Elephants in the Room

5 Myths About Trump’s North Korea Policy

America’s North Korea strategy shouldn’t be a partisan issue, but that hasn't stopped critics from distorting the problem.

Korean People's Army soldiers watch a military parade in Pyongyang, North Korea, on April 15, 2017. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)
Korean People's Army soldiers watch a military parade in Pyongyang, North Korea, on April 15, 2017. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

The Trump administration’s strategy for handling North Korea is bold and consistent under pressure. That has not stopped critics from distorting the record of America’s recent policy toward Pyongyang. North Korean policy should not be a partisan issue, and this essay briefly dissects five myths that pervade the public discourse.

Myth 1: The Trump administration has no strategy for North Korea. 

Although candidate Donald Trump did not emphasize North Korea during the 2016 campaign, since taking office he has heeded former President Barack Obama’s advice to elevate the issue to the top of the White House’s foreign-policy agenda. Trump’s national security team conducted a thorough interagency policy review during the first few months of the new administration.

The strategy that emerged under H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security advisor, crafted ably by Matthew Pottinger, senior director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council, emphasizes “maximum pressure and engagement.” Contrary to popular misconception, the conjunction “and” was never missing.

The strategic aim was and remains to dissuade North Korea from following through on programs that would, among other things, allow Pyongyang to threaten the United States with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. Maximum pressure comprises diplomatic isolation, military enhancements and shows of force, and gradual economic strangulation. Pressure also applies to actors doing business with North Korea, notably China, and opens the way toward greater secondary sanctions and maritime interdiction. Engagement remains on the table, awaiting an indication of willingness on the part of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to discuss the country’s obligations to abandon its nuclear weapons and missiles.

After attending the Olympic opening ceremony in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Vice President Mike Pence called for pressure and engagement. Many in the media treated this as a new strategy, when in fact it was simply time to oscillate toward the other half of the pressure-engagement approach for managing North Korea. Until Kim started to show some interest in diplomacy, the Trump national security team sought to implement an insight gleaned from Vice Adm. Charles Turner Joy, who negotiated the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement: The Kim family regime will not reward weakness, and pressure must continue all the way through negotiations. It’s too early to relieve pressure, and no doubt North Korea would love to unravel sanctions, but it is no longer too early to talk more about engagement, and that is precisely what Pence did on his plane ride home from South Korea.

The next opportunity for direct North Korean-U.S. talks looms this Sunday, around the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games. North Korea is sending an eight-member delegation that includes former spymaster Kim Yong Chol. Assuming Kim is allowed in the country or not indicted for his suspected role in the deadly 2010 attack on a South Korean naval vessel, he will be there to deliver a direct message about a possible North-South summit and probably a tough message for the White House regarding nuclear weapons. The American delegation will include the president’s daughter and advisor Ivanka Trump, the commander of U.S Forces Korea, the interim charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, a key senator, and others. No agreement is expected, but any productive exchange could pave the way to further talks. The absence of any opening would signal a likely post-Paralympics resumption of North Korean testing and more U.S.-led pressure.

Myth 2: The Trump administration wants to start a war to stop North Korea’s nuclear program. 

The single most dangerous myth in circulation is the idea that the Trump administration wants to launch a preventive war to deny North Korea further progress on fielding missiles topped with nuclear warheads. While senior officials have spoken openly about keeping all options on the table and developing new military contingency plans, the basic strategy is to convert military pressure into tangible results. Only the uncertainty about America’s future moves, according to the Trump administration’s logic, can deter Kim’s brinkmanship and possibly help bring him into negotiations over his nuclear weapons.

But those predisposed to see the worst in the Trump administration jump quickly to the conclusion that these threats are not just pressure tactics, but also a prelude to a “bloody nose” military attack. Even a so-called surgical strike designed for a limited, localized conflict could escalate, and there is a legitimate fear that is likely to lead to all-out war, not least because some 25 million people living in the greater Seoul area are completely vulnerable to North Korean artillery.

While one cannot and should not categorically rule out military action (after all, circumstances could change depending on North Korean activities), my conversations with the Trump national security team point to a common desire for a diplomatic outcome, not war. Critics should reflect on this policy conundrum: How can the administration convince Kim to take pressure seriously if it only talks about negotiations and peace? Time may be running short before North Korea demonstrates a completed intercontinental ballistic missile capability, but declaring a nuclear weapon unacceptable is a far cry from deciding to go on the offensive by launching a military attack.

