The Skeptics

Donald Trump Should Give Diplomacy with North Korea a Chance

It seems like the North Korean version of “strategic patience” is working for Pyongyang and not for Washington, DC. The policy of “strategic patience” under the Obama administration was designed to change Pyongyang’s attitude toward denuclearization, but North Korea’s latest and most powerful nuclear test, conducted in early September 2016, has increased the sense of urgency in Washington to do something. After Kim Jong-un hinted at the possibility of test-launching intercontinental ballistic missiles in his New Year’s Day speech, this sense of urgency became even more acute and widespread than before. In this context, foreign-policy hawks and doves are still actively debating what the new administration should do. While hawks remain firm on the use of force, doves continue to call for diplomatic engagement. Neither option is appealing or risk-free, but President Donald Trump will have to decide between them soon, because waiting patiently has simply failed to denuclearize Pyongyang.

Perhaps driven by policy fatigue and disappointment in diplomatic efforts, an increasing number of policymakers and academics—including some prominent figures such as Mike Mullen, Sen. Lindsey Graham and Victor Cha—have been calling for a preemptive strike. However, this hawkish option must remain off the table as “an immoral act of the highest order” for at least four important reasons:

1. It’s simply too dangerous for South Korea. Nobody knows how Pyongyang would respond; if North Korea retaliates with its massive artillery force located along the Demilitarized Zone, then the greater Seoul region would be devastated in seconds. In a worst-case scenario, the North could use its remaining nuclear weapons.

2. The Chinese could intervene due to their 1961 defense treaty with North Korea, but such intervention could trigger the second Korean War.

3. Radioactive pollution arising from the attack would be a disaster for the region, if not the world. For some reason, not many people talk about this possibility.

4. The diplomatic path would be shut completely after the attack. Such an attack would only aggravate Pyongyang’s paranoia over “the U.S. hostile policy.”

It’s important to remember that “strategic patience” lacked one obvious component: diplomatic engagement. Unlike what many hawks may argue, it means that diplomacy still has a chance because, as Daniel DePetris points out, it “hasn’t been exhausted to its full potential.” Perhaps the use of force (i.e., a preemptive strike) would become a more attractive option if another attempt at diplomacy fails, regardless of the abovementioned risks. As of now, the diplomatic path remains open and, despite it being slim, the Trump administration should give diplomacy a serious try.

Given the Kim regime’s adamant belief that its security and legitimacy depend on the existing nuclear arsenal, achieving complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement should remain on the table, but only as a long-term goal. Recently, North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong-ho highlighted such steadfastness in his UN speech. Therefore, negotiating for a nuclear freeze would be more of a realistic goal in the near term. The resulting agreement should prohibit Pyongyang from not only conducting further nuclear and long-range ballistic missile tests, but also transferring related technologies in exchange for limited concessions such as partial sanctions relief. It’s highly likely that including international verification as a provision would be a source of contention while negotiating. In this regard, some experts and pundits, most notably Evans Revere, a senior advisor at the Albright Stonebridge Group, question the effectiveness of an agreement with North Korea that lacks verification measures. In the absence of “on-site monitoring,” Revere argues, Pyongyang could continue fissile material production and, at the same time, make nonexplosive—but necessary—refinements to its weapons.