Donald Trump, North Korea and Inconvenient Truths

One of two U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers receives fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker while flying a 10-hour mission from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, into Japanese airspace and over the Korean Peninsula, July 30, 2017. U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Joshua Smoot/Handout via REUTERS

The Trump administration has to come to terms with certain cruel and painful realities.

Not by itself, and not without a political strategy to reengage with North Korea diplomatically. Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past several years, it is obvious that the DPRK has a serious nuclear-weapons and missile-development program that is aimed at meeting military and operational objectives—first and foremost, the capability to hit targets in the continental United States with nuclear-tipped ICBMs. It will therefore continue to test both nuclear weapons and long-range missiles until the North Korean military can assure Kim that it has a credible operational capability to hold targets of value at risk in the United States. It is difficult to say what Kim would do with this capability. But until this threshold is reached, trying to pressure the North to end its testing—with threats of regime change, preventive military strikes and truly draconian sanctions—is a mug’s game, either because they will not work or they would come at an unacceptable price, or both.

The North sees the United States as an existential threat and an ICBM capability as its only insurance policy against U.S. invasion or regime change. Unless and until Kim no longer believes the United States has a hostile policy toward North Korea and is a threat to the country’s security and sovereignty, he will do anything to develop this capability and protect it should he ever decide to sit down to negotiations with the United States.

A former Pakistani prime minister once said that he would make his people eat grass if that were necessary to acquire nuclear weapons. Kim would do the same to his people—in fact, probably worse. As was the case with sanctions imposed against Saddam Hussein, Kim will prioritize resource allocations and dwindling foreign reserves for his nuclear and missile programs and pass the pain to the North Korean people. Moreover, North Korea has been very adept over the years in evading sanctions, aided and abetted by both the Chinese and the Russians, who have been, to put it mildly, uneven in their implementation, monitoring, and enforcement of these sanctions. The Chinese will be willing to turn up the sanctions heat some more on the North Koreans, but never to the point where Beijing believes it will lead to instability in North Korea and a greater risk of regime change.

Don’t Walk Away from the Iran Deal

It would make any diplomatic solution with North Korea much harder. However imperfect the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the president’s seeming determination not to certify Iranian compliance in the fall or to manipulate Iran into violating the accord has dire ramifications in North Korea. Walking away or fooling around with the JCPOA would send an unmistakable signal that America can’t be trusted; that any diplomatic agreement would be subject to a president’s personal whims and that diplomacy is not a viable option. Nor would other powers, particularly China, want to expose themselves to humiliation and a loss of credibility for backing a diplomatic fix only to see it undermined by U.S. actions or buyer’s remorse.

Only Washington Can Give North Korea What It Wants

Others can help with the North Korean challenge, but America holds the key. And that’s because in Kim’s calculations only Washington can give him what he really wants: recognition as a nuclear power, acceptance of North Korea as an independent and sovereign state, security from regime change and sanctions relief. And that means not contracting the nuclear and other problems out to other powers and facing up to the need for direct diplomatic engagement with North Korea to at least test the proposition that a functional dialogue is possible. As unimaginable as it may be now, the talking cure is probably the only way to begin to defuse the current situation and set the stage to explore longer-term solutions.

Reinhold Neibuhr, the great American theologian and philosopher, often urged Americans to seek “proximate solutions to insoluble problems.” That’s sound advice for the current situation. Denuclearization of the North will not be possible to achieve, if it is possible to achieve at all, unless there is a transformational change in North Korea’s relationships with the United States and South Korea. It remains to be seen what kind of constraints Kim might be willing to accept on his missile and nuclear programs and what he will expect in return once he attains credible ICBM capability. The only way to find out is in direct talks between the United States and North Korea. In the meantime, the United States will have to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea and rely on deterrence and defense to contain the growth of its missile and nuclear capabilities.

More fundamentally, this posture will only be sustainable and effective in preventing war, especially as a result of miscalculation, if Pyongyang clearly understands, with no shred of ambiguity or uncertainty, what behaviors the United States can accept and what North Korean actions would trigger a catastrophically devastating American response. The three most important of these are: a North Korean nuclear, biological or chemical (NBC) attack against the United States, South Korea or Japan; a North Korean invasion of or other significant military attacks against South Korea; and North Korea’s sale, export or transfer of any NBC weapons, material, equipment, or technology to a terrorist organization or a state sponsor of terrorism. These are the rules of the road that the United States and North Korea will need to live by if there’s to be any hope of avoiding a catastrophic confrontation on the Korean Peninsula and beyond.

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