President Trump’s recent statement that North Korea “will be met with fire, fury, and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before” is the latest example of Washington producing tough talk and mixed messages regarding regime change in North Korea. Meanwhile, Pyongyang continues issuing provocations and threats. When Kim Jong-un announced in his New Year’s speech this year that North Korea was in the final stages of its pursuit of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), President-elect Trump tweeted that “It won’t happen.” But North Korea’s ICBM test on July 28 was its second test of a long-range missile technically able to reach the US mainland.
The test was additional proof of North Korea’s determination to directly threaten the United States and of its advances toward gaining that ability. But it also showed Washington’s inability or unwillingness to act (beyond working to impose another round of UN sanctions). The Trump administration—though in the spring it announced a North Korea policy of “maximum pressure” and engagement—has so far focused on putting maximum pressure only on China, and on small states such as Sudan, to cease their trade activities with Pyongyang. The administration lacks any other apparent strategic approach toward North Korea. The approach it must settle on is to enter into direct talks with Pyongyang, without any preconditions.
What won’t work. Attempting to convince Beijing to apply more pressure on Pyongyang is, for two basic reasons, of limited use. First, while Pyongyang might be economically dependent on China, it will not allow Beijing to exert political influence over its weapons program. North Korean society will surely suffer if sanctions are further increased and successfully implemented, but the regime’s determination to advance its nuclear capabilities will most likely remain unchanged or even grow. Second, China will not allow sanctions to create political instability in North Korea since this could trigger the regime’s collapse, which would result in a stream of North Korean refugees fleeing to northern China. Nor could Beijing tolerate South Korean or US forces occupying a collapsed North Korean state. As long as Pyongyang remains Beijing’s ally, China can live with North Korea as a nuclear weapon state.
According to an NBC News Poll of July 18, 41 percent of American adults believe that North Korea poses a greater immediate danger to the United States than does any other country (compared to 18 percent for Russia and 6 percent for China). But how can anyone believe that North Korea will ever launch a nuclear-armed missile against the United States? If North Korea launched a missile attack on US territory, or against a US military base in South Korea or Japan, that would be the end of the Kim regime. The “madman” theory about North Korea—that the regime is fundamentally unpredictable and irrational—is misleading and unconstructive.
Does the United States really want the North Korean nuclear problem to be solved peacefully, or does it see benefit in North Korea remaining a rogue state? To a large extent, North Korea’s “bad guy” or “mad guy” image helps Washington strengthen its alliances and justify its military dominance in the region. US defense and deterrence measures, however, can result in the development of strategic assets that agitate adversaries: For example, US deployment of the THAAD missile defense system in South Korea is meant as a defensive measure to safeguard both South Korea and the US forces stationed there from North Korean missile threats. But the THAAD system might also be useful in shielding US territory from long-range missiles, and its far-reaching radars as well as its integration into the global network of US missile defense systems have caused other players in the region, notably China and Russia, to entertain suspicions that THAAD is directed against Beijing and Moscow’s nuclear deterrents.
What might. Assuming the United States really does want to solve the North Korean conundrum, and wants to avoid a military attack on the North, there might still be a way forward—by conducting direct talks with North Korea, without preconditions. Talks of this kind, held during the first North Korean nuclear crisis in 1993–94, resulted in the 1994 Geneva Framework Agreement. Only after the George W. Bush administration nullified this agreement in December 2002 did North Korea withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and start to develop its nuclear capabilities openly.
Even though the United States and other nations do not agree with Pyongyang’s justifications for its weapons programs, they still must understand the rationale behind Pyongyang’s defense strategy. The Truman administration considered using nuclear weapons against North Korea and China during the Korean War. The Eisenhower administration considered using nuclear weapons to end the war, or to bring it to a close once again if the Communists renewed hostilities after the armistice. During the Cold War, up until 1991, the United States stationed tactical nuclear weapons on South Korean territory. During the first North Korean nuclear crisis, the Clinton administration considered using cruise missiles to strike the nuclear reactor in Yongbyon—before it engaged Pyongyang and negotiated the Geneva Agreed Framework, a deal that delayed North Korea’s nuclear weapons development for eight years. Since the formal beginning of the US-South Korean alliance in 1953, the two allies have regularly conducted military exercises that involve, for example, nuclear-capable bombers. These military exercises, as well as the decapitation training in which US and South Korean forces engage, are perceived by Pyongyang as preparations for offensive action and as proof of US desire for regime change. In addition, the Korean Peninsula technically remains at war because the Korean War ended in 1953 with an armistice, not a peace treaty. Finally, the deep-seated, mutual distrust between changing administrations in Washington and Pyongyang has only intensified over the last two decades.
