When GOP nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton square off for a second time on October 9, one can only hope that one of the debate moderators asks at least one question about North Korea—that tiny nation on the map that has an oversized influence in Northeast Asia thanks to its ever-improving nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capability. The third generation of the Kim dynasty is doing everything in his power to get the international community’s attention, and this year has been an especially busy one for the scientists and technicians who work on North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction programs: two nuclear weapons tests, twenty-two ballistic missile tests and the typical bellicosity coming from North Korea’s state media about turning Washington into “a sea of fire.”
All we’ve gotten from both presidential candidates thus far is the usual formula that the United States has used since the collapse of the 1994 Agreed Framework: promise to add more sanctions on what is already a massive sanctions mountain meant to cut Pyongyang’s revenue sources, pressure the Chinese (whatever that means) to start cooperating on sanctions implementation and continue bolstering the U.S.-South Korean military alliance in order to convince Kim Jong-un that he will never win an outright confrontation. Hillary Clinton has hinted that she may expand secondary sanctions on North Korea during her tenure, which would mean punishing Chinese financial institutions, businesses and individuals that transact with any entities or industries that facilitate North Korea’s nuclear or ballistic missile programs. Donald Trump, like everything else that he’s said about foreign policy, has been all over the map—suggesting this summer that he would sit down with Kim to strike a deal, but then mentioning during the first presidential debate that “China should solve that problem for us.”
The candidates should try embracing a third approach that would no doubt bring them political heat at home, but one that hasn’t been used since President Bill Clinton’s first term: dropping preconditions on denuclearization and inviting their North Korean colleagues to the bargaining table. It’s the same policy that former congresswoman Jane Harman and the Wilson Center’s James Person advocated for in the Washington Post this weekend, writing that “only the United States — the supposed existential threat that justifies its [North Korea’s] nuclear and ballistic missile programs — can fully address Pyongyang’s security concerns.”
Republicans in Congress will jump to the overused “appeasement” language that they have grown to love during President Barack Obama’s tenure. Indeed, if negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program and actually signing an agreement is derided by congressional Republicans as an act of folly that could potentially threaten Israel, doing the same with the reviled North Korean regime would be Iran times ten. Assuming that the GOP keeps control of at least one chamber of Congress this year, it would likely pass resolutions of disapproval in the House or the Senate to embarrass an incoming administration that attempts to pursue unconditional diplomacy with Pyongyang on the nuclear question. Like Iran, Republican leaders will write and pass sanctions bills through the chamber to try to complicate any diplomacy that they consider a danger to U.S. national security interests. The South Koreans and the Japanese probably wouldn’t be too thrilled either; the leadership of both countries are staring at a North Korea that can already pummel their territory with rockets and missiles of ever-increasing range.
In a perfect world, the United States wouldn’t have to stomach talking to the North Koreans about any of these issues. Ideally, Kim Jong-un would behave as a model citizen of the global community and unconditionally dismantle his country’s nuclear-weapons capability, provide full-proof access to IAEA inspectors, and release every single North Korean citizen who was imprisoned for political activity. But in case anyone has forgotten, we don’t live in a perfect world. Kim isn’t the model citizen that we all would like to see—he’s the exact opposite, the ruthless head of a ruthless regime that runs the nation as a personality cult. Kim’s grandfather plunged the peninsula into the first major war after World War II, and his father allowed millions of people to starve to death in the 1990s during a roughly three-year famine.
It’s jaw-dropping to think that the world’s oldest democracy would contemplate, let alone actually negotiate, with the worst human-rights abuser in the world—a regime that perpetrated crimes so vile and so atrocious that a U.N. Commission of Inquiry recommended an ICC indictment against North Korean officials for war crimes and crimes against humanity. But the alternatives to diplomacy, which include sanctions, a complete economic embargo on North Korea, a preemptive military strike on its nuclear facilities and the rubbing of prayer beads that Beijing will do America’s bidding, have either been tried or else would be just as destabilizing to the Korean Peninsula and the surrounding region. If economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation worked, Pyongyang wouldn’t be projected to possess twenty bombs’ worth of fissile material at the end of this year.
Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump have a choice. They can do what is politically popular and continue with the policy of the last twenty years, knowing that in the process that they wouldn’t get pummeled by members of Congress who insist on a policy of gradual but real regime change in the hermit kingdom. Or they can plunge into a diplomatic track that will be a political loser in Washington but could well turn out to be more effective in solving an international problem. We don’t know what the North Koreans would offer or what they would demand in return. A Clinton or Trump administration can find out by doing what superpowers and realists do—using strength and negotiating, even with leaders you would prefer to suffer a painful death.
Daniel R. DePetris is an analyst at Wikistrat, Inc., a geostrategic consulting firm, and a freelance researcher. He has also written for CNN.com, Small Wars Journal and The Diplomat.
Image: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in the DMZ, as a North Korean soldier watches. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain