Elephants in the Room

Trump Should Focus on Deterring North Korea

Negotiations and the use of force both hold little promise.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang on Oct. 7. (AFP photo/KCNA via KNS/Getty Images)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang on Oct. 7. (AFP photo/KCNA via KNS/Getty Images)

Few foreign policy challenges are more urgent than the one posed by North Korea, which has detonated its sixth nuclear test and appears to have successfully developed an intercontinental ballistic missile. The Trump administration has struggled to publicly articulate its policy toward Pyongyang. In a recent pronouncement, President Donald Trump dismissed prospects for negotiations, and enigmatically insisted that “only one thing will work.”

Yet in reality there is no one thing that will work to solve the problem of North Korea’s nuclear threat. A sensible policy toward Pyongyang must begin by ending the search for silver bullets solutions and embracing a policy that employs all of the levers of U.S. power in concert.

The case against resorting prematurely to the military option is clear enough. Even a limited a strike against North Korea could result in countless casualties across the border in South Korea. It could spread beyond the Korean peninsula, triggering regional conflict and even hostilities between the United States and China. If the stakes were high enough, all of this might be worth risking, if one could be confident a strike would be effective. Yet U.S. commanders have publicly stated that we lack sufficient intelligence on targets within North Korea to ensure that a strike would quickly achieve its objective.

Yet Trump is right that negotiations with North Korea hold little promise either.

The first question that must be asked about negotiating with North Korea is, “To what end?” A goal of denuclearization — that is, persuading North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to give up his nuclear weapons through a combination of incentives and pressure — is unrealistic. For Kim, giving up nuclear weapons would threaten his highest priority: regime (i.e. personal) security.

It is difficult to imagine any inducement that could match their value, much less one that Washington would be ready to concede. It is just as hard to conceive of any level of pressure that would prompt Kim to give up his nuclear arsenal. Kim and his predecessors have demonstrated their willingness to endure isolation and to inflict a terrible price on the North Korean people for the sake of this prize.

Prospects seem bleak even for a more modest negotiating aim, such as a freeze on North Korean nuclear and missile tests. There is little evidence Kim is willing to entertain a freeze: The tests appear to be not merely designed to send messages or serve as bargaining chips. Instead, Pyongyang likely seeks to perfect and demonstrate a militarily useful nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile capability.

Even if North Korea agreed to a freeze, there is little historical basis for the idea that it would honor its word. Pyongyang has been caught cheating on past accords, including the landmark 1994 Agreed Framework. And while detecting cheating on any testing freeze would be straightforward, verifying that the North had halted the production of nuclear weapons would be far harder.

Most importantly, there is the question of what the United States would have to concede in exchange for a freeze. While we might hope to merely freeze the implementation of new sanctions, Pyongyang’s wish list would surely be more ambitious. It would likely include longtime thorns in its side, like the joint military exercises in which the United States engages with regional allies, along with U.S. military deployments and military assistance to allies. Giving these things up would mean trading a sensible policy of long-term deterrence for an untrustworthy North Korean freeze. And if not handled skillfully, even engaging in such talks can raise allies’ fears (and Pyongyang’s hopes) that our regional presence and alliances are negotiable.

Thankfully, war and negotiation are not our only options. Instead, even as we hold fast to denuclearization as a long-term aim, the United States should pursue a policy aimed at deterring North Korea from using its nuclear weapons, or using them as cover for stepped-up military and cyber aggression.

Deterrence is not a solution to the problem, but a way of coping with the absence of solutions. It is not the “one thing” that will address the challenge, but many things done consistently over time. Militarily, such a policy will require bolstering our regional defense posture and our aid to allies. It will also mean finding ways to respond forcefully to non-nuclear provocations by the Kim regime. Economically, it will require employing sanctions more aggressively to constrict further Pyongyang’s security sector, to punish the North for its recklessness and ensure that an end to its isolation remains tied to eventual nuclear compromise.

But the most important element of such a strategy is diplomacy, which would be targeted at multiple audiences. Most vital of these would be our regional allies like Japan and South Korea, with whom we should be coordinating closely in all aspects of policy.

Another audience would be China, which the United States should not only lobby to pressure Pyongyang, but with which we should discuss contingency scenarios should North Korea become destabilized as a result of international pressure or of problems of Pyongyang’s own making. Such discussions would aim to assuage Chinese concerns about the impact of instability in North Korea or its eventual reunification with the South, and thereby dissuade Beijing from taking steps to shore up the Kim regime.

Yet another audience would be ordinary North Koreans, whom we should seek to reach in an effort to loosen the regime’s vice-grip on the flow of information in hopes of fostering change from within.

And yes, the Kim regime itself should be a target of U.S. diplomacy. Being realistic about negotiations with North Korea does not mean refusing to talk. Channels of communication will be vital should prospects for diplomacy improve in the future. And they are also useful for delivering clear, unfiltered threats. To be effective, however, these must clearly be threats of retaliation rather than preemption if they are to deter rather than provoke Pyongyang. And they must be tied to red lines that we are willing to enforce if they are to be taken seriously.

A successful North Korea policy will require that we discard the notion that there is any quick fix to this challenge, and understand that the effort to grope for one may do more to undermine than to advance our interests. The Trump administration should not see military threats and diplomacy as separate options, but as the elements of a single, sustained strategy.

Michael Singh is managing director at the Washington Institute. He was senior director for Middle East affairs at the U.S. National Security Council from from 2005 to 2008. Twitter: @MichaelSinghDC