North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has given President Trump an ultimatum: Come up with a deal by the end of this year that includes the relaxation of sanctions or we will resume testing nuclear missiles that are capable of reaching the United States.
The president has few good options, but the worst option would be to go for a quick-fix deal that accepts North Korea as a nuclear-armed state and releases the pressure on the regime, as some reports suggest is under consideration. Pyongyang cannot be deterred from using its weapons as if it were any other legitimate state with weapons of mass destruction.
The far better move would be to continue to insist that North Korea disarm, and to recommit to enforcing sanctions — both those imposed by the U.N. Security Council and the U.S. unilaterally. The goal should be threefold: Raise the cost for the regime’s defiance, make it more challenging for the DPRK to carry out devastating attacks, and remind Kim of the costs of threatening the U.S. and its allies.
Why not simply accept North Korea’s WMDs and treat it as a “normal” nation rather than as a pariah? Doing so might mean capitulating on sanctions relief to negotiate a deal that permits inspections based on the partial, if reversible, dismantling of the DPRK’s nuclear program, and possibly a “freeze” on production. Advocates of normalization would argue that this approach would still allow the deterrence of a nuclear-armed rival state in a classical sense.
But that is wishful thinking. There would be several problems with such a deal.
The first is that there is no realistic way to verify compliance. Instead, such a deal would offer Kim a green light to accelerate his WMD programs — including producing more medium- and long-range nuclear-capable missiles — rendering classical deterrence a yet-more-challenging prospect. Second, it would remove the rationale for sanctions, a rationale that, once relaxed, will be difficult to reinstate. Third, it would have significant proliferation implications, rewarding the authoritarian regime for its years of rogue nuclear pursuits and communicating to other adversaries that persistence in the pursuit of nuclear weapons will one day pay off.
Remember, the Kim dynasty remains devoted to unifying the Korean Peninsula under Pyongyang’s terms. For the DPRK to upgrade its weapons program is for it to upgrade its capacity to threaten Seoul, the U.S., and Japan, serving to strengthen North Korea’s leverage. Yet lifting economic sanctions reduces the opportunity cost for the impoverished DPRK to fund those upgrades.
Regionally, accepting North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state would squander an opportunity to work with willing allies, such as Shinzo Abe’s Japan, to maintain the pressure on North Korea. Given that North Korea views Japan as an enemy, any U.S. walk-back would create new doubts about the reliability of American resolve and its commitment to its partners and allies in Northeast Asia. Meanwhile, Beijing would be freed up to offer Pyongyang as much diplