of Muslim countries, or throwing immigrant Jews into the sea, or mediation by the UN and other international organizations. We propose holding a referendum with (the participation of) the Palestinian nation. The Palestinian nation, like any other nation, has the right to determine their own destiny and elect the governing system of the country.”

This is what he says about nuclear weapons;”The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons.There is no doubt that the decision makers in the countries opposing us know well that Iran is not after nuclear weapons because the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous.”

#19 Comment By RenoDino On September 9, 2017 @ 9:32 am

Greatest respect for Mr. Bacevich, but once again we are treated to a very deeply rational person ignoring America’s primary directive. For 70 years, we have poured all of our blood and treasure into maintaining a global empire. Despite the fact that we have been lousy stewards of this imperial project, it still remains the one and only driving force that keeps our current government in place and our people united. Without it, we are quite literally toast. What allies we still have will turn on us and our currency will lose its reserve status.
China and Russia have been handed the perfect lever in the form of Kim to unseat us from the Iron Throne. By allowing someone of his ilk to threaten us and our allies with total destruction demonstrates the complete bankruptcy of Pax Americana. Deterrence then becomes a fate worse than death.

#20 Comment By Steve Diamond On September 9, 2017 @ 10:12 am

Those who say US allies should be encouraged to develop nuclear weapons are gambling with humanity’s survival to serve short-term interests. Allies don’t always stay allies, and their foreign relations are complex and fluid over the decades.

#21 Comment By Donald On September 9, 2017 @ 10:27 am

“Logic and rational thought is – sadly – not part of the equation.”

Rubbish, including the fake sadness. Irrational Westerners always make this argument as an excuse for the wars they want to launch.

#22 Comment By Thymoleontas On September 9, 2017 @ 2:07 pm

How about creating an organization like NATO’s “Partnership for Peace” program in the Pacific between ANZUS, Japan, S. Korea, Russia, China, and other players?

#23 Comment By joe On September 9, 2017 @ 3:08 pm

The US should leave that area and let the nations work on their own problems.

Let the Korean countries unite. Short term economic stagnation and problems for South Korea,
long term a stronger country, with more manpower. Although I imagine Kim Jong Un wouldnt give away his power. But at least they may improve relations for the future.

All the interventionist liberals and neocons of course wouldnt let that happen.

Fix America first.

#24 Comment By joe On September 9, 2017 @ 3:11 pm

The Muslim mullahs want to destroy Israel as part of a deeply-held religious mandate. Logic and rational thought is – sadly – not part of the equation.

ZioNeocon propaganda.
Iran is not the problem. They havent attacked anyone in centuries. They arent invading Europe with refugues. These are Persians, not Arabs. Different mind set.

let Israel worry about their defense instead of depending on America to do everything.

#25 Comment By Mark Thomason On September 9, 2017 @ 11:28 pm

Regarding the adversary, we must realize that he is culturally a Korean. That culture includes a strong tendency to extreme confrontation and posturing before compromise.

They do compromise. They just scream and rage and huff and puff before they do. It is a cultural thing.

I like Koreans. I can deal with this. I have. It is just necessary to know what is going on when the storm hits. They are going to compromise, just like anybody else. They just do their own thing along the way first.

It is no different than realizing that the Japanese mean no when they don’t really say no. They just have their own culture.

#26 Comment By Fran Macadam On September 11, 2017 @ 1:16 am

I keep hearing about our friends, our allies, our interests over there. From over here, although wishing no one anything but good will, neither I nor anyone else I know here in America has friends, allies or interests there. Our interests are all here. I wish those elites who direct American policy for themselves, not us – clearly, the “our” in the above explication only means “their” interests – would get interested instead in US Americans.

#27 Comment By Gazza On September 11, 2017 @ 9:04 am

@Robert Riddle
” The Muslim mullahs want to destroy Israel as part of a deeply-held religious mandate.”
Preposterous tosh. Iran wants an end to Israel as an apartheid, racially supremacist, military state, but has NEVER threatened it with destruction by nukes. Such claims are based on deliberate mis-translations and outright fabrications, such as the infamous “erased from the pages of time” misquote. Iran has a binding fatwa against nukes, considering them to be immoral and “offensive to God” and for a Shia Theocracy, that is more absolute than any treaty signed by a secular national government. Americans choose to ignore this obvious reality, but it remains a solid truth nonetheless.

“Logic and rational thought is – sadly – not part of the equation.” This statement is hilarious, considering the utter bilge written immediately before it.

#28 Comment By splendid non-interventionism On September 11, 2017 @ 11:31 am

@Fran Macadam : “I keep hearing about our friends, our allies, our interests over there. From over here, although wishing no one anything but good will, neither I nor anyone else I know here in America has friends, allies or interests there. Our interests are all here. “

… to which the only possible reply is “Fran Macadam for President!”

#29 Comment By Robert Ogrodny On September 12, 2017 @ 7:13 am

@splendid non-interventionist. I voted for Trump because I thought he WAS @Fran Macadam, or at least he said about the same thing. I’m disappointed in him going back on this campaign pledge. He usually confounds people who try to outfox his next move though, so he may have a plan about that that is not yet known. I hope so, I just hope it doesn’t involve more “empire” building. MAGA does not mean Magog. Fran, if you run, I’d vote for you; but what do I know? I am not that splendid, but I am all for non-intervention. I don’t even think we should have a foreign policy, outside of self defense, but isn’t what this is now? I mean, little Kimmie might not be able to nuke us, but if he has a missile that can go say 200 miles, might he make SK a tad nervous? And that war has never been resolved. See now why Jefferson and Washington cautioned us about “foreign entanglements”? We are entangled through our government. But if the people ARE the government, why can’t we get “Our” government to do our will? Need I go on. If there ever was a God in heaven, we need Him now, because we are beyond “unentaglement” by using our human intelligence. It’s waaaaay beyond even the most enlightened human brain to solve these complexities exponentially exploding everywhere? The only answer I see is Fran’s answer, Washington’s answer, Jefferson’s answer, and my own answer. How much leverage does that give us? Mr. & Mrs. nobody and two dead guys are going to defeat Laviathan? Laviathan wouldn’t even notice if we bounced off at our optimum speed. Anybody have a better answer? I’d love to hear it. the Hobbit

#30 Comment By Stephan Larose On September 13, 2017 @ 6:55 am

Why would North Korea dismantle its nukes? It has seen how when Iraq was disarmed it was destroyed. When Libya volunteered to dismantle its WMD program it was destroyed. Over the years North Koreas have learned that the only thing that can deter a US attack is a nuclear deterrent. The US, for its part, has demonstrated to the world the folly of disarmament and that it is very happy to break int’l law so it can launch wars of choice against frivolously-declared enemies. The only way to maintain any kind of independence or sovereignty is to have a credible deterrent.