At this point, it is not clear how much Washington can ameliorate tensions by issuing negative security assurances to North Korea—for example, by promising not to engage in hostilities against the North and not to intervene in North Korea’s affairs. In the past, the United States has provided such assurances; but from the North’s perspective, these assurances—along with pledges to normalize relations between Washington and Pyongyang—have amounted only to words, not actions. Meanwhile, the fates suffered by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi have convinced the regime in Pyongyang that only nuclear capabilities can guarantee survival.
Move quickly. North Korea has long maintained that its purpose in developing nuclear and missile capabilities has been to deter US military threats. The United States, on the other hand, has argued that evolving North Korean threats have forced it to adapt its deterrence and defense postures in the region. Each state’s hostile policies and strategic mistrust toward the other have helped to maintain the status quo since the Korean War. This status quo—even if one assumes that the governments on both sides will always engage in rational decision making—could nevertheless degenerate into war due to misinformation or miscalculation. Erratic and inconsistent signals coming from Washington regarding regime change could stimulate miscalculations by Pyongyang. In any case, strikes on North Korea—be they “limited” or not—would quickly escalate into a full-scale war on the Korean Peninsula, which would create an immense humanitarian crisis.
Unfortunately, time is not on the side of the United States and its allies, but rather on North Korea’s side. Pyongyang has now developed considerable nuclear and missile capabilities. North Korea already has more than a dozen nuclear weapons and is able to produce additional plutonium and highly enriched uranium. It is working on high-precision guidance, re-entry vehicles, and the miniaturization of nuclear warheads for its ICBMs in order to put the US mainland reliably within range—while its arsenal of short- and medium-range missiles already brings South Korea and Japan within range. Pyongyang’s pursuit of sea-launched ballistic missiles also cannot be ignored, since successful development of these missiles would provide the regime additional ways to circumvent Washington and Seoul’s deterrence posture in South Korea.
On June 21, North Korea’s ambassador to India said during a television interview that North Korea was prepared at any time to hold negotiations with the United States over freezing its nuclear and missile testing—as long as Washington entered negotiations without preconditions and temporarily or permanently ended its large-scale military exercises with South Korea. This represents a rare window of opportunity for talks—and if the United States misses it, the reality of a nuclear-armed North Korea will become more irreversible. If the inability to reverse North Korea’s nuclear weapon status cements, Japan and South Korea would be more likely to nuclearize themselves. The nightmare of a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia—to go along with the existing ballistic missile arms race—would come to pass.
North Korea’s complete denuclearization should be pursued as a long-term goal, but it cannot be a precondition for starting talks with Pyongyang. Talks could work toward an agreement under which North Korea stopped all tests of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles, ceased production of nuclear materials, froze activities at its nuclear facilities, and invited inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency back into the country. In return, the United States would adjust or suspend its military exercises with the South, negotiate a peace treaty ending the Korean War, and normalize diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.
If North Korea really is the top security threat to the United States today, the Trump administration must find a way to manage the threat. Tough talk and threats such as Trump’s recent “fire and fury” remarks do not help mitigate the crisis, but rather serve as welcome provocations for Pyongyang to continue its own provocations. Instead of continuing to engage in an exchange of bluster, Trump could focus on his self-attributed skills as a “deal maker” and address the North Korean threat in the most pragmatic way: through direct talks. The Trump administration is in better position than its predecessors to overcome the traditional view in Washington that negotiating officially and bilaterally with Pyongyang would reward the regime for its breach of sanctions and international norms, thereby sending the wrong message to other rogue states. Talks between the United States and North Korea could either take the form of diplomatic negotiations over suspending programs or reaching a peace treaty, or of military-to-military talks that set the basis for reliable mutual deterrence.
Direct talks would not magically solve the North Korean crisis. But they would give both parties a way to communicate, prevent escalation or miscalculation, and coexist for the time being.