David Welch is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), chair of global security at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and professor of political science at the University of Waterloo.
On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared the "policy of strategic patience" dead and said that "all options" were on the table to denuclearize North Korea.
This is a potentially welcome development. Strategic patience has clearly failed. But denuclearizing North Korea will be like defusing a bomb: it will require patience, a steady hand and a deft touch. It is reasonable to doubt that the Trump administration is up to the job.
It is worth asking why denuclearizing North Korea is so important. After all, no one worries (much) about British, French or even Chinese nuclear weapons, because their primary purpose is simply deterrence. In 2013, Kim Jong-un noted (incorrectly, overlooking the 1982 Falklands War) that no nuclear-armed country had ever been invaded and declared that "Our nuclear strength is a reliable war deterrent and a guarantee to protect our sovereignty."
But Theresa May, François Hollande and Xi Jinping do not kill their uncles and half-brothers or execute senior officials with anti-aircraft guns for dozing off at meetings. A nuclear North Korea is unacceptable, in short, because Kim Jong-un is too much of a risk. At some point, he may come to believe that his nuclear arsenal gives him the shield he needs to do his godlike grandfather Kim Il-sung one better and fulfill the family dynasty's unfinished business of forcibly reuniting all of Korea.
What can Washington do about it? There are too many nuclear-weapons and missile-related targets – many of them hardened, well-concealed or mobile – to destroy in a surprise attack. Thus far, economic sanctions have done nothing, other than dry up North Korea's trade with everyone but China. This gives China unequalled leverage, but Beijing is loath to use it, fearful of triggering the regime's collapse, a refugee disaster and, when the dust settles, the possibility of U.S. troops on the Yalu River.
Washington could try to force China's hand by means of secondary sanctions, but even a complete cutoff of food, fuel and foreign exchange might not work. The North Korean government has never shown its own people much solicitude, could externalize blame for their suffering, and would probably just further husband scarce resources for the benefit of the elite and the nuclear and missile programs.
Negotiations are a non-starter as well. North Korea has given no indication that it would trust others enough to disarm even if it wanted to. In any case, Kim Jong-un has deliberately built his cult of personality on the narrative of nuclear prowess.
At the end of the day, the standard playbook has no good options. So Washington should toss it out the window. Here is a sample step-by-step script:
- Declare that if Pyongyang conducts another nuclear or missile test, the United States will consider the 1953 armistice suspended. Without tests, North Korean programs cannot progress.
If Pyongyang calls the bluff:
- Begin a campaign of low-level nighttime supersonic stealth fighter passes over North Korean cities (these would be legal, because with the armistice suspended, the two countries would technically revert to a state of war). Without causing physical damage, the jarring sonic booms would clearly signal North Korea’s vulnerability.
- Arrange with like-minded countries to recognize a government-in-exile that would, in turn, endorse UN human-rights instruments, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the International Criminal Court, promising when in power to prosecute officials guilty of crimes against humanity and to grant amnesty to those who swear allegiance.
- Begin talks with South Korea and China on the outlines of a generous relief and reconstruction program for a post-Kim North Korea.
- Push information on these measures into North Korea through all available channels.
- If necessary, but only as a last resort, disrupt North Korean nuclear or missile tests with limited pre-emptive strikes on test sites or ABM interceptions, to keep the regime off schedule and off balance.
Crucially, none of these measures would immediately confront the regime with the prospect of imminent collapse. Autocrats are most dangerous when cornered with no apparent way out (think Moammar Gadhafi). With luck and patience, enough in the North Korean elite will come to believe that their best long-term hope lies in co-operating with the international community and will take internal political matters into their own hands.
Is Washington up to the task? It is hard to be optimistic. Creativity and nuance have never been hallmarks of U.S. power even under the smartest and best-informed presidents. Most likely, the United States will either continue to spin its wheels or will overplay its hand – with potentially disastrous consequences.