Trump’s Korean Cold War

How the U.S. can con­tain and de­ter the nu­clear North

Newsweek International - - NEWS - BY BILL POWELL

DON­ALD TRUMP’S North Korea prob­lem just won’t go away. In early Septem­ber, Py­ongyang det­o­nated what it claims was a hy­dro­gen bomb and is re­port­edly pre­par­ing for yet an­other in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal mis­sile test.

The good news: There’s a sem­blance of a savvy strat­egy emerg­ing from the U.S. and its al­lies in Asia—one that should be fa­mil­iar to any­one who lived through the Cold War: con­tain­ment and de­ter­rence. The ques­tion now is whether Trump can make this plan work—with­out Chi­nese in­ter­fer­ence or his usual self-de­feat­ing blun­ders.

Con­sider the most re­cent de­vel­op­ments. After the North’s lat­est mis­sile tests, both Ja­pan and South Korea said they would de­ploy their mis­sile de­fense sys­tems. Nikki Ha­ley, the U.S. am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions, called for a vote on tougher sanc­tions against Py­ongyang, to con­tain its nu­clear ex­pan­sion. And De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis, in care­fully cho­sen words, said a North Korean at­tack on the U.S. or its al­lies would be met with a “mas­sive” re­sponse. Trump has re­peat­edly said that “all op­tions” are avail­able for deal­ing with North Korea, and the Pen­tagon has pro­vided mil­i­tary op­tions for the pres­i­dent to con­sider. But a pre-emp­tive strike re­mains the very last op­tion, say ad­min­is­tra­tion sources, who asked for anonymity to dis­cuss sen­si­tive mat­ters.

Sound fa­mil­iar? Call it Cold War light. North Korea isn’t the Soviet Union. It doesn’t have the power, let alone the im­pe­rial am­bi­tion. But to Je rey Bader, a fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion who ran Asia pol­icy on the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil (NSC), that doesn’t mean U.S. strat­egy to counter Py­ongyang needs to di er from the one that ul­ti­mately de­feated Moscow.

Trump’s Cold War–like strat­egy in­cludes overt and signi cant mil­i­tary pres­sure. Not only has the U.S. sup­plied those de­fen­sive mis­sile sys­tems in Tokyo and Seoul, but it’s also send­ing more “new and beau­ti­ful” hard­ware to the re­gion, as Trump put it in a re­cent press con­fer­ence, in­clud­ing Stealth ghters and nu­clear-pow­ered subs. The de­ploy­ment of heavy weaponry is meant to demon­strate to North Korea that the U.S. isn’t mess­ing around. And just as im­por­tant, se­nior

U.S. mil­i­tary o cials have re­as­sured their key al­lies in Asia that the full range of re­tal­ia­tory op­tions re­ally are avail­able if any of them are threat­ened.

The con­tain­ment strat­egy also in­cludes signi cantly greater eco­nomic pres­sure, which is what Ha­ley now seeks at the U.N. The U.S. has cir­cu­lated a draft res­o­lu­tion of a sanc­tions pack­age that would be the harsh­est yet against Py­ongyang. It would pro­hibit any oil ex­ports to the en­ergy-de­pen­dent coun­try, slash its tex­tile ex­ports, ban North Korean cit­i­zens from work­ing abroad and try to freeze what Wash­ing­ton be­lieves are as­sets held in for­eign nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions on be­half of the coun­try’s leader, Kim Jong Un.

The one prob­lem with this con­tain­ment plan: China. Ha­ley wants a U.N. de­ci­sion on new

THE DE­PLOY­MENT OF HEAVY WEAPONRY IS MEANT TO DEMON­STRATE TO NORTH KOREA THAT THE U.S. ISN’T MESS­ING AROUND.

sanc­tions by Septem­ber 11, but per­suad­ing Bei­jing to go along with such a vote will be di cult. Py­ongyang brings in nearly 6 mil­lion bar­rels of oil a year, al­most all of which comes from China. So Bei­jing would have to close the spigot—and man­age the fall­out. The Chi­nese al­ready have to deal with an in­creas­ing num­ber of refugees from the North ee­ing be­cause of lack of food and jobs. A new surge of refugees could fol­low

if China abides by the U.S. plan.

