Running out of alternatives
Trump's seemingly improvised military threats risk cutting off the options most likely to lead to a pacified DPRK, experts say. Doug Saunders takes a look at those options and what it will take to achieve lasting peace
Until this week, it was one of those hypothetical scenarios you encountered in international-relations essays and nuclear-disarmament pamphlets: What if a delusional man has his finger on the button? What if his honour, his standing, his political legitimacy depend on him pushing that button?
We now are witnessing the most implausible version of that scenario: Two seemingly delusional men, on opposite sides of the Pacific, both apparently believing that their honour and political standing teeter on the credibility of their threats.
North Korea "will be met with fire and fury, and frankly power, the likes of which the world has never seen before," U.S. President Donald Trump declared in apparently improvised remarks on Tuesday in what was seen as a direct threat of nuclear attack in retaliation for North Korea's development of nuclear-armed missiles that likely could, within a few years, be capable of striking the United States.
North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un replied with equally inflammatory rhetoric in a news release vowing "to mercilessly wipe out the provocateurs … the United States would suffer a shameful defeat and final doom if it persists in extreme military adventure, sanctions and pressure." To which Mr. Trump decided to up the ante on Thursday with what he described as "tougher" threats: "It will be an event the likes of which nobody has seen before, what will happen in North Korea" if the country takes military action, he declared: "Things will happen to them like they never thought possible."
If it were not for the plausible threat of nuclear annihilation implied in their words, these battling heads of state sounded almost comical in their purple-tinted hyperbole. One commentator, Sanho Tree of the Institute for Policy Studies, referred to the showdown as "Fat Man and Little Boy" – a reference to the code names for the atomic bombs the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and to the seeming pathologies of the two leaders.
On one level, it appears to be all bluster, an escalation of the Washington-Pyongyang sparring that has taken place since the Korean War reached a ceasefire (but didn't end) in 1953, and that has intensified since North Korea first tested a nuclear weapon in 2006.
Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un both have long histories of making histrionic threats that never amount to anything. They both have militaries that may or may not obey their commands. Mr. Trump could not even get anyone to deliver on his threat to ban transgender people from the military. His Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, seems to be attempting to pursue a very different approach to North Korea, one that involves negotiations with China, and he tried to reassure the word by declaring that nothing had changed and "Americans should sleep well at night."
And Kim Jong-un does not appear to have withdrawn from diplomatic engagement with the Western world. As he exchanged fiery threats with Mr. Trump, he authorized the release of Canadian political prisoner Hyeon Soo Lim, a pastor accused of espionage, reportedly after indirect communications had been exchanged between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mr. Kim. Similar diplomatic message-passing channels have remained open between Washington and Pyongyang, the Associated Press reported Friday.
But, beyond its goosebump-raising aura of chaotic incompetence, this showdown does carry a more frightening implication: There is a high likelihood that it will damage any remaining efforts to negotiate peace with Pyongyang. Mr. Trump has now blustered himself into a mortal paradox in which his threats may jeopardize any hope of a North Korean solution, while a failure to carry through on those threats could jeopardize his own reputation and self-image.
Former negotiators and experts on North Korea say the real danger in Mr. Trump's off-the-cuff threats is that they risk cutting off the options that are most likely to lead to a pacified North Korea. Those options:
Threatening North Korea to the negotiating table
This, in essence, is what Mr. Trump appears to be attempting.
Mr. Trump was probably thinking, on some level, of Richard Nixon's "madman theory" – if you can persuade your adversary that you're crazy enough to burn their country to the ground without provocation, then they're more likely to give in on negotiations.
He probably knows the phrase (it's used a lot on Fox News). He probably doesn't remember its outcome: Mr. Nixon, in order to shock the North Vietnamese into an armistice, didn't just threaten them – he actually firebombed much of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, killing and maiming thousands of civilians. Even then, it didn't work: The peace soon fell apart and Saigon fell to the communists.
Laura Rosenberger, who worked on negotiations with North Korea at the White House's National Security Council and the State Department under the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, and was later Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton's foreign-policy adviser, notes that: "We need the credible military option to remain on the table – no president should take that off – but all of us who work on this policy certainly hope that is an option we never need to employ, because the results would be catastrophic."
