Here’s a rallying cry for Democrats unsure what to say about the North Korean nuclear crisis: The South Koreans are right. On Sunday, in a typically self-aggrandizing and grammatically challenged tweet, Trump chastised America’s longtime ally. “South Korea is finding, as I have told them that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work,” he declared. “They only understand one thing!” The implication is that because Pyongyang understands only the logic of force, Trump’s policy of threatening war, and aggressively preparing for it, is the best way to convince Kim Jong Un to relinquish his country’s burgeoning nuclear arsenal.
The premise is correct but the conclusion is exactly wrong. Yes, North Korea understands the logic of force. It says so all the time. Again and again, Pyongyang has observed that adversaries of the United States who abandon their nuclear weapons programs—Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi—end up dead. Kim thinks America wants to add his scalp to the list. And why shouldn’t he? The U.S. dropped more bombs on North Korea during the Korean War than it dropped on the entire Pacific region during World War II, George W. Bush declared the North a member of the “axis of evil” in 2003, and the United States regularly practices “decapitation raids” against Kim’s totalitarian regime. It is precisely because North Korea believes in the logic of force that it is accelerating its nuclear program despite economic sanctions. And it is precisely because North Korea believes in the logic of force that Trump’s policies are so wildly counterproductive. Imagine you’re in a standoff with a man you have bloodied before. You have an AK-47. He has a hunting rifle, which you consider a threat but he considers his best shot at staying alive. If you fire in the air and scream that you’re going to blow him to smithereens, as Trump has done in recent weeks, you won’t make your adversary drop his weapon. You’ll make him to cling to it for dear life.
South Korean President Moon Jae In favors a different approach. In June, his top adviser on North Korean affairs proposed that “we and the U.S. can discuss reducing the South Korea-U.S. joint military exercises if North Korea suspends its nuclear weapons and missile activities.” Moon himself reportedly broached the idea with Trump when he visited Washington in July. This sort of mutual freeze, the South Korean leader believes, could be the first step toward negotiations aimed at a formal peace agreement ending the Korean War. (Back in 1953, the opposing sides merely signed an armistice.) Moon, in other words, thinks the best way to limit North Korea’s nuclear program is by making America and South Korea less—not more—menacing to Pyongyang. That’s pretty much the opposite of Trump’s view, which helps explain why Moon on Sunday found himself on the wrong side of Trump’s Twitter feed.
But Moon’s approach makes far more sense. For one thing, China agrees with him. Since taking over as president, Trump has endlessly demanded that Beijing bring North Korea to heel. And some China watchers think Beijing genuinely wants to end the current standoff: both because it doesn’t want war in its backyard, and because brokering a solution would enhance its image. “Beijing,” wrote the Asia scholar Lionel Fatton earlier this year, “is eager to show the new American administration its centrality in dealing with North Korea.”
China, however, won’t muscle North Korea into accepting a deal it doesn’t consider to be in its own interest. Beijing dislikes North Korea’s nuclear program. But it also suspects that the U.S. is using the nuclear crisis as a pretext for ratcheting up its containment of Beijing. So China wants to limit Pyongyang’s nuclear program while also limiting American power on the Korean peninsula. Its nightmare scenario is a reunification between North and South that leaves American troops on its border, something China went to war to prevent in 1950. It also strongly opposes the THAAD missile defense system the U.S. is installing in South Korea, which the Chinese believe is aimed at least partially at deterring them.
China came up with the “freeze for freeze” proposal that Moon appears to support. And if the Trump administration got on board, Beijing would feel tremendous pressure to show that it could deliver. Pyongyang might still refuse. But in June, North Korea’s ambassador to India said that, “we are willing to talk in terms of freezing nuclear testing or missile testing … if the American side completely stops big, large-scale military exercises temporarily or permanently.” So there’s a chance the Chinese-South Korean initiative (which Russia supports too) could prevent North Korea from moving ever closer to a nuclear missile able to hit America’s shores. Which is why former Senator Sam Nunn, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, and Ambassador Richard Burt, who negotiated the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks, have all suggested that limiting U.S.-South Korean military exercises could be part of a diplomatic deal.
Why is the Trump administration so hostile to the idea? According to The New York Times, because the White House thinks North Korea will cheat. Claiming Pyongyang invariably reneges on its nuclear commitments has become such a catechism in Washington that not only Republicans—but even the Times, in its news pages—asserts it as fact.
But that’s a skewed reading of the history of American-North Korean nuclear talks. As I argued in July, under its 1994 Agreed Framework with the Clinton administration:
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, [North Korea] 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.”
So, yes, diplomacy with North Korea hasn’t worked perfectly. But as a method of restraining North Korea’s bomb making, Sigal argues, “nuclear diplomacy” has proved “far superior to the record of pressure of sanctions and isolation without negotiations.”
Democrats should say so loudly. So far, the North Korean nuclear standoff has been a case study in Washington’s narcissistic foreign policy debate. The unstated assumptions are: 1) America’s interests are universal, and thus, other countries should want exactly the same outcome in North Korea as the United States does, and 2) Other countries should force North Korea to make concessions without asking America to make any of its own.
Thus, politicians and pundits endlessly demand that the North Korean government scrap its nuclear program without acknowledging why, from the regime’s perspective, a nuclear program makes sense. They endlessly demand that China do America’s bidding without acknowledging that doing America’s bidding may not be in China’s interest. And, when China and South Korea offer a proposal that requires concessions from Washington as well as Pyongyang, the media largely ignores it. The Trump administration actually seems to consider a preventative military strike against North Korea—which would likely kill thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people—preferable to the diplomatic proposal being pushed by North Korea’s two closest neighbors. And by disregarding the Chinese and South Korean initiative, the media helps make that possible.
In a time of jingoism and fear, it’s never easy to side with another country’s government over your own. But a decade ago, many liberals (myself included) regretted that during the debate over war with Iraq, we hadn’t uttered these three simple words: France is right. Today, South Korea is right. Its president has a vastly more realistic, and humane, plan for limiting North Korea’s nuclear ambitions than does Donald Trump. Trump has rewarded him for that with insults. Democrats should offer solidarity instead.