Trump’s Korean Cold War
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 Jeffrey 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 differ from the one that ultimately defeated Moscow.
Trump’s Cold War–like strategy includes overt and significant 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 fighters 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 officials 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 significantly 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 financial 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 sanctions by September 11, but persuading Beijing to go along with such a vote will be difficult. 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 fleeing because of lack of food and jobs. A new surge of refugees could follow
THE DEPLOYMENT OF HEAVY WEAPONRY IS MEANT TO DEMONSTRATE TO NORTH KOREA THAT THE U.S. ISN’T MESSING AROUND.
if China abides by the U.S. plan.
Cutting off 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 staffer, puts it, sanctions are a better “option for the Chinese than military conflict.”
Beijing’s role is one reason this standoff is more complicated than the Cold War. Another significant difference between the two conflicts 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 officials 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 offer 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 finally replace the armistice that ended the Korean War.
The North is not likely to agree to such an offer; Kim views his nuclear program as his ultimate insurance policy. But by making a bold, goodfaith effort to end the standoff with Pyongyang, the U.S. would be able to lean on Beijing and Moscow to join in (rather than flout) 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 first eight months in office 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 staffer 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.