Why Trump Can't Afford to Wreck the Korean Peninsula

F-16 Fighting Falcon at Kunsan Air Base in South Korea. Defense.gov

North Korea is one of the remaining legacies of the Cold War and one of the greatest threats to America.

For years, Amitai Etzioni has been warning the U.S. foreign-policy establishment that its attention and resources should be focused on addressing the most pressing problems to U.S. national security, rather than frittering away time and treasure on less important issues. The continued proliferation of weapons of mass destruction should be first on that pressing-problem list, Etzioni said. Current events have caught up with his jeremiads when it comes to North Korea. Last October, Etzioni predicted that the greatest threat to U.S. security that the new president would have to confront “is that of North Korea.”

President Donald Trump may not be inclined to invite the distinguished George Washington University professor for a chat in the Oval Office, but his national-security team ought to be carefully considering his Security First paradigm when crafting responses to the crisis brewing on the Korean Peninsula. Given the contradictory messages emanating out of Washington, DC and the risks that mishandling the situation pose not only for the United States but for the region as a whole, the Security First approach has the best chance of producing a coherent policy with a high probability of success.

There are many and sundry sins of the North Korean state, but for now, the central issue is that the Kim Jong-un regime has demonstrated that it cannot be trusted with the deadly combination of nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles. Previous efforts to induce the North to accept a freeze on its capabilities—leaving it with sufficient deterrent capability to ensure regime survival but not to pose existential threats, first to Japan and now increasingly to the west coast of the United States—have failed. The emphasis must now shift to deproliferation: finding a way to remove these capabilities from the hands of a government that has shown it is not willing to abide by international demands, as codified in a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions, to show responsibility and restraint in how it manages its stockpiles.

The deproliferation agenda, however, cannot be overloaded with a series of other demands, no matter how compelling they may be. For a deproliferation approach to have any chance of succeeding without having to resort to costly armed action, all the stakeholders need to be fully invested in the process.

North Korea is one of the remaining legacies of the Cold War, and such the two post–Cold War successor powers—the Russian Federation and China—continue to have interests. Neither wants to see Korea reunified in a fashion that brings the possibility of U.S. forces coming all the way to the Yalu River. In addition, given the way Moscow (and thus Beijing) interprets how the German reunification process occurred, vague promises of goodwill will not substitute for binding agreements on either maintaining two separate Korean states or on Korea's absolute neutrality. At present, China and Russia are not directly threatened by North Korea, and indeed northeastern China and Far Eastern Russia are more likely to suffer if there is a U.S. military action against North Korea. Thus, at the present time, there is no incentive for either China or Russia to support U.S. military action and instead, as we have seen, their focus remains on preserving the status quo—a status quo that is growing more untenable. Changing their calculus on the desirability of North Korean deproliferation is critical, and appears to have been something that the president attempted in his Mar-a-Lago summit with Chinese president Xi Jinping several weeks ago.

The other stakeholders are other key figures in the Kim Jong-un regime. North Korea is not so isolated anymore and more of Pyongyang's elites have been able to see how the examples of Communist evolution in China and Vietnam, or how things have evolved under Vladimir Putin in Russia, might provide a pathway for the evolution of North Korea. Swapping deproliferation for regime guarantees may be harder nowadays given what happened to Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, but a focus on capabilities rather than outright regime change may provide bargaining ground for defusing the crisis. As Etzioni noted a decade ago “one can hardly expect these governments to consider seriously a deal that would remove from power the very same people who must agree to the deal.” Yes, it is very true that North Korea can exercise a version of the so-called “Sampson option”—bringing down the entire region via a mix of nuclear and conventional capabilities—but in doing so, the regime understands that it is signing its own suicide note.

Would the United States want to see a reunified Korea under democratic administration that retains close links with the West? Certainly, this is a preference, but what the United States needs right now is a North Korea that is not in possession of deadly capabilities, and it needs Chinese and—to a lesser extent—Russian participation in the deproliferation process. Moreover, a war on the Korean Peninsula would wreck Northeast Asia and create real problems for U.S. national security. At the same time, the North Korean status quo is not sustainable.

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