Myth 3: Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are completely at odds.

No doubt Trump and Moon are an alliance odd couple: One is a New York billionaire, real estate developer, and reality television celebrity-turned-politician, the other a progressive human rights lawyer whose parents fled North Korea. Despite such stark differences in personality and background, and perhaps because of them, there is a reassuringly high degree of harmony between the White House and the Blue House. The two men are hewing to a common strategy, despite differences over tactics.

The Trump administration trusts Moon, but it does not believe Kim. Washington welcomes Seoul’s assurances that it will hold to the pressure strategy while seeking engagement that includes denuclearization. Kim would like to drive a wedge between the allies and among the outside powers in general, but a divide-and-conquer tactic will not work unless Kim can convince the world he is interested in something other than a nuclear missile buildup. Thus, attempts to drive apart the allies will fail.

Many commentators are swift to depict Kim as having won propaganda points, but his propaganda windfall will backfire if he reverts to nuclear brinkmanship. In other words, the free world is hopeful but not blind, and wants peace, not appeasement. At least, this is the shared position of the governments in Seoul and Washington, as well as in Tokyo and elsewhere.

Myth 4: Denuclearization is an unrealistic goal.

Denuclearization is a goal that North Korea is both bound to accept under international strictures and has pledged to keep in the past. To enter talks with a final aim of denuclearization — and perhaps a peace treaty and other elements — does not imply immediate or even near-term disarmament. It is a declaration of future intent. At best, the path to denuclearization will be tortuous and at times perilous. It may take decades.

Former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il voluntarily accepted the goal of denuclearization as part of the commitment made in the six-party talks in 2005. North Korean negotiators are tenacious, persistent, and determined. They will do everything they can to unwind sanctions and relieve the pressure on their country without making any meaningful concessions. But the U.S.-South Korea alliance is also steadfast and does not reward empty talk. Surely, Kim will find rewards unlikely to flow from democracies convinced that he cannot be relied upon to keep fundamental and solemn agreements.

Myth 5: The Trump administration doesn’t care about North Korean human rights. 

Although it is true that human rights and democracy have received lower visibility since Trump took office, North Korea is a notable exception. Reports about the decision to place North Korea back on the list of official state sponsors of terrorism hints at Trump’s revulsion over the killing of Kim Jong Nam, Kim Jong Un’s brother, by assassins using nerve agent in Kuala Lumpur last February. He and his national security team were outraged when quiet diplomacy to release Americans imprisoned in North Korea ended up shining a spotlight on the inhumane treatment of University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier.

Broadcasts of last month’s State of the Union address included close-up shots of his parents, a tearful Fred and Cindy Warmbier, whose healthy son was imprisoned for a minor act of vandalism (stealing a poster), was held in captivity for 17 months, and passed away shortly after being sent home in a coma. Far from being used as props, Otto’s courageous parents are passionate about wanting to honor their son by calling attention to the brutal regime in Pyongyang.

Similarly, the president should be applauded, not scolded, for amplifying the story of 35-year-old Ji Seong-ho and his harrowing escape from North Korea on wooden crutches. Trump offered the American people stories they could not ignore, of triumph (Seong-ho) and tragedy (Otto) resulting from the Kim dynasty’s anachronistic system of governance.

Calling out these five myths regarding Trump’s North Korea policy is not to say that Trump’s messaging could not be better. Even more, to say the administration is dedicated to both pressure and engagement is not to say that peace is at hand. Tensions may well resume after the Olympics. But hope remains that an opportunity to build diplomatic engagement could take root — or, at minimum, lead to a future path toward peace.

In fact, the real policy of the Trump administration is effectively containment and rollback. The United States can live with ever-improving deterrence, defense, and containment. While Washington may not be able to stop North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons, it can make it difficult and costly, while offering an alternative way toward peace. North Korea may be able to absorb endless pressure, but China has a lot to lose if North Korea’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction leads to an arms race in Northeast Asia.

Despite the considerable opprobrium that critics have heaped upon the administration, U.S. North Korea policy deserves some credit. Indeed, as Pence’s call for pressure and engagement suggested, the Trump national security team is following the credo of John F. Kennedy: Never negotiate out of fear — but never fear to negotiate.

Patrick M. Cronin is senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

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