National Security & Defense

Three Out-of-the-Box Options on North Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspects a defense detachment in an undated photo released May 5, 2017. (KCNA/via Reuters)
How to make the best of upcoming talks

After the Olympics, South Korean envoys met directly with Kim Jong-un in North Korea — itself a small diplomatic breakthrough — to head off increasing tensions over joint American–South Korean military exercises scheduled for April. Kim surprised them by proposing talks with the United States and putting North Korea’s nuclear program on the table, backing this up with a promise to suspend nuclear and missile testing while the negotiations go on.

That’s big. Not that we should take Kim at his word — I doubt North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons — but his openness to diplomacy is a positive development, especially when accompanied by a voluntary testing freeze.

The United States should take this unexpected opportunity to think outside the box, perhaps making a grand proposal of its own.

Why would North Korea negotiate now? One possibility is that Trump’s version of Nixon’s “madman theory” yielded some success.

As many analysts have noted, the costs of attacking North Korea are prohibitively high: There would be thousands of South Korean fatalities within minutes, before U.S. air power could stop them, followed by a prolonged confrontation with potentially millions more casualties; at worst, a great power such as China might come to the North’s defense. The U.S. wouldn’t shy away if North Korea started a war, but these risks are sufficient to deter America from firing first. The Kim regime knows all this, which reduces its incentives to acquiesce to demands. It has been under sanction for years, but has managed to stay in power while advancing its missile and nuclear capabilities.

But if Trump could convince North Korea (and China) that he might be crazy enough to attack, Kim would be more willing to make concessions. Trump has issued a series of threats, on Twitter and elsewhere, that go far beyond what his predecessors did. He’s ordered additional forces to the region, such as three carrier groups conducting exercises in the waters between South Korea and Japan in November 2017, in a powerful show of force. And in January 2018, Trump interviewed North Korea expert Victor Cha for U.S. ambassador to South Korea — but the nomination fell through over Cha’s opposition to a preemptive strike.

This heightened risk of American attack gives Kim motivation to negotiate. But North Korea is nonetheless proposing these talks from a position of strength. It has tested six nuclear weapons, including two tests in 2016 and another in 2017. That last explosion was about three times larger than previous blasts, indicating a more advanced design boosted by hydrogen. Last year, North Korea conducted 16 ballistic-missile tests, all in violation of international law. One flew over Japan. And the most recent test demonstrated that the North has an intercontinental ballistic missile that can probably reach major American cities.

South Korean president Moon Jae-in favors peaceful reunification, and he ran in the May 2017 election promising to talk to North Korea. Trump’s threats suggest an indifference to South Korean casualties. Whether that’s an expression of his America First philosophy, part of a strategic madman routine, or just impulse, it made the South nervous, increasing Moon’s incentive to negotiate. Put these together, and Kim probably believes it’s a good time to try to win concessions.

Seen in this light, North Korea’s strategy appears quite clever: Demonstrate advanced weaponry, including the ability to directly threaten Japan and the United States. Go on a charm offensive at the Winter Olympics in South Korea, sending athletes, telegenic cheerleaders, and the Supreme Leader’s sister Kim Yo-jong, all of whom got positive press coverage. Then surprise South Korea and the United States by proposing talks over the nuclear program.

Still, North Korea remains burdened by sanctions and afraid that the United States will attempt forceful regime change. Like many others, the North doesn’t really know what to make of Trump. This gives the American president an opportunity for a major foreign-policy achievement. The president says he will meet with Kim by May of this year. Here are three out-of-the-box options he should consider, heading into negotiations.

One: Withdraw from South Korea. Nuclear weapons are the best way to deter foreign invasion, and Kim is unlikely to give them up. But denuclearizing North Korea would be an amazing accomplishment, stabilizing northeast Asia and solidifying the non-proliferation regime. However, to get something that big, the U.S. would need to give something big in return. Sanctions relief won’t cut it.

The U.S. currently has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea. On their own, those forces wouldn’t make the difference in a second Korean war. But they signal a strong commitment to South Korea, cultivate relationships with the South Korean military, and provide a forward position in the event of conflict.

The Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, but when the North asks for security guarantees, it’s talking about more than a treaty and some promises. In exchange for North Korea’s giving up its nuclear and advanced ballistic-missile capabilities — and accepting invasive inspections to verify compliance — the U.S. could normalize relations, get the world to lift sanctions, and remove all American forces from the Korean peninsula.

There’s some geopolitical downside for the U.S. in withdrawing from bases near China, but that’s also a reason the deal could work: China would support it. While the Chinese don’t like North Korea’s belligerence, they’re especially wary of anything that could lead to peaceful reunification, which would bring a capitalist, American-allied country to their border. U.S. withdrawal from the Korean peninsula — and the threat that the United States would return if the agreement fell apart — would make China a strong proponent, pressuring North Korea to follow through. (And the U.S. would remain a presence in the region owing to its alliance with Japan.)

Two: Accept a nuclear North Korea. America’s position, under Trump and previous presidents, is that North Korea cannot have nuclear weapons. But it does. And seeing the historical success of nuclear deterrence , along with how the U.S. deposed non-nuclear regimes in Iraq and Libya , the North might never give them up.

