The Trump administration’s behavior towards North Korea raises questions about its ability to propose a viable roadmap for the Korean peninsula in the coming years. An ambitious negotiation, with agreed upon parameters—including specific milestones regarding Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic programs as a mechanism to re-establish regional stability—unfortunately seems out of reach at this stage. There is a real risk that Washington’s unpredictability could end up exacerbating the regional proliferation dynamics it claims to be combating.
Donald Trump’s dual strategy of the use of force coupled with a degree of presidential irrationality seems to have a sort of positive impact on North Korea and China. This strategy introduces a new factor of uncertainty that China must take into account, including a likely reassessment of its relationship with the North Korean regime.
Uncertainties remain, however, as to the consistency of Donald Trump’s strategic choices for Asia. In his administration, there are several groups that seem to be in opposition between those who advocate for a strategy of firmness and those who—symbolized by Jared Kushner—seem to be leaning towards a return to a policy of Chinese power engagement.
A solution can only come in the long term unless the choice of permanent instability prevails. Already, Donald Trump has established a “new type of relationship between great powers” with Beijing. However, contrary to the Chinese vision of this privileged partnership, it is also a new type of relationship based on the demand for results, as opposed to previous and continued efforts of merely seeking a dialogue.
There is a possible alternative path to follow here. Rather than pursuing the complete elimination of all of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, the Trump administration should aim for more stable relations with North Korea as at least an interim step.
The terms of such an agreement would logically follow the February 2019 Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi, where the North offered to dismantle part of its nuclear production capacity in exchange for the lifting all sanctions but was rejected when President Trump abruptly walked away from the negotiations.
As long the dismantlement can be verified and some sanctions are maintained even after such an agreement is reached, it would be a good deal. While it would not be perfect and would not likely achieve the complete denuclearization of North Korea that Trump had initially insisted on, it would represent a good “first start.” This would reduce the risk of war and limit the damage caused by nuclear proliferation in Northeast Asia.
Patricia Schouker is an energy and security analyst based in Washington D.C. She is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Science Diplomacy Center at the Fletcher School and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Payne Institute Colorado School of Mines. University. Twitter: @Patricia_Energy