Argument

Trump Needs a Diplomatic Surge for North Korea

The White House’s policy of maximum pressure is having precisely the wrong effect.

US President Donald Trump listen as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (out of frame) speaks at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, on February 11, 2017, after North Korea reportedly fired a ballistic missile, the first since Donald Trump became US president. / AFP / Nicholas Kamm        (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump listen as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (out of frame) speaks at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, on February 11, 2017, after North Korea reportedly fired a ballistic missile, the first since Donald Trump became US president. / AFP / Nicholas Kamm (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

When does rhetorical bombast turn into a real bomb?

That question is more relevant than ever after the world heard President Donald Trump deliver his first major speech at the U.N. General Assembly this week, where he bragged of America’s ability to “totally destroy North Korea” — and with North Korea now threatening an atmospheric nuclear test in response.

The president’s inflammatory and irresponsible threat does not keep America or our Asian allies safe. His words will not rally our partners to the urgent cause of containing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and fall far short of the global leadership the world desperately needs at this critical moment.

With Pyongyang continuing to test nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, it is increasingly clear that if left unchecked, North Korea will soon have an effective, if small, nuclear arsenal and the means to deliver it. It’s equally clear that with each passing day of North Korea’s defiance of international law and threats against the United States and our allies, the Trump administration’s policy of maximum pressure is yielding minimal results.

If the United States continues on the path laid out by President Trump — unbalanced statements, division of our allies, inconsistent expectations of China, sanctions divorced from a coherent strategy, and an incessant focus on military options — there are only two realistic outcomes, both of which are bad: North Korea becomes an unstable nuclear power, or a large-scale conventional war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula that would result in a catastrophic loss of human life.

We cannot accept policy options that result in only war or recognizing North Korea’s nuclear status; there is a lot of space between conflict and capitulation on the Korean Peninsula.

We must therefore adjust our strategy to fill that space with an all-out diplomatic surge, one that results in serious constraints on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and a more stable Northeast Asia for all.

The initial objective of such a diplomatic surge would be to begin a process where Pyongyang starts by verifiably halting its nuclear and ballistic missile testing. If North Korea does so, the United States and our allies can consider confidence-building measures to address tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

If the administration is serious about seeking to translate the leverage gained by additional economic sanctions and military posture moves into diplomatic clout, then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson should immediately begin direct bilateral communication with his North Korean counterpart. If we are to initiate a process that ultimately freezes and maybe even reverses North Korea’s nuclear trajectory, we need to start talking, now.

Doing so would signal our seriousness not just to the North Koreans but also to the Russians, the Chinese, and our allies in Asia and Europe. When the United States leads with our values and interests, others follow. When we abdicate or purposefully create uncertainty, that kind of instability makes the world less safe.

The United States should therefore put its full weight into creating and executing a comprehensive diplomatic policy that includes the immediate imposition of additional, strong sanctions; active engagement with our allies and partners; and the pursuit of principled, multilateral measures to shape the regional environment, particularly by addressing the fundamental human rights of the North Korean people.

Such strategic clarity, in parallel with direct talks, could give us the best chance yet of changing North Korea’s calculation that it can continue down its current path.

First, a complex threat like North Korea cannot be successfully confronted without strong collaboration with our allies and partners in the region — and any successful approach must start by strengthening our alliances with Japan and South Korea. The election of Moon Jae-in as president of South Korea and our strong ties with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Japan have created new opportunities to recalibrate our approach, deepen defense ties, and better work with regional allies. Countries such as Australia, Singapore, and other partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations also have important roles to play.

Second, working with China in a clear, constructive manner is critical to any diplomatic effort. We can’t expect China to solve the North Korea problem for us. However, that does not mean we cannot make common cause with Beijing to contain Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs and thereby reduce tensions in East Asia, benefiting our mutual national security interests. China’s actions are important in changing the Kim Jong Un regime’s calculations. China must be clear with North Korea that it stands by their mutual defense treaty to protect the current regime but that doing so requires a change in North Korea’s nuclear program. A diplomatic surge by the United States may therefore change China’s action and North Korea’s calculations.

Third, we need a forum to draw the nations of Northeast Asia together to engage in confidence-building measures and to address outstanding diplomatic, security, political, and human rights issues so that the right context exists for a stable Korean Peninsula. When President Trump travels to Asia this November, he has an important opportunity to make inroads on this supporting element of a broader North Korea strategy.

Finally, the administration must seek to fully exercise U.S. economic leverage, not haphazardly but robustly and to the maximum extent feasible. The new executive order gets us part of the way there, but, to be successful, it must be part of a broader strategy. Sanctions are not the end of policy but a tool of policy. Secondary sanctions imposed upon firms that trade with North Korea, along with other targeted sectoral and financial measures, are also essential to impede the Kim regime’s prohibited nuclear and missile programs and to set the conditions for realistic diplomatic engagement.

These are lofty goals, but the United States should stand up and try to reach them. Meanwhile, we should be under no illusion that North Korea will not seek to cheat during negotiations or on any final agreement, as it has in the past. But with vigilance even an imperfect initial agreement can lead to better results in constraining Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.

Time is no longer on our side, but the clock hasn’t run out yet. The United States and the international community have a real opportunity to test the proposition of what a robust diplomatic surge to North Korea’s aggression might look like. It is time to act before it really is too late.

Photo credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Ben Cardin is a Democratic senator from Maryland and the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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