With a tentatively-scheduled summit between President Trump and North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un on the horizon, U.S. policy toward North Korea must be reassessed. Averting nuclear catastrophe with North Korea is the most important foreign policy issue that the U.S. faces today. The nuclear-armed rogue state poses an existential threat to two key U.S. allies—South Korea and Japan—as well as tens of thousands of American troops and citizens residing in those nations. It is rapidly developing the requisite missile technology to transport a nuclear payload to the American heartland.
The consequences of nuclear war with North Korea would be terrible, with millions dead, cities razed, and long-term health and environmental impacts. The qualities that define North Korea’s relationship with the world—militarism, isolationism, ultra-nationalism, and the apparent irrationality of its leaders (in particular, Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un) —raise the probability of war. To address this pressing foreign policy issue, the U.S. must move beyond its current strategy, and focus on a combination of deterrence and peaceful destabilization.
Current U.S. strategy is defined by inconsistent messaging, aggressive rhetoric, and an emphasis on denuclearization. This emphasis has led to an undue focus on military solutions that has only been exacerbated in recent weeks with the rise of two North Korea hawks to prominent positions in the Trump administration: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton. History shows that the Kim regime will prioritize its nuclear program over the plight of its people, enduring the “sticks” (e.g., sanctions) and foregoing the “carrots” (e.g., aid packages, lifting of sanctions) that the international community is ready to deploy. Thus, many powerful public officials, politicians, and pundits, including Secretary Pompeo and Advisor Bolton, are clamoring for an alternative: pre-emptive military action to eradicate North Korea’s nuclear program, and perhaps the Kim regime along with it.
However, proposed strategies ranging from a “decapitation” of Kim to a full-scale first strike are problematic for two reasons. First, North Korea is so insulated that intelligence on its nuclear program is relatively poor, decreasing the odds of a successful pre-emptive military action. Second, such action would almost certainly spur a reprisal against South Korea, a devastating eventuality that could, as noted above, result in the death of millions. For these reasons, military action is not a viable solution. Unfortunately, denuclearization is not a feasible objective in the near term either. According to state media, Kim is deeply cognizant of what happened to Muammar Gaddafi, who relinquished nuclear weapons and was subsequently deposed with U.S. assistance. Kim views his arsenal as a crucial safeguard to prevent the same fate.
The U.S. should therefore pursue a policy of deterrence, coupled with efforts to peacefully destabilize the regime. A policy of deterrence accepts that the window of opportunity to denuclearize North Korea has closed and focuses on avoiding nuclear war. As part of such a policy, the U.S. must re-open and maintain diplomatic channels with North Korea to ensure that a crisis does not result in nuclear escalation. For that same reason, a hotline between the both nations’ leaders, along the lines of that between the U.S. and Moscow during the Cold War, should be put in place. Negotiations must focus on an agreement that caps the number of North Korean nuclear warheads and is enforced by regular international inspection. Aggressive rhetoric should be toned down while pursuing a mutual no first-strike policy with the Kim regime to avoid an accidental war. Simultaneously, the U.S. must demonstrate readiness to destroy the Kim regime if it attacks the U.S. or our allies.
Deterrence measures should be wedded to efforts to destabilize the Kim regime through sanctions. Four components are required to ensure sanctions work. First, they must be far-reaching. The U.S. must continue to strengthen its own sanctions, and advocate for strengthening the international community’s. Recent U.N. sanctions are a good first step. Second, sanctions must be enforced. Ninety percent of North Korea’s trade is with China, so punishing lax enforcement by placing secondary sanctions on any Chinese bank that facilitates trade with North Korea is crucial. Third, aid to North Korea, despite its altruistic objectives, has sustained the regime and must be stopped. Finally, the sanctions must be given time to work–the U.S. must not alleviate economic pressure in return for minor concessions from Pyongyang.
Renowned diplomat George Kennan once wrote that, “A political society does not live to conduct foreign policy…it conducts foreign policy in order to live.” Kennan famously advocated for a policy of containment toward the U.S.S.R., believing that it would eventually collapse on its own. History proved that general model correct. If the U.S. can contain North Korea in the coming decades, while peacefully increasing the likelihood of its collapse, then this seemingly unsolvable foreign policy dilemma may resolve itself. To avert catastrophe, to “live,” we must address the critical foreign policy challenge of a nuclear North Korea.