A war of words between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un intensified in September when Trump threatened in a speech at the U.N. General Assembly to “totally destroy North Korea.”
Trump also created a nickname for Kim — “Rocket Man” — who in turn called the U.S. president a “mentally deranged dotard.” Experts fear this volley of insults could lead to a more serious miscommunication or miscalculation that inadvertently sparks a major conflict.
Trump’s threats led Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to tell The New York Times that Trump was setting the country “on the path to World War III.”
But even as Trump tweeted that his secretary of state shouldn’t waste his time negotiating with North Korea and warned that Pyongyang “will be met with fire and fury,” some experts have begun to take a nuclear-armed North Korea as fact and shifted their focus to containing the threat.
Since 2011, North Korea has carried out dozens of ballistic missile tests, including the recent launch of two intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) theoretically capable of striking the U.S. mainland. Since 2006, it has also conducted six nuclear tests — the last one, in September, was reportedly 10 times larger than the Hiroshima blast.
And according to an Aug. 8 report in The Washington Post, a confidential U.S. intelligence assessment determined that North Korea has mastered the ability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead that can fit inside a missile, a benchmark that up until just recently had seemed years away. U.S. intelligence also estimated that the country possesses about 60 nuclear bombs, though experts say the figure could be higher.
The lack of good options to restrain North Korea’s rapidly advancing nuclear program has almost become a tired refrain. Yet the fact remains that there are only bad options for dealing with the Hermit Kingdom, some uglier than others.
A pre-emptive U.S. military strike that could lead to war is not only the worst-case scenario, it is unfathomable to many people — among them, the millions in Seoul and Tokyo who could die in a North Korean retaliatory attack.
Experts point out that even more limited surgical strikes to “decapitate” the North Korean leadership would quickly snowball and only strengthen the country’s resolve to keep its nukes as a means of self-preservation. While some believe North Koreans — having endured famine and crippling poverty — would gladly abandon their repressive government in the event of an attack, others say this underestimates how brainwashed the country’s 25 million citizens are.
“Far more than when I previously visited, North Korea is galvanizing its people to expect a nuclear war with the United States,” wrote The New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof following a recent visit to the country. “This military mobilization is accompanied by the ubiquitous assumption that North Korea could not only survive a nuclear conflict, but also win it.”
That leaves the U.S. with a host of unpalatable options, none of which have worked so far. Over the last 25 years, negotiations, economic aid, sanctions, cyber-sabotage, international isolation and saber-rattling have all failed to persuade the closed-off communist state to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons, which the Kim dynasty views as key to its survival.
The one country that might alter Kim Jong-un’s calculus, China — the North’s economic lifeline — worries about a fate worse than Kim’s nukes. It fears the collapse of his regime, which would send a flood of destitute refugees across its borders, leave the North’s fissile material vulnerable and put a unified Korea — and staunch U.S. ally — at China’s doorstep.
Despite these fears, Chinese leaders aren’t thrilled about a mercurial young dictator building up a nuclear arsenal with the potential for dangerous radioactive leaks next door. Nor are they happy about the prospect of a U.S. military buildup in the region in response to Kim’s provocations, or the South Korean deployment of a controversial U.S. missile defense system that China adamantly opposes. So Beijing has in recent months agreed to tough new U.N. sanctions that could cut North Korea’s annual earnings by a third and begun limiting some petroleum exports to the country.
The issue of how much further China can squeeze North Korea will be front and center during Trump’s Asia trip this month, when he visits five countries, including China, Japan and South Korea.
While Trump tries to convince the Chinese to do more to pressure Kim, the Chinese will be trying to convince Trump to ratchet down tensions and reconsider negotiations. That includes a “freeze-for-freeze” proposal whereby the North suspends further missile testing in exchange for a suspension of joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises, which has long been a nonstarter for the U.S. and the South.
Such proposals are still widely considered unthinkable by the U.S. foreign establishment, especially in light of Pyongyang’s reckless behavior and the need to prepare for a crisis. Yet they dovetail with the emerging idea that the U.S. needs to accept, at least unofficially, that North Korea is an established nuclear power and shift its policies from prevention to management.
Containment and Deterrence
A growing number of policy analysts and former U.S. officials argue that denuclearization, or coercing North Korea into giving up its nuclear arsenal, is not realistic. Instead, they make the case for containing the nuclear threat and deterring Kim from unleashing his weapons.
In a report for the Brookings Institution, Robert Einhorn, former State Department special advisor for nonproliferation and arms control, wrote in August that two realities stand in the way of forcing North Korea to fully disarm.
“First, although Beijing can probably be persuaded or pressured to do significantly more than it is currently doing to rein in Pyongyang, it will balk at measures that could destabilize the regime,” he wrote. “Second, even if Washington somehow managed to mobilize devastating international pressures against the North, Kim Jong-un would be unwilling to abandon altogether the nuclear deterrent that he considers essential to the survival of his regime.”
