Trump Administration's North Korea Policy Options
Mark Fitzpatrick (text as prepared)
ICAS Winter Symposium, February 24, 2017
The accelerated pace and punch of its strategic weapons programs means the North Korean
threat would have been a top priority for whomever won the November election. Although
"strategic patience" wasn't the Obama Administration's preferred term, the policy clearly
hasn't worked to restrain North Korea. Before Trump's four-year term is up, Pyongyang will
probably have the capability to strike the US homeland with a nuclear-tipped intercontinental
ballistic missile (ICBM) if the current pace of development continues unabated.
North Korean development of an ICBM would not necessarily be a strategic redline - unlike,
say, North Korean proliferation of fissile material or nuclear weapons The danger is already
clear and present in that North Korea today can hit US allies and bases in northeast Asia with
missiles. The danger to the continental US is less imminent because
national missile defenses could, with high probability, knock out the small salvo of ICBMs
that might be available for North Korea to fire this decade. Even if a North Korean missile
could strike the US, it would not cause the US to forgo its security guarantees to South Korea
and Japan. If de-coupling is Kim Jong Un's strategy, he should look at how well that worked
for the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Despite De Gaulle's early concern that the US would
not trade New York for Paris, the US never wavered in its commitment to European defense.
But there is a political imperative for the US homeland not to be vulnerable to a North
Korean nuclear attack at all. And in later years, the larger number of missiles that the DPRK
might have and the measures they could develop to overcome missile defenses will make it
imperative to stop the program. Far better to stop it now than later.
It is wrong to conclude that, because the current sanctions-based US policy has failed to stop
Pyongyang's nuclear and missile tests, penalties cannot work. Only within the past year have
US sanctions reached the level of extraterritorial reach that proved so effective in hampering
Iran's economy. In that case, it took a year and a half before the biting sanctions that were
applied in early 2012, including Europe's severing of oil sales and access to the SWIFT
financial-messaging system, helped to compel Iran to engage in negotiations in earnest.
Given North Korea's lesser dependency on international markets, it will take longer for
sanctions to affect DPRK decision-making.
In the meantime, the pressure will likely be amplified in ways that go well beyond economic
measures - think maritime interdictions, aggressive psychological operations and even use of
cyber systems and other overt and covert actions. Be careful though, of symbolic penalties
that create a backlash with a life of their own and that are hard to lift. Adding Kim Jong Un to
the blacklist last summer felt good but did not add much. Re-designating North Korea as a
state sponsor of terrorism would not add any actual sanctions, since North Korea is already
cut off from all US trade. It would have a psychological impact, in getting Pyongyang's goat.
But it may also promote a rally-around-the flag phenomenon. Washington should discuss the
idea with its South Korean partners, and wait a few months until we know who that partner
Engagement strategy also needed
The Iran case demonstrated that sanctions must be coupled with an engagement strategy and
a willingness to compromise. Tehran did not accept roll-back of its enrichment program until
Barack Obama's administration agreed that the program itself could continue to exist. In June
2016, Trump called for dialogue with North Korea and suggested he could
talk with Kim
Jong-un over a hamburger
. That is not the worst of the dismal policy options, as long as
Trump didn't give away the shop. Engagement does not mean recognizing North Korea as
nuclear armed. Denuclearization has to remain a stated goal, even though Pyongyang has
made it clear it will never do so.
It is sometimes said there is no point in negotiating with North Korea because it breaks every
deal. Yes it has broken all deals, but the 1994 Agreed Framework lasted long enough to roll
back the nuclear program. Construction stopped on two larger reactors which then rusted out,
denying Pyongyang the several dozen bombs' worth of plutonium the reactors could have
Allowing North Korea to break the Agreed Framework in 2003 has led to an insurmountable
problem. It can be far better to implement an incomplete but effective agreement that it is to
scrap it in hopes of achieving the best outcome and end up with the worst. This is a useful
lesson to keep in mind for the Iran deal.
As everybody says, China's role is crucial. As in the case of the UN sanctions applied
against Iran, sanctions against North Korea will be most effective if they are universally
applied. But the US should not sub-contract its North Korea policy to China, nor expect that
China will solve it for us.
China's decision to stop all coal imports this year was unexpected -- and probably had more
to do with pique over the Kim Jong Nam assassination than Pyongyang's missile and nuclear
programs. Depending on implementation, the decision may turn out not to be so momentous.
In any case, in exchange for cutting off coal imports, China will expect the US to make an
effort to engage with Pyongyang. US. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson apparently already
tried out a freeze option with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, who poured
cold water on it. The next ROK government may be more eager to try.
