North Korea’s latest test of a missile with a range capable of threatening American cities has left the Trump Administration somewhere between wishful thinking and a hard place. Too bad neither represents a realistic resolution of the conundrum.
The easy way out, for the US at least, is to “let China do it.” President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley have in unison chanted the same basic mantra: The problem would be solved if China would apply more pressure on North Korea.
Unfortunately, this naïve wishful thinking is based on several false premises.
First there is no evidence China can tell North Korea what to do with any real hope of success. The two countries are not buddies and there is no love lost between China’s President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. They have not met since both leaders came to power in 2012 and they communicate via messengers.
China has supported a UN resolution strongly condemning North Korea. The Kim regime no more pays heed to China than it has to protests from South Korea, Japan or the United States.
Just as China cannot stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapon and intercontinental missile technology, North Korea is not developing these technologies for China’s sake. North Korea believes it needs nuclear strike capability in order to be taken seriously by the US.
To date, sanctions on North Korea have not worked. The American response has been to ask the UN Security Council to impose more sanctions. In particular, Trump does not feel China is tightening the screws hard enough.
Shutting down North Korea’s economy might bring Kim to heel from the American perspective but clearly such as move is unacceptable from China’s view. Economic collapse would trigger a massive humanitarian crisis and China would be left to deal with the refugees as they take the only viable option and migrate north into China.
There is a flip side to this approach. Even if the sanctions bring North Korea to its knees, it does not mean the Kim regime will become more conciliatory. Kim may decide he has nothing to lose and simply launch an attack on the south.
The other tough approach is to launch a Rumsfeldian shock and awe military bombardment on North Korea before the North can attack.
There is virtually no chance, however, that carpet-bombing could vaporize the array of artillery and missiles facing South Korea. The consequent damage to Seoul and other parts of South Korea from the retaliation would be significant, not to mention the danger to the 30,000 American troops stationed in the south.
There is also no assurance any precision strikes could successfully take out Kim and his inner circle nor knock out all the country’s nuclear weapons and development centers. The risks of failure are simply too great to contemplate.
There is a more sensible approach that an increasing number of commentators and foreign policy observers are suggesting the Trump Administration consider: offer talks without preconditions.
North Korea fears the US and knows Beijing cannot commit on behalf of Washington. Pyongyang wants to deal directly with Washington and does not see China as a credible intermediary. Why not begin a direct conversation?
The Clinton Administration almost reached an agreement with Pyongyang when the clock ran out on Clinton’s term. George W. Bush elected to ignore North Korea and then imposed preconditions before being willing to resume negotiations.
Pyongyang saw the Bush White House as dealing in bad faith and that the only way to gain American respect was to complete the development of a nuclear bomb. North Korea detonated its first nuclear bomb in October 2006, during Bush’s second term.
The Obama administration, unfortunately, followed the Bush line: no negotiations without preconditions. To push for North Korea’s agreement, Washington bandied the threats of sanctions and solicited Beijing for help.
In the 16 years since the end of the Clinton administration, Washington and Pyongyang have made no progress in reaching a common understanding. Each has accused the other of acting in bad faith. The US threatened more sanctions; North Korea kept testing weapons with bigger bang and missiles with longer range.
This endless cycle is not going anywhere and the threat of an American shock-and-awe style attack clearly worries Pyongyang. Why can’t Washington soften a bit and show a willingness to talk without pre-conditions? What does it have to lose?
Will the world respect us less as a fearsome hegemon because we are willing to swallow our pride, or will it applaud us for taking the first step towards peace? Donald Trump has an opportunity to accomplish an important foreign policy triumph that has eluded his two predecessors.