On North Korea, blus­ter isn’t a strat­egy


Ev­ery Amer­i­can ad­min­is­tra­tion takes a while to set­tle into a ba­sic ap­proach to the world. Pres­i­dent Trump’s team has had a rock­ier start than most, with many im­por­tant po­si­tions in ev­ery key agency still un­filled. More wor­ry­ing, the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ba­sic for­eign pol­icy is com­ing into view, and it is not a re­as­sur­ing sight — bel­li­cose rhetoric, hol­low threats, con­tra­dic­tory voices and lit­tle co­or­di­na­tion with al­lies. The ap­proach is be­ing tested on the most dif­fi­cult for­eign pol­icy prob­lem of all: North Korea.

There is a pat­tern to Trump’s ap­proach so far. It be­gins with bravado, the re­peated use of rhetoric that is not backed up by much. The pres­i­dent con­stantly in­sists that if China doesn’t help deal with North Korea, the United States will. Re­ally? How? A mil­i­tary strike is close to im­pos­si­ble. South Korea would ve­he­mently op­pose any such move, as it would face the brunt of North Korea’s re­tal­i­a­tion; Seoul is only about 35 miles from the bor­der. Ja­pan would also op­pose a strike, and, of course, any mil­i­tary ac­tion would en­rage China. Plus, a bomb­ing cam­paign would be in­ef­fec­tive be­cause North Korea’s nu­clear sites are scat­tered, buried deep and, in some cases, un­der­wa­ter.

Trump has not been alone in his bravado. Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son an­nounced that the United States’ his­tor­i­cal pol­icy of “strate­gic pa­tience” with North Korea had ended, and that the United States has a new pol­icy. The dan­ger of this kind of rhetoric is that it is be­com­ing read­ily ap­par­ent that Wash­ing­ton does not in fact have a new pol­icy. And if it does, Wash­ing­ton’s key al­lies, es­pe­cially the South Kore­ans, are ter­ri­fied by it. With the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s blus­ter, its mis­take with the USS Carl Vin­son and Trump’s rep­e­ti­tion of Beijing’s line that Korea was once a part of China, South Korea has be­come deeply un­easy.

Tough talk is sup­ple­mented by ag­gres­sive mil­i­tary re­flexes. Whether that means us­ing big­ger bombs in the Mid­dle East or send­ing ships — even­tu­ally — into East Asian wa­ters, th­ese tac­tics can be use­ful if there is a strat­egy be­hind them. So far, how­ever, they look more like tac­tics in search of a strat­egy, the flex­ing of mil­i­tary might in the hope that this will im­press the ad­ver­sary. But all the shock and awe in Iraq did not help when there was a faulty plan to se­cure the peace. More bombs in Syria will not an­swer the ques­tion of how to de­feat the Is­lamic State with­out abet­ting Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad. Threat­en­ing North Korea with­out the abil­ity to carry out that threat only makes Wash­ing­ton look weak.

The United States has had roughly the same strat­egy to­ward North Korea for decades. It is a pol­icy of sanc­tions, threats, in­tim­i­da­tion, pres­sure and iso­la­tion. And it has not worked. Even the brief ef­fort at co­op­er­a­tion dur­ing the Clin­ton years was half­hearted, with Wash­ing­ton fail­ing to ful­fill some of its prom­ises to North Korea. In any event, the rap­proche­ment was quickly re­versed by the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion. The re­sults have been clear. North Korea has con­tin­ued to build its nu­clear pro­gram and en­gage in provoca­tive tests. As iso­la­tion and sanc­tions have in­creased in re­cent years, Py­ongyang has only be­come more con­fronta­tional.

In a re­cent es­say in For­eign Af­fairs, John Delury won­ders whether it is time to try an­other ap­proach. “If the United States re­ally hopes to achieve peace on the Korean Penin­sula, it should stop look­ing for ways to sti­fle North Korea’s econ­omy and un­der­mine Kim Jong Un’s regime and start find­ing ways to make Py­ongyang feel more se­cure. This might sound coun­ter­in­tu­itive, given North Korea’s nu­clear am­bi­tions and hu­man rights record. But con­sider this: North Korea will start fo­cus­ing on its pros­per­ity in­stead of its self-preser­va­tion only once it no longer has to worry about its own de­struc­tion. And North Korea will con­sider sur­ren­der­ing its nu­clear de­ter­rent only once it feels se­cure and pros­per­ous and is eco­nom­i­cally in­te­grated into North­east Asia.”

We tend to view North Korea as an ut­terly weird coun­try run by a loony dic­ta­tor with bad hair. And there’s ev­i­dence to sup­port this char­ac­ter­i­za­tion. But it is also a regime that wants to sur­vive. I re­call many sim­i­lar ar­gu­ments made about Iran be­fore the nu­clear deal, that it was a fa­nat­i­cal coun­try run by mad mul­lahs. We were told they could never be ne­go­ti­ated with, would never ac­cept a deal, would never dis­con­nect their cen­trifuges and would vi­o­late any agree­ment within weeks. So far, all th­ese pre­dic­tions have proved wrong. It might be worth try­ing a new pol­icy with North Korea. It might not work. But the old one cer­tainly hasn’t.

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