China remains committed to protecting its wayward ally. Beijing's priority is to preserve
North Korea as a buffer state and to prevent a collapse that would induce a flood of refugees
across the Yalu River. For Beijing to change its position would require an off-setting strategic
gain elsewhere. Would deal-maker Trump be willing to strike a bargain with President Xi
Jinping over North Korea?
Beijing has at least four strategic demands. It wants an end to US arms sales to Taiwan,
accommodation of its maritime claims in the South China Sea, recognition of its claim to the
Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and an end to plans to deploy THAAD missile defenses in South
Korea. The first three are non-starters, although some permutations involving shared access
of maritime areas might be explored. Ending the THAAD deployment would be possible if
Chinese pressure could actually bring about removal of the North Korean missile threat
against which the system is intended to defend. But the chances of Chinese pressure actually
working in this matter in a timely fashion are slim, and China probably would want more
than THAAD as a quid pro quo.
Beijing may calculate that, if it simply waits, strategic gains could fall into its lap. One
constant in Trump's worldview has been the belief that US forces abroad are overstretched
and that allies should bear a greater portion of the burden of collective defense. Depending
on how it is calculated, Japan already pays 75% of the cost of the US force presence there,
and South Korea around 50%. Trump's own calculations are different because he appears to
include in the denominator the total cost of equipping the US military. Requiring the
shouldering of that cost would make US forces akin to mercenaries. If Trump were to try to
use the 28,500 American forces stationed in South Korea as leverage for strong-arming their
hosts, China would emerge the winner.
Among the worst ideas for countering North Korea is to fight fire with fire by arming its
adversaries with nuclear weapons. In three interviews last spring, candidate Trump
it might be better if US allies such as Japan and South Korea acquired
nuclear weapons to defend themselves. Trump abandoned this position after hearing advice
from senior Republican legislators, and he later
that he had never encouraged US
allies to acquire nuclear weapons. There is no doubting what he said; it is a matter of public
record. But when Trump vigorously denies having said something, it means that whatever
words came out of his mouth did not reflect his true beliefs. Suggesting that allies should
acquire nuclear weapons was simply a bargaining tactic and campaign throw-away line.
Saying so was not inconsequential; it undermined the credibility of US extended deterrence.
As president, however, it seems clear to me he will not encourage proliferation. James Mattis
said all the right things when he visited Seoul and Tokyo in his first trip as Defense Secretary.
Nor will Trump want to reposition US tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea, as called for
by some South Korean politicians and columnists. US military commanders and defence
officials understand how counter-productive that would be, in terms of the extra costs of
guarding the weapons, the political divisions they would engender in South Korea and the
danger of exposing the weapons to a pre-emptive North Korean strike. Plus, reintroducing the
tactical nuclear weapons that were withdrawn in 1991would add no strategic benefit, given
the array of nuclear and conventional forces already available to counter any North Korean
Trump will need to consider, however, what additional means might be useful both to deter
the North and reassure the South. Rotational deployments in South Korea of nuclear-capable
bombers are in the offing, but probably not their permanent stationing, since nuclear payloads
would remain on American soil. South Korea might be offered more non-nuclear strike
capabilities of its own. It might also be given a freer hand to respond aggressively to the next
North Korean provocation. To date, the norm has been for the United States to restrain South
Korea in its retaliatory impulses.
We will also hear more talk of pre-emptive strikes. Over the past year, such discourse has
become common in the US national-security community. When US military say they need a
pre-emptive capability, they mean if North Korea is about to strike. When the South Korea
media hear pre-emption, they hear it as a regime change option. Such strikes would not be
carried out without consultation with the allies who would be affected and unless there was
solid intelligence indicating an impending North Korean attack. Any pre-emptive option
would be by conventional means, such as Tomahawk
missile strikes on the DPRK launch pad
in question. Nuclear pre-emption need not be on the table. For the circumstances at hand, it
would be neither credible, necessary nor moral. Public posturing during the upcoming Key
Resolve joint exercises should stop mentioning "decapitation" planning. There is no need to
feed North Korea's sense of paranoia -- unless it is part of a well-grounded plan to apply
psychological pressure that would contribute to regime instability.
Trump's policy toward North Korea is unknown. His initial response to North Korea's 12
February ballistic-missile test was far calmer than many of his earlier pronouncements on the
subject. He simply called upon North Korea to fully comply with United Nations Security
Council resolutions. This was the kind of response candidate Trump would have disparaged
Obama for. But good for him that he is taking time to think this one through.
This page last updated March 4, 2017 jdb