Why Won't the Democrats Challenge Trump on North Korea?

The lesson of the Iraq War is that progressives must challenge the GOP’s hawkish maximalism regardless of the political cost.

The intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 during its test in an undated photo released by North Korea's state news agency (Reuters via KCNA)

On domestic policy, the Democratic Party is moving left. On foreign policy, the Democratic Party barely exists. Yes, Democrats like climate change agreements and oppose banning refugees. But those are extensions of the party’s domestic commitments. Yes, Democrats support a hard line against Vladimir Putin. But that’s mostly because he helped elect Donald Trump. What is the Democratic position on Syria’s civil war? Or Chinese imperialism in the South China sea? Or Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and bullying of Qatar? There isn’t one. President Obama stood for the proposition that America should resist costly military interventions and seek diplomatic agreements with longtime foes. When it comes to war and peace, the post-Obama Democratic Party doesn’t really stand for much at all.

Take North Korea. Ask congressional Democrats what America should do about Kim Jong Un’s nuclear ambitions and they mostly answer: more pressure. Which is the same answer Republicans give. After Kim tested an intercontinental ballistic missile this week, Politico reported that “Republican and Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday called on President Donald Trump to increase pressure on North Korea and China.” In May, every Democrat in the House joined every Republican except one in supporting a bill to impose new sanctions against companies that do business with Pyongyang. In March, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity, Ed Markey, joined his Republican counterpart in “praising” the Trump administration for imposing new sanctions of its own.

For Republicans, this stance is ideologically coherent. Republicans tend to think Ronald Reagan proved that the way to deal with adversaries is through ideological denunciations, economic sanctions, and military threats. By contrast, Democrats—at least in the Obama era—emphasized diplomacy and international cooperation. Instead of seeking the capitulation of hostile regimes, they sought deals that involved compromise by both sides. They supported pressure only when it helped to bring such deals about.

Not anymore. When I asked the veteran arms-control expert Joe Cirincione what today’s Democrats believe about North Korea, he answered: “A Bud Light version of the hawkish neocon view.”

What makes this so tragic is that the path Trump is on—with bipartisan support—is doomed to fail. Were Democrats willing to risk a political fight, they could offer a better way.

Trump’s path is doomed to fail because it is based on scaring Pyongyang into giving up its nuclear weapons when fear of the United States is a major reason Pyongyang wants nuclear weapons in the first place. Given that North Korea still has no peace treaty with the U.S. (the Korean War ended in an armistice) and watches American troops patrol the other side of the demilitarized zone, it has considered the United States a threat for a long time. But over the last 15 years, America’s efforts at regime change have left Pyongyang even more convinced that only nuclear weapons bring protection.

In April 2003, a month after the U.S. invaded Iraq, a North Korean spokesman declared that “only military deterrent force, supported by ultra-modern weapons, can avert a war and protect the security of the nation. This is the lesson drawn from the Iraqi war.” When Pyongyang conducted a nuclear test last January, its official news agency declared that, “The Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and the Qaddafi regime in Libya could not escape the fate of destruction after being deprived of their foundations for nuclear development and giving up nuclear programs of their own accord.” Therefore, “History proves that powerful nuclear deterrence serves as the strongest treasured sword for frustrating outsiders’ aggression.” As Dartmouth’s David Kang has explained, “To dismiss North Korea’s security fears is to miss the root cause of North Korea’s actions.”

The Trump administration, however, believes America’s problem is that it’s not scaring North Korea enough. Asked as a candidate about assassinating Kim, Trump replied, “I’ve heard of worse things.” In April, Mike Pence said that, “When the president says all options are on the table, all options are on the table. We’re trying to make it very clear to people in this part of the world that we are going to achieve the end of a denuclearization of the Korean peninsula—one way or the other.” And in March, the U.S. and South Korea held an eight-week-long training exercise, involving more than 300,000 troops—many more than in past years—in which the two armies practiced missile strikes against North Korea’s nuclear sites and “decapitation raids” aimed at killing its leaders. In response, Kim Jong Un appears to have quickened the pace of his nuclear and missile tests. Which was entirely predictable given what North Korea has said and done in the past.

The Trump administration’s other strategy has been to urge China to pressure North Korea economically. (America doesn’t do enough business with Pyongyang to wield direct economic leverage. China, by contrast, accounts for roughly 85 percent of North Korea’s international trade.) But even as Democrats and Republicans responded to this week’s intercontinental ballistic missile test by echoing Trump’s demands, Trump himself was conceding that those demands have failed. “Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter,” he tweeted on Wednesday. “So much for China working with us.”

What Trump doesn’t seem to grasp is why China isn’t “working with us.” The reason is that as frustrating as China finds Kim’s regime, it’s more afraid of contributing to its collapse. If North Korea fell into chaos, China would have chaos on its border. If South Korea swallowed North Korea, China could have American troops on its border—a situation which it went to war in 1950 to prevent.