Even hawks don't think that could work in North Korea. Eliot Cohen, the neoconservative former foreign-policy adviser to the George W. Bush administration (he was hawkish enough to advocate war with Iran a decade ago), explained his source of alarm on Wednesday:
"Maybe it is all bluff. If it is, Trump will inflict a dangerous wound to American foreign policy, for his threats will probably be shown to be hollow. If loose words about fire and fury are a mere negotiating tactic, they will not deliver what the United States desires, because the North Koreans have every reason to want nuclear weapons … If it is not a ploy, however, the administration is probably considering when to launch the Second Korean War."
Taking a 'targeted' military action
There has been some suggestion among members of Mr. Trump's circle that an actual military strike is worth contemplating, if it is aimed squarely at disabling North Korea's nuclear capability or even assassinating Mr. Kim. One far-right supporter of the President attracted ridicule this week for proposing on the Internet that Washington "send Seal Team VI in the back door to take out their nukes."
But one thing that united virtually every observer of North Korea, regardless of ideology, is an agreement that even a minor use of force would cause far more carnage and danger than it would alleviate.
Any conventional strike on North Korea would, at a minimum, turn most of Asia against the United States. It would almost certainly cause significant destruction and death in South Korea, where most analysts believe North Korean agents are prepared to launch chemical-weapons attacks (if not nuclear attacks). It would also send millions of refugees flooding into China – and there is no love for North Korea or its people in China.
As well, Beijing would see any unilateral action by the West against Pyongyang, probably accurately, as an attempt to unite the two Koreas and create a U.S.-allied regime on the Chinese border or occupy the territory with Western weapons. This would likely force China to intervene in the conflict in defence of Pyongyang – as it did in the Korean War in the 1950s – at best returning everything to a much deadlier and more intractable version of the status quo and at worst triggering a nuclear-superpower war.
Cutting off North Korea's food and fuel
This option – starving North Korea into submission – is the closest thing to an actual, viable international policy that has existed in recent years, since Barack Obama ended negotiations with Pyongyang in 2012. And that policy made huge progress last week when the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to impose much tougher sanctions on North Korea in retaliation for its intercontinental-ballistic-missile tests – an important development because China now appears to agree fully with the United States that the country should be isolated economically and in trade.
Most analysts agree that sanctions are an important component of any policy – they provide a concrete reward that can be withdrawn from Mr. Kim, whose lifestyle is built on foreign imports and whose country is almost entirely dependent on fuel imported from China.
That said, sanctions and embargoes have a poor track record. The attempt to isolate Iraq's Saddam Hussein in the 1990s using similar UN-enforced sanctions failed to harm the country's dangerous regime, but rather caused it to starve its own people, creating a humanitarian crisis. Many feel that tougher North Korean sanctions would have similarly limited effects.
"When was North Korea not sanctioned in the past two decades?" asks Zhiqun Zhu, a political scientist at Pennsylvania's Bucknell University who specializes in Chinese-North Korean relations. "The new UN sanctions that will chop off a third of North Korea's trade may hurt Pyongyang a little bit, [but] it is unlikely that North Korea will change its behaviour as a result. Remember, North Korea also has considerable underground or illegal trade that is not accounted for, and outsiders tend to underestimate North Korea's ability to survive in adversity."
Besides which, any significant increase in sanctions depends mainly on China's co-operation and enforcement. The United States and its allies can help with a ban on doing business with Chinese companies that openly trade with North Korea. But the most significant sanctions require close co-operation between China and the United States – and a willingness to offer concessions to China that may prove uncomfortable.
Trading North Korea's nukes for benefits
When North Korea began pursuing nuclear weapons in the 1990s, the first response, under President Bill Clinton, was similar to Mr. Trump's: Threats and military responses. But a new view emerged – that North Korea was building its nuclear arsenal in order to have a potent bargaining chip it could trade for recognition, aid and more open economic and trade relations with the wider world. Negotiations to exchange disarmament for tangible benefits began in earnest under George W. Bush, and achieved significant results – until Kim Jong-il passed away and his son Kim Jong-un took over. The negotiations were abandoned by Mr. Obama in 2012, leading to the current deadlock.
However, some observers feel that Mr. Kim is still open to such negotiations. Indeed, he left that possibility open in one of his commuiqués this week – the one threatening to fire missiles at the U.S.-run island of Guam – when he suggested that he would not discuss concessions "unless the U.S. hostile policy and nuclear threat to the DPRK [North Korea] are definitely terminated." That, North Korea veterans said, meant that he was offering tradeoffs that could be negotiated.
