Donald Trump could have an opportunity early in his presidency, if he follows his instincts instead of all the wrong advice he is likely to get on how to deal with North Korea, to prove his Promethean negotiating skills on one of the most serious national-security challenges the United States will confront over the next four years. North Korea, already probably armed with about 20 nuclear bombs, and missiles that can reach America’s regional allies South Korea and Japan, has been sprinting to acquire the capability to put nuclear warheads on top of long-range missiles, with America in its crosshairs. Efforts over the past eight years to slow the North down and prevent it from achieving this goal, relying on a mix of puny sticks and carrots plus otherwise trying to ignore the problem, have been unsuccessful.
There may be a deal to negotiate with the North, but it will take the kind of strong leadership and negotiating prowess that Trump boasted about incessantly during the presidential campaign—and an inclination, which he’s quite clearly demonstrated, to buck the criticism of the foreign-policy establishment. At one point in the campaign, he expressed a willingness to meet the North Korean leader, Kim Jung Un, to try to work out a deal, asking: “What the hell is wrong with speaking?” That position is at odds with the Obama administration’s apparent preference to treat North Korea, which is almost completely dependent on China for food and energy, as China’s problem. Under this approach, the key to solving the North Korean problem would be to get Beijing to force the North to give up its weapons through enacting “secondary” sanctions that would adversely affect any Chinese businesses or financial institutions with ties to Pyongyang. Hillary Clinton seemed ready to embark on such a course of action.
The North would have thumbed its nose at the U.S., just as it did while both the Bush and Obama administrations pursued similar strategies, conducting more missile and nuclear-weapons tests to demonstrate it can’t be pushed around. The Chinese, who have consistently maintained that for them North Korean denuclearization is a lower priority than stability on the Korean peninsula, the survival of the Kim regime, and maintenance of North Korea as a buffer state, would have flipped a Clinton administration the middle finger. Both the North Koreans and the Chinese would have found ways to circumvent or mitigate the effects of further tightening sanctions that have been gradually mounting ever since North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, and as they have done repeatedly throughout the Obama administration.
The Trump team, however, seems intent on snatching defeat from the jaws of possible victory. Like his predecessors, the president-elect and his minions now appear to want to dump the North Korean problem into China’s lap (“China can solve that problem for us with one phone call,” Trump has declared), and pressure China to do America’s bidding by imposing new sanctions on the North whose purpose is to coerce Beijing. But Trump’s well-advertised instincts for negotiating good deals point to a better alternative. North Korea (and its Chinese patrons) have stated repeatedly that it wants the United States to end what it sees as a hostile policy of regime change in North Korea, and to have the United States accept the country’s status as a sovereign and independent nation; this, rather than ineffectual sanctions, is the real source of American leverage with the North. Moreover, all the other protagonists in this drama are looking for bold American leadership. That is certainly true for South Korea and Japan, who understand that Washington’s role is key because of its political, economic, and military clout. And it is true for the Chinese, who see a deal between the U.S. and North Korea as essential to solving this security problem. Trump has railed against the outsourcing of American jobs to China; he should be equally incensed about outsourcing America’s North Korean diplomacy to Beijing.
American policy toward North Korea veered into a ditch under the Obama administration. President Trump and his advisers will hopefully be smart enough to follow the first law of holes: Stop digging. The new administration has an opportunity to take the North up on its offer to address concerns about its nuclear program if Washington ends its “hostile policy,” the reason it developed those weapons in the first place. It could make Pyongyang a serious and credible diplomatic offer to negotiate a peace treaty to replace the temporary armistice that stopped the Korean War in 1953. Of course, no one should harbor any illusions that achieving the two key objectives of diplomacy—denuclearization and a peace treaty—are anything but a long-term vision. But it may be possible, with this mutual vision in mind, to start taking steps down a less confrontational, more peaceful path that at least brings all concerned closer to achieving both. A key part of that process will be to first freeze Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs and then move on to reversing and eventually ending them if the political environment continues to improve.
This course won’t necessarily succeed. But it will at least allow the U.S. to give peace a chance in a way that would serve its national interests. If it doesn’t succeed, then the administration can move on to significantly turning up sanctions and military pressure intended to protect American allies, such as increasing missile-defense cooperation, and taking other steps to reassure them that the U.S. would defend them even against a nuclear-armed North Korea. In effect, Washington would be putting in place as robust a regime as possible to contain the dangers posed by Pyongyang. Having demonstrated a sincere willingness to find a diplomatic solution and buttressed by the growing reality that the North is moving forward with weapons that directly threaten the continental United States, Washington will then be on firmer political ground, particularly with China, that may help spur Beijing to move actively pressure the North itself.
But if this policy does succeed, the new administration will have scored a significant success that none of its immediate predecessors were able or willing to manage. By the end of its first year in office, the Trump administration could have something to brag about: a halt in the development of the North Korean ICBM and hydrogen bomb; the return of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to its main nuclear facility; a resumption of North-South military-to-military talks on reducing the dangers of confrontation on the peninsula; and renewed talks on achieving further steps leading to a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.
Washington policy wonks love to ask, “what is the desired end state?” for a particular policy. For now, no one believes that the North will agree to give up all its nuclear weapons and related infrastructure and abandon its development of ICBMs and missiles that can cover targets throughout the Pacific theater. But there is a great deal that can be done to freeze and then maybe eventually reverse these programs, bringing the world closer to that ultimate objective. In the meantime, as long as everyone understands that denuclearization is a process that won’t happen immediately, such an initiative would not mean that the U.S. is accepting North Korea as a nuclear state. For Trump, who claims he knows how to negotiate great deals, getting one with the North should just be another walk in Central Park.