A Democratic alternative would start with the same recognition that underlay Obama’s negotiations with Iran: Convincing adversaries to curb their military arsenals requires making America not more threatening, but less so. (Contrary to Republican mythology, Reagan embraced that same logic towards the USSR as early as 1984.)

Although neither Democrats nor the elite press is paying much attention, a number of former policymakers have offered ways to begin doing this. Last September, a Council on Foreign Relations Task Force led by former Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen and former Senator Sam Nunn suggested that the U.S. and South Korea “consider modifications to the scale and content of U.S.-ROK joint military exercises” as part of a deal with North Korea. This June, a group of international experts, including former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff James Cartwright and former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Pickering proposed the same thing: “the suspension, reduction and eventual cessation of US military exercises in South Korea.” That same month, a letter from former Secretary of Defense William Perry, former Secretary of State George Schultz and former Senator Richard Lugar gestured in the same direction. “Washington,” it said, “should make clear that the United States does not have hostile intentions toward North Korea.” In other words, do exactly the opposite of what Trump—with bipartisan support—has done.

The Council on Foreign Relations Task Force also suggested that in order to convince China to use its influence with Pyongyang, the United States should be open to “revising the number and disposition of U.S. forces on the peninsula.” In other words, promise Beijing that even if Korea reunifies, American troops will never stand on the banks of the Yalu River.

It’s too late to convince North Korea to scrap its nuclear and missile programs. But, with luck, concessions of the kind proposed by these former officials could be part of a deal to get Pyongyang to freeze them. And if you don’t think that would constitute a major accomplishment, remember that Pyongyang still hasn’t learned how to place a nuclear device on an intercontinental ballistic missile. In the next few years it likely will.

If Democrats offer such a vision, Republicans will immediately reply that you can’t negotiate with Pyongyang. “All of those negotiations and discussions failed, miserably,” declared Pence in April. The mantra “North Korea always cheats” is so uncontested that it even shows up in news articles. “The past three presidents have tried to negotiate,” wrote Washington Post National Political Correspondent James Hohlman on Wednesday, “only to learn that Pyongyang can never be trusted.”

But that’s at best a half-truth. Take the most important U.S.-North Korean nuclear deal, the 1994 Agreed Framework. Pyongyang promised to freeze its nuclear program. In return, the U.S. promised to provide “heavy fuel oil” to compensate for the electricity North Korea would lose by shutting down its plutonium reactor, to help build an entirely new, “light water” reactor, and to move toward normalizing relations.

Critics say North Korea cheated by secretly pursuing a different path—via uranium enrichment—toward a bomb. That’s true. But the U.S. cheated too. Because of objections by the Republican Congress, the United States repeatedly failed to deliver the fuel oil it had promised on time. As early as 1997, notes Leon Sigal, director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council, Pyongyang warned that if the U.S. didn’t meet its commitments, it wouldn’t either. Still, North Korea did not reopen its plutonium reactor, a facility that could, according to U.S. estimates, have produced 100 nuclear bombs. And by the end of the Clinton administration, the United States and North Korea had pledged that neither country would have “hostile intent” toward the other.

When the Bush administration took office, however, it refused to reaffirm this declaration of no “hostile intent.” And in 2002, when it learned about North Korea’s secret uranium program, it used the revelation as an opportunity to scrap the agreement altogether. The North Koreans offered to abandon both their plutonium and uranium programs in return for a final deal that provided diplomatic relations and an end to sanctions. But as then-Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton admitted, “This was the hammer I had been looking for to shatter the Agreed Framework.”

There’s an analogy here with Obamacare. By 2002, the Agreed Framework had achieved a lot: It had stopped North Korea’s primary nuclear program for eight years. But it had also developed real flaws. Instead of trying to fix them, the Bush administration used those flaws as an excuse to scrap a deal it had opposed from the start. The result: North Korea reopened its plutonium reactor and in 2006 conducted its first nuclear test.

Understanding this history is crucial to the Democrats’ ability to offer a real alternative to Trump’s North Korea policy. When Republicans say diplomacy doesn’t work, Democrats should ask the same question they asked when Republicans attacked the Iran deal: Compared to what? As a method of restraining North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, Sigal argues, “nuclear diplomacy” has proved “far superior to the record of pressure of sanctions and isolation without negotiations.” Yet it’s that latter path that Trump, with the acquiescence of congressional Democrats, seems determined to take America down.

Why aren’t Democrats challenging Trump and the GOP? A Senate aide says it’s because the progressive foreign policy infrastructure remains so weak: “A lot of Democratic members are cautious about getting out there because they know they won’t have very much cover, and when they get bashed there aren’t many organizations that would get their back.” That’s true. But it’s also true that progressive wonks, journalists, and activists will respond if they see politicians worth rallying behind.

The lesson of the Iraq War is that progressives must challenge the GOP’s hawkish maximalism regardless of the political cost. The lesson of the Bernie Sanders campaign is that grassroots Democrats hunger for authenticity, independence and courage. If there are dangers for Democrats who challenge the current hawkish discourse on North Korea, there are opportunities too.

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