The Trump administration has yet to fill out its foreign policy team—but the international challenges won’t stop. There is broad agreement that North Korea is one of the central problems, if not the biggest challenge, facing the new president.
The government of Kim Jong-un won’t give Washington a break. The latest mid-range missile test was routine, if unwelcome. But the apparent public assassination of Kim’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, with deadly VX nerve agent at Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur airport, demonstrates a willingness of the North Korean regime to ostentatiously flout the international sensibilities of friend and foe alike.
The presumed murder of Kim suggests not just hubris but fear. Kim Jong-nam was far from power and his criticism of the North’s dynastic communist system had been muted. But he lived in Macau under Chinese protection and might have acted as a Kim family front man if the current regime fell.
Yet the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea poses little direct threat to America. No one wants to see the DPRK possess a nuclear arsenal, let alone one which could reach 50 or 100 warheads in a few years, as some observers fear. However, all three Kim rulers, including North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il, have showed no interest in acquiring virgins in the afterlife. They were ruthless, not suicidal.
Thus, their views of the U.S. appear to be eminently practical. So too Kim Jong-un, who followed the Chicago Bulls as a youngster (which accounts for his otherwise inexplicable connection to Dennis Rodman) and apparently retains an interest in Disney characters. Still Washington has made the Koreas’ once very hot conflict—and now cold war—America’s own.
Not only is the U.S. ready to back the Republic of Korea in a fight. Washington has demonstrated its willingness to defenestrate regimes that end up on Uncle Sam’s naughty list. The ouster of Muammar el-Qaddafi was particularly momentous, since he had made a deal with America and Europe to yield his nuclear and missile programs. Once he dropped this potential deterrent to outside intervention, the West struck when convenient. While Pyongyang has other reasons to develop nuclear weapons, such as to extort benefits internationally and cement regime loyalty domestically, deterrence of America almost certainly looms large.
So the Trump administration should ask: why stay in Northeast Asia? Absent the U.S.-South Korea alliance and promise to go to war on Seoul’s behalf, Kim Jong-un would have no reason to attack America. Since doing so would result in the destruction of his nation and regime, Kim would be unlikely to even threaten to loose fire and brimstone on U.S. cities, let alone do so.
Because of the Cold War the Korean Peninsula mattered to America in 1950; moreover, the U.S. helped set up the circumstances for war. Thus, Washington had little choice but to halt the North’s aggression. Moreover, during its early years the Republic of Korea depended upon U.S. military backing to survive. But that hasn’t been true for years. Today the ROK possesses about 40 times the GDP and twice the population of the North. Seoul’s military is well-trained and technologically advanced. Neither Russia nor China would back Pyongyang against South Korea.
The North’s developing nuclear arsenal threatens the conventional balance, but even if Washington chose to maintain its so-called nuclear umbrella, that would not warrant garrisoning the South. To the contrary, doing so puts nearly 30,000 American personnel within easy reach of North Korean attack. They are nuclear hostages of sorts.
In fact, that should cause the administration to reconsider the best way to deter a nuclear North Korea. In Northeast Asia, nuclear nonproliferation is acting a bit like gun control domestically: only the bad guys are armed, in this case Russia, China, and North Korea. Rather than risk Los Angeles to protect Seoul and Tokyo (and maybe Canberra and Taipei), it might be better for the U.S. to encourage South Korea (and maybe others) to develop their own deterrent. In fact, that unsettling prospect might spur Beijing to take stronger action against North Korea to force a halt in its nuclear and missile programs. Such a change in U.S. policy would be controversial, but Washington’s current commitment ensures U.S. entanglement in a potential nuclear conflict.
In any case, it obviously would be best if the North did not develop a deliverable nuclear arsenal. So how can Washington prevent Pyongyang from moving forward?
Military action is a nonstarter: President Bill Clinton considered doing so, but was dissuaded by the steadfast opposition of South Korean President Kim Young-sam. To hope that the North would be deterred from retaliating would be a wild gamble—with the lives of thousands or even millions of South Koreans in the balance. Involvement in a full-scale war likely would result in thousands of American casualties as well.
Sanctions are the go-to policy for many policy-makers. However, while China has agreed to gradually tighten economic restrictions, it has consistently refused to risk causing an implosion on its border. Washington could target Chinese banks and companies as well, but that likely would drive Beijing closer to North Korea, as well as poison the U.S.-China relationship in other areas.
Better would be to develop a diplomatic strategy to persuade the People’s Republic of China to apply greater pressure on Pyongyang. President Donald Trump suggested that the PRC has control over North Korea; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson testified that the U.S. should “compel” China to comply with U.S. dictates. In fact, the DPRK long has resisted Chinese pressure and attempts by Washington to dictate to Beijing almost certainly would backfire.
Instead, Washington needs to acknowledge China’s interests—avoiding both a failed state in chaos and a united Korea allied with America hosting U.S. troops on its border. The Trump administration should try to make a deal, to use Trump-speak. In return for greater pressure, Washington should accept the potential of the Chinese installing a pliant regime, offer to help care for refugees, promise to withdraw U.S. forces from a united Korea, and accept a neutral unified peninsula.
Finally, the administration should ask: why not talk to the North? During the campaign, candidate Trump even posited the possibility of meeting with Kim Jong-un. While that would be premature without a serious improvement in North Korean behavior and bilateral relations, the possibility shouldn’t be discounted.
Of course, the North is a nasty regime, but so was the Soviet Union. Washington has friendly relations with the Central Asian dictatorships, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. The U.S. has formal if frosty relations with Eritrea and negotiated with Iran. And no one is suggesting a break in relations with Russia, despite imposition of sanctions. The failure to talk would make Moscow-related issues even harder to solve.
Refusing to engage North Korea has a similar impact. Isolation has failed. Just as Iran responded to the George W. Bush administration’s refusal to engage by adding centrifuges, North Korea has developed more nukes and missiles. Talking to the North won’t magically cause it to disarm, but refusing to have contact achieves nothing.
Addressing the North—exploring areas of agreement short of abandoning weapons already developed—might at least mitigate the danger resulting from a large, deliverable North Korean arsenal. Moreover, even low-level diplomatic relations would offer a window into one of the world’s most closed societies.
Perhaps most important, developing an attractive deal would reduce the North’s current sense that it faces an existential threat. That would eliminate at least one justification for the North’s weapons programs as well as satisfy the Chinese complaint that U.S. policy contributed to the problem. Should Pyongyang refuse to respond to a softening by Washington, Beijing policymakers would have one fewer excuse for not acting.
There’s no easy answer to the challenge posed by the DPRK. However, U.S. policy is long overdue for a serious review. It no longer is in America’s interest to be so deeply involved in Northeast Asia’s unsettling conflicts. In any case, it’s worth considering new approaches to solve old problems.
After all, the North’s apparent decision to kill the leader’s half-brother demonstrates that Pyongyang is not moderating its behavior to accommodate the new administration. Absent a change in U.S. policy, there’s no reason to expect different North Korean behavior. And if North Korea continues its current course, it could become a mid-rank nuclear power on par with India, Israel, and Pakistan. That’s a prospect no administration should want to face.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.