Many informed observers feel that only direct talks will produce any good results. "Though the Trump administration suggests that all options are on the table, the only viable one is talking to North Korea directly," Dr. Zhu says. "Direct U.S.-North Korea talks should take place without preconditions. The U.S. position that North Korea must agree to stop developing nuclear weapons before talks does not help. I hope and believe that diplomacy is still taking place, and China is pushing the two sides to the negotiation table."
Bong Youngshik, a North Korea specialist at Seoul's Yonsei University, told the Financial Times he believes Mr. Kim is "betting all" on his nuclear program so he can negotiate with the United States from a position of strength: "He wants to be in a position from which he can dictate terms. Like a little boy in a buffet restaurant, he wants to be able to demand anything in any amount."
But the Republicans currently in power generally do not believe that Mr. Kim is willing to trade his nuclear weapons for anything. Dan Coats, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, told a Senate hearing he doesn't believe there is anything to be gained by negotiating with Pyongyang at this point.
And even many Democratic strategists feel that the previous sort of negotiations – in which the nuclear program itself is a bargaining chip – won't work any more.
"I don't think that Kim Jong-un is building up his arsenal as a negotiating chip," Ms. Rosenberger says. "His father and grandfather were in part doing that – they wanted the capability but they also saw the weapons as negotiating chips or as leverage. Kim Jong-un seems to be pretty squarely focused on advancing and obtaining a deterrent capability. He has been very clear about that in his signalling. So he is relatively impervious to external inducements, whether they're carrots or sticks, at this point."
Rather, Ms. Rosenberger and other strategists say, what needs to be negotiated is the entire political shape of the region, placing Mr. Kim in a position where his relations with China, the United States and the wider world are to be negotiated. "He sees the nuclear arsenal as his source of survival, and that's where the focus needs to be in terms of changing the strategic calculus – he needs to see that his survival is threatened by the presence of his nuclear arsenal, rather than by its absence. And that is why I think things like really turning up the sanctions and pressure from multiple directions is critical, because he needs to feel that it is crippling in order for him to decide that he wants to find another path."
Cutting Pyongyang's ties to China
Many analysts fear Mr. Trump, with his turn to threats, has snapped the one remaining arrow in his quiver: The fact that Beijing is as alarmed by Mr. Kim as Washington is.
"Ultimately, the only approach that might work is one that has not yet been tried: a joint effort by the U.S. and China," writes Jessica Mathews, a former National Security Council official who specializes in nuclear diplomacy. "Both sides' interests would be met by a unified, denuclearized, neutral Korea … the process of getting there would be tortuous and require a degree of mutual trust between Washington and Beijing that does not now exist."
That is the longer-term challenge of dealing with North Korea: Almost everyone (except Mr. Kim himself) wants to see a regime change take place in Pyongyang, the sooner the better. But different players desire very different outcomes: South Korea wants to see a reunified Korea. The United States wants to see a Western-friendly regime that does not threaten the world or its own people. China wants to ensure that a Western puppet state is not installed in a fragile country on its most sensitive border, and that it maintains some influence over the Korean peninsula.
Regime change, to a large extent, would have to be on China's terms. So would most plausible visions of a negotiated North Korean peace. To win this, the United States would have to offer tangible benefits to China, including possibly a withdrawal of U.S. military forces from South Korea – a move that would be hated by senior members of the U.S. military, many of whom believe that a key strategic goal should be preparing for a future war with China.
At the same time, China is incapable of delivering a North Korean solution by itself. Simply begging or bribing Beijing into putting a stop to Mr. Kim – which Mr. Trump appeared to spend his first six months in office attempting to do – is not going to produce results. The United States itself has to be there, at the table, and in negotiating with a real-life nuclear power, it will have to be willing to make concessions.
This approach worked with Iran – its nuclear-development program was stopped in exchange for openings with the wider world negotiated by a circle of major countries, including the United States; even Mr. Trump's officials have begrudgingly acknowledged that the Iran peace deal has worked. But its price – having the United States make a deal with a vile regime in exchange for a wider peace – was too much for many officials, including Mr. Trump himself, to mention.
This is where the President now finds himself – stuck between the potential humiliation of backing away from his threats and making the hard compromises and entering the difficult multinational negotiations that will be necessary to rein in North Korea, or the frightening possibility of acting on his threats. If he chooses the former, he may feel like he has lost face; the latter, and it will be a huge loss for everyone.