Cut­ting o the oil could also fo­ment pop­u­lar un­rest, which could threaten the Kim regime’s sta­bil­ity. China doesn’t want in­sta­bil­ity on its bor­ders, but it doesn’t want war on the Korean Penin­sula ei­ther. As Bader, the for­mer NSC sta er, puts it, sanc­tions are a bet­ter “op­tion for the Chi­nese than mil­i­tary con ict.”

Bei­jing’s role is one rea­son this stando is more com­pli­cated than the Cold War. An­other signi cant di er­ence be­tween the two con icts is that the U.S. of­ten talked with Moscow. The two sides ne­go­ti­ated both to defuse dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions (the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis in 1961, for in­stance) and to deal with long-term strate­gic is­sues, like the size of each coun­try’s nu­clear ar­se­nal. Each had em­bassies in the other’s cap­i­tal, and the lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion were pretty much al­ways open.

Not so with Py­ongyang. The U.S. and North Korea haven’t had for­mal coun­try-to-coun­try re­la­tions since the Korean War, and while there have been pe­ri­ods of diplo­matic ac­tiv­ity (most re­cently the fruit­less “six-party” talks un­der Ge­orge W. Bush), for the most part, si­lence has been the norm. “Talk­ing is not the an­swer,” Trump tweeted in early Septem­ber.

The pres­i­dent doesn’t want to see America’s al­lies open up a di­a­logue ei­ther. To the cha­grin of his na­tional se­cu­rity team, Trump re­cently chas­tised South Korea’s Pres­i­dent Moon Jae-in for “ap­pease­ment,” in part be­cause he called for more di­a­logue with Py­ongyang dur­ing his 2017 elec­tion cam­paign. Trump not only bashed his close ally dur­ing the es­ca­lat­ing cri­sis; he also threat­ened to pull out of a bi­lat­eral free trade agree­ment with the South. And that “just made no sense,” says one Trump ad­viser, who also asked for anonymity to dis­cuss sen­si­tive is­sues.

Pri­vately, some Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion o cials say face-to-face talks with the North may even­tu­ally be use­ful. And on oc­ca­sion, the pres­i­dent has said he’d be open to a tête-à-tête with Kim. There are no plans for that, but some in the ad­min­is­tra­tion think a diplo­matic push may de­velop. Bader says Wash­ing­ton should o er a deal, ei­ther via the Chi­nese (to keep Bei­jing in­volved) or di­rectly. In re­turn for full de­nu­cle­ariza­tion, he says, the U.S. and its al­lies could grant Py­ongyang full diplo­matic recog­ni­tion, an end to all sanc­tions, di­rect in­vest­ment in its econ­omy and a peace treaty to nally re­place the armistice that ended the Korean War.

The North is not likely to agree to such an o er; Kim views his nu­clear pro­gram as his ul­ti­mate in­sur­ance pol­icy. But by mak­ing a bold, good­faith e ort to end the stando with Py­ongyang, the U.S. would be able to lean on Bei­jing and Moscow to join in (rather than out) a com­pre­hen­sive con­tain­ment strat­egy. It would, as Bader says, “give Wash­ing­ton the moral high ground” and put the Chi­nese and Rus­sians in an awk­ward po­si­tion on the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, mak­ing it harder for them to run in­ter­fer­ence for Kim.

It’s not in­con­ceiv­able that the White House will pur­sue such a strat­egy. The pres­i­dent’s rst eight months in o ce have shown he’s in­cred­i­bly un­pre­dictable (among other things). Just ask con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans, who watched with dis­may as Trump made a deal with the Democrats on the debt ceil­ing.

As one Trump sta er puts it, “‘All op­tions’ doesn’t just mean mil­i­tary ac­tion is on the ta­ble. ‘All op­tions’ means diplo­macy too.”

+ NU­CLEAR CHICKEN: Top left, Ja­pan’s Air Self-de­fense Force sets up its sur­face-to-air mis­sile launch sys­tems dur­ing a drill. America and its al­lies fear that North Korea’s Kim, third from the right above, views his nu­clear pro­gram as his ul­ti­mate in­sur­ance pol­icy.

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