Einhorn also argues that regime change is unrealistic. “U.S. military leaders acknowledge that initiating the use of force to deal with the North Korea threat entails intolerable risks, including the prospect of a major war on the Korean Peninsula that could escalate to the nuclear level,” he wrote.
In light of this impasse, Einhorn advocates “a phased approach to denuclearization, starting with an interim freeze on Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile capabilities.”
He admits that the North is unlikely to unilaterally cease its nuclear and missile testing for an unspecified period as a precondition to any talks — as the U.S. has demanded. Likewise, the U.S. and South Korea won’t cancel routine defense drills, particularly in light of the growing threat North Korea poses.
But Einhorn says both sides can take baby steps to provide a “diplomatic off-ramp” to the current standoff. For North Korea, this would include refraining from nuclear test explosions and long-range missile launches in order for talks to begin. For the U.S., it would mean scaling back some exercises with South Korea.
Meanwhile, alongside this phased approach, the U.S. would pursue a long-term strategy of pressure, deterrence and containment. This would entail building on current policy measures, including stronger sanctions and enforcement; reducing Pyongyang’s hard currency earnings (by expanding restrictions on imports from North Korea, for example); interdicting the North’s acquisition of nuclear materials, equipment and technology; encouraging China, including with the threat of sanctions against Chinese entities, to stop facilitating North Korea’s illicit activities; and working with South Korea and Japan to bolster their conventional defense capabilities.
“The main difference with the current approach is that these efforts would be aimed not at compelling Pyongyang to agree to abandon its strategic programs in the short run but at deterring and containing North Korea over the longer term, while waiting for, and perhaps more actively promoting, a change of heart or change of regime in Pyongyang,” Einhorn wrote.
The challenge with even beginning any kind of phased approach, however, is finding an agreement acceptable to both North Korea and the U.S. Trust is a huge issue. North Korea cheated under two previous “freezes” during the Clinton and Obama administrations.
The U.S. and others in any potential six-party talks — China, Japan, Russia and South Korea — would demand an inspections regime with enough access to verify that the North had indeed halted its uranium enrichment and missile testing programs. This would likely require North Korea to divulge the locations of secret facilities, akin to the concessions Iran made in the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement.
Although Einhorn played a leading role in the policy that led to the Iran deal, he rejected the idea that this model would apply to North Korea.
“It’s a very different situation,” he told The Diplomat, noting that Iran accepted restrictions on fissile material for 10 years — a “much better deal than what we could hope for” with North Korea.
Iran was pressured to the bargaining table in large part because of coordinated U.S.-European Union sanctions that choked off Tehran’s access to global banking and trade. In return for curtailing its nuclear program, Iran was allowed to resume oil sales on the international market and had billions of dollars in frozen assets unlocked.
Economically, North Korea is far more insulated, making it harder to influence.
“The key parallel is in accepting reality,” Einhorn said. “We did not have the leverage to compel Iran to give up its nuclear program so we had to compromise…. The reality we will be forced to accept is that we will not be able to compel North Korea to give up its weapons and capability.”
Facing Up to Reality
Michael McFaul, who served as ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, made much the same case when he argued that, “While Kim Jong-un and his regime remain in power, denuclearization is not a realistic goal.”
“Our singular focus for the short term must be to freeze the North Korean nuclear weapons and missile programs,” McFaul wrote in an Aug. 16 article for Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute.
He argued that a freeze could follow along the lines of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks pursued during the Cold War to slow the arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
“Coercive diplomacy served the United States well in deterring and then reducing the Soviet threat during the Cold War. This same strategy can also work against a much less formidable North Korean foe,” he wrote. “Like Stalin, Kim Jong-un is a ruthless dictator, capable of unspeakable crimes against his citizens. But he is not irrational. Like his grandfather and father, he can be deterred. And he might be capable of doing a deal.”
The alternative, according to McFaul, is an arms race in Northeast Asia.
“If Kim Jong-un continues to develop North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs unabated, South Korean leaders will feel compelled to acquire their own nuclear weapons. If South Korea moves in this direction, Japan will follow,” McFaul warned.
But Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, thinks it is too soon to consider negotiations on this scale.
“I’m not really sure there’s something new to bring to the table,” Glaser told The Diplomat.
It is “premature” to say that sanctions are not working and too soon to start engaging in negotiations until the sanctions have “inflicted more pain” on North Korea, Glaser said.
The latest round of sanctions adopted by the international community are the toughest ever imposed on the regime, and have only recently gone into effect.
In September, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted another round of economic sanctions in response to an underground nuclear test on Sept. 3 that North Korea claimed was a successful test of a hydrogen bomb.
The sanctions ban North Korean textile exports and prevent the country from sending its citizens to work abroad, where they could send remittances back home.
These bans were added on top of an August embargo on North Korean coal, iron, lead and seafood — some of the country’s most profitable exports, according to a Sept. 14 Voice of America article by Ham Jiha and Jenny Lee.
