The ICAS Lectures


Trump Administration's North Korea Policy Options

Mark Fitzpartick

ICAS Winter 2017 Symposium

February 24, 2017, 1:00 PM - 5:00 PM
Kennedy Caucus Room,
Russell Office Building SR-325
United States Senate
Washington, DC

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

Biographic sketch & Links: Mark Fitzpatrick

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 nuclear-armed Nodong 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 will be.

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 produced.

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.

Other options

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 suggested 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 insisted 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 attack.

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