The State of the Union and the Dangerous Turn in the United States’ North Korea Policy
On Tuesday evening, President Donald J. Trump devoted a significant portion of his State of the Union speech to address the North Korean nuclear crisis. Notably missing from his remarks was any discussion of the “engagement” half of the “maximum pressure and engagement” strategy that the White House announced it would pursue last April after conducting a two-month review of its North Korea policy. While vowing to continue with a campaign of maximum pressure to prevent North Korea from threatening the United States with nuclear weapons, President Trump failed to outline any diplomatic pathways to resolve the crisis.
His speech contrasted markedly with the one he gave less than three months ago at the South Korean National Assembly, during which he pointed out the brutal nature of Kim Jong-un’s regime, and contrasted the North’s bleak reality to the South’s economic progress. But President Trump also clearly stated in the same speech that the United States was willing to “offer a path to a much better future,” if North Korea’s leaders would lay down their nuclear weapons. In his State of the Union address, however, the president solely focused on the depravity of the Kim regime, highlighting the tragic stories of those who suffered at its hands, including Otto Warmbier, the American student who was imprisoned in North Korea and died shortly after being returned to the United States last year, and Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean defector who managed to escape his country despite having lost an arm and a leg during the famine of the 1990s.
The fact that President Trump’s address lacked any reference to “diplomacy” or “negotiations” raised alarm bells and quickly drew comparisons to the State of the Union speech given by President George W. Bush before the invasion of Iraq. And reports earlier in the day that Victor Cha, a respected Korea expert and presumed nominee for U.S. ambassador to South Korea, was no longer under consideration because he had privately expressed doubts about the wisdom of carrying out a “bloody nose” strike, heightened concerns that the White House is moving closer to launching a military strike on North Korea.
The Trump administration’s growing fixation on “maximum pressure” without any regard for “diplomatic engagement” is counterproductive and dangerous because the strategy only works if both components are applied simultaneously. The North Korean leadership must be progressively squeezed and isolated as long as they continue to hold onto their nuclear weapons, but they must also see a viable way out of the corner. North Korea’s leaders must believe that if they give up their nuclear weapons, they will truly have a better future, which at a minimum includes their survival. This means that, unpalatable as it is, any diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis has to include a commitment by the United States not to overturn the Kim regime.
President Trump is absolutely right when he says complacency and concessions will only lead to dangerous results when it comes to North Korea. And complacently pinning hope on the notion that a unilateral military strike alone will shock Pyongyang into giving up its nuclear weapons is just as perilous as blindly doling out concessions.
More can be, and must be, done to sharpen both prongs of the “maximum pressure and engagement” strategy. With regards to the first prong, the Trump administration should immediately negotiate with China, Russia, and others an agreement to impose and strictly enforce a complete oil embargo the next time North Korea conducts a missile or nuclear test. All parties should then communicate this threat to Pyongyang in advance, to deter it from actually carrying out any tests. If the time ever arrives when absolutely nothing is left to sanction, and leaders believe threatening military strikes is the only means left to uphold our security and the security of our allies, everything possible must be done to maximize odds that the threat of military action will succeed before force has to be employed. This includes communicating specific and realistic demands to Pyongyang on freezing and dismantling its nuclear program. Striking Pyongyang before doing so would undercut the purpose of coercive diplomacy. Furthermore, any threats should be made with the implicit if not explicit support of East Asian states, not only because that is the right thing to do, but also to signal to North Korea that no one will apply the brakes in its favor and therefore resistance is futile.
And most importantly, North Korean leaders must be convinced that compliance with our demands will leave them indisputably better off than defiance. Thus, generous and credible diplomatic assurances must be communicated in conjunction with threats, which is where the “engagement” half of the strategy comes in. First, President Trump should personally reaffirm Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s “four no’s”—that the U.S. government does not seek regime change or the collapse of North Korea, an accelerated reunion of the Korean Peninsula, or an excuse to send in U.S. troops above the 38th parallel—all of which address Pyongyang’s deepest fears. And he should personally outline a step-by-step diplomatic package to denuclearize and reintegrate North Korea into the region.
In addition, any diplomatic package should be comprehensive in nature. It must not only focus on North Korea’s nuclear weapons but address its missile tests, low-grade military provocations, cyber aggression, and other destabilizing activities to avoid the disillusionment that followed the Iran deal, which only focused on the latter’s nuclear program. To incentivize the Kim regime to curb its disruptive behavior, a deal should creatively tie its performance to short, medium and long-term rewards, with the biggest diplomatic and economic payouts following good behavior over the long run.
The day North Korea can live as a normal state seems quite remote, and until then, the North Korean people will continue to suffer, and the rest of the world will live in anxiety. But unilaterally engaging in a limited strike against the North Korean regime will not get us there any sooner and will surely leave us with millions of American and Asian casualties. Rather, the fastest and soundest way to resolve this crisis lies in the faithful implementation of the strategy the Trump administration selected after deliberating last year: simultaneously using pressure and diplomacy to bring North Korea to the table, in order to negotiate a way out of this crisis.