But the toughest measure yet placed on the North is the limit on imports of refined petroleum products.
“The oil sanction [is] important because it marks the first time that restrictions have been placed on exports of oil to North Korea,” Glaser told Voice of America. But China has yet to reduce its supply of crude oil to North Korea, which is reportedly over 500,000 tons annually. Since Beijing provides 90 percent of North Korea’s crude oil, a substantial reduction or cutoff by China would have an enormous impact.
While China and Russia, North Korea’s two main oil suppliers, have refused to accept a complete ban on oil imports, this is the first time China has agreed to such a strict sanctions package.
“China is, and always has been, critical to any solution to the North Korea problem,” Einhorn told The Diplomat.
China’s influence over North Korea is a function of the two countries’ trade relationship, Glaser said. China accounts for over 90 percent of the North’s economic activity. “The fact is that [North Korea has] long traded more with China than the rest of the world.”
The economic partnership has kept the North Korean regime afloat and provided a market for China’s processed raw materials.
But this reliance goes beyond money. North Korea is a critical geostrategic buffer state for China, which will not take measures so extreme that they risk the collapse of the regime, according to Einhorn.
The North’s collapse could lead to reunification of the Korean Peninsula under the control of Seoul, a U.S. ally. It could also put the North’s “loose nukes” in the hands of non-state actors such as terrorist groups.
“China is not prepared to bring North Korea to its knees,” Einhorn said. But China will use its leverage to bring North Korea to the negotiating table, he added.
Strength in Numbers
In addition to China, Russia and U.S. allies in the region are pivotal to any long-term negotiating strategy.
Michael D. Swaine, a China security expert who is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, agrees with Einhorn that policymakers should abandon hopes of “ridding North Korea of its nuclear weapons” and argues that the U.S. should instead work with Japan, South Korea, China and Russia to build a “crisis management” architecture.
This long-term strategy should be “designed to minimize North Korea’s capacity and willingness to utilize those weapons … while also continuing to work toward eventual denuclearization,” Swaine wrote in a Sept. 11 Carnegie report.
Among other measures, Swaine advocates for direct communication channels among the U.S., China and South Korea; procedures for detecting and preventing any attempt by Pyongyang to transfer nuclear weapons materials; and “military-to-military dialogue about how to de-conflict Chinese, South Korean and U.S. special forces in the event of a loose-nukes scenario in North Korea.”
He also argues that the U.S. and China should reach a separate agreement that, in any potential crisis, neither would seek to benefit at the expense of the other or “change the situation on the ground over the long term.”
This echoes arguments that the Chinese and U.S. militaries should put aside their mutual mistrust and work together to plan for the potential collapse of Kim’s regime. Others have suggested that the U.S. offer China certain concessions — such as decreasing the roughly 30,000 U.S. troops in South Korea in the event of reunification — to secure Chinese cooperation, which will be essential for any containment strategy to work.
Swaine wrote that efforts to address “Beijing’s long-term concerns by expressing a clear willingness to discuss the future political and security status of a unified Korean Peninsula, including the size and presence of any U.S. forces … could significantly increase China’s willingness to cooperate in a deterrence and containment regime.”
Yet such an agreement could raise concerns in Seoul and Tokyo that the pact would be a way for the U.S. to abdicate responsibility for its allies. Offering China too many security guarantees could also preclude South Korea’s hope for a reunited Korean Peninsula, putting Washington at odds with Seoul.
Trump’s Asia Trip
While none of this is publicly up for discussion, Trump’s trip to the region in November could explore some of these questions.
“Trump’s upcoming trip to the region is going to be very important” in shoring up regional alliances, Glaser said.
Allies want predictability in their bilateral relations with the U.S., and those in Northeast Asia have made notable moves to paper over areas of strain in their relationships with the U.S., Glaser said.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made early overtures to Trump shortly after he took office, including a meeting at Mar-a-Lago that established a good working relationship.
Abe has also avoided bringing up trade issues — such as the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership — that could be a “wedge” in the relationship, Glaser said.
Likewise, Korean trade officials have agreed to amend the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement following criticism from Trump that it has widened America’s trade deficit with South Korea.
At a time of heightened tension in the region, Japan and South Korea are both trying to create as little friction as possible. But growing speculation about the fate of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is adding to the uncertainty.
Trump took to Twitter on Oct. 1 to rebuke Tillerson’s statement, made after he had met with Chinese officials about toughening sanctions on North Korea, that the U.S. was trying to engage Pyongyang in an “incremental process” to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Trump tweeted.
Following this public spat, the embattled Tillerson has had to combat rumors that he considered resigning and even had to call a press conference to explain his alleged reference to Trump as a “moron” in an official meeting, as originally reported by NBC News.
The resulting articles on Tillerson’s potential departure from the administration “must make [U.S. allies] nervous,” Glaser said. “It’s not surprising that they’re a little uneasy.”
About the Author
Ryan R. Migeed (@RyanMigeed) is a freelance writer based in Boston.