That might not be so bad. Deterrence worked with the Soviet Union. It works today with Russia and China. Considering America’s military superiority, and Kim Jong-un’s obvious interest in having a country to rule, deterrence could work with North Korea as well.

Accepting North Korea as a de facto nuclear-weapons state and normalizing relations could bring numerous benefits, reducing the risk of war on the Korean peninsula. Using China as a model, Kim could open up the North Korean economy and join the international community without having to give up power. That would increase South Korea’s influence over the North, help address the humanitarian crisis plaguing average North Koreans, and reduce North Korea’s incentive to trade on the black market.

As one of the 21st century’s two big nonproliferation cases, North Korea is often compared to Iran, but the situations are very different. Iran is an expansionist power in a volatile region, while North Korea is boxed in by South Korea, China, and Russia. If Iran got the bomb, that could lead to a nuclear cascade, prompting Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and perhaps Egypt to acquire their own. That would increase the risk that accidents or miscalculations lead to a nuclear confrontation, and increase the danger of terrorists’ acquiring a nuclear weapon or radioactive material for a dirty bomb. But China and Russia are already stable nuclear powers, and South Korea and Japan remain under America’s nuclear umbrella.

Critics of the Iran nuclear deal argue that lifting sanctions gave Iran funds to fuel its regional ambitions. Since signing the agreement in 2015, Iran has provided arms to Hezbollah, supported Houthi rebels in Yemen, conducted operations in Syria in support of Bashar Assad’s government, and continued developing ballistic missiles in violation of international law. The Iranians were doing all this before the nuclear deal, but the economic benefits increased their capabilities. In contrast, North Korea aims for survival rather than regional domination. The North would like to take over South Korea, but probably recognizes that that’s not going to happen. There are no insurgencies in neighboring countries for North Korea to support, and there’s no chance it’ll take territory from Russia or China.

When North Korea has helped other international rogues — for instance, by providing the Syrian government with equipment to make chemical weapons — its primary motivation was money, not geopolitics. Removing sanctions would make North Korea less, not more, likely to engage in destabilizing behavior.

Accepting North Korea’s nuclear weapons would be a major concession, and in return the United States and South Korea could ask for:

  • a peace treaty under which the North reduces its conventional military threat to the South and accepts American deployments on the peninsula;
  • a freeze on further nuclear development, verified by regular inspections;
  • full disclosure of black-market activity, including weapons proliferation to Syria and elsewhere (with the understanding that North Korea would not face punishment for past actions); and
  • changes in North Korean education that maintain veneration of the Kims — let’s be realistic — but stop demonizing the United States.

Some hawks would denounce this as appeasement, but if anyone can sell it, it’s Trump. Drawing on his reputation as a deal-maker, his harsh criticism of the Iran deal, and his strong support among Republicans, he could convince his party that he drove a hard bargain and will make sure North Korea follows through. And many Democrats would probably welcome reduced tensions, even if achieved by a president they dislike.

Additionally, unlike the case of the Iran-sanctions regime — which was fraying before the nuclear deal and would be hard to snap back — it would be easy to reimpose sanctions against North Korea. While Russia, China, the U.K., France, and Germany all wanted a deal with Iran and believe that Iran has honored it, the international community remains united against North Korean belligerence.

Three: Live with the status quo. The North Korean situation is nerve-racking, but relatively stable. Both sides know a war would be costly, and neither wants to start one. The Kims have managed two successions and, while it’s hard to know what’s going on inside North Korea, it appears Kim Jong-un’s regime is in no danger of collapse. Sanctions have global support and keep North Korea under pressure.

It’s a problem, but not an urgent one. If Trump cannot win significant concessions, there’s no need to cut a deal.

If Trump cannot win significant concessions, there’s no need to cut a deal.

In 1994, Bill Clinton and Kim Jong-il — Kim Jong-un’s father — reached a deal called the Agreed Framework, freezing North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program in exchange for assistance with peaceful nuclear technology and shipments of heavy oil. The inspections regime was flawed, and neither side fully followed through. In 2002, George W. Bush labeled North Korea part of the Axis of Evil and the U.S. accused the North of secretly enriching uranium, and in 2003 the agreement broke down.

Bush later initiated the Six-Party Talks, bringing in South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China, in addition to the U.S. and North Korea. The first four rounds failed, and North Korea tested its first nuclear bomb in 2006. A fifth round yielded a trade of fuel for a partial nuclear freeze — sort of a smaller version of the Agreed Framework — but it ultimately went nowhere as the U.S. and North Korea again accused each other of failing to follow through.

This history casts doubt on the value of small agreements that give North Korea economic aid in exchange for promises to halt nuclear development. Negotiators hoped the deals would build confidence, leading to normalized relations, but North Korea used the opportunities to continue weapons development under reduced economic pressure. In the upcoming talks, it will be tempting to reach another small deal. But if Trump can’t achieve a major breakthrough, he should walk away.

The current uneasy stalemate isn’t good. But we can live with it if we have to.

Nicholas Grossman is a professor of political science at the University of Illinois and an editor at large of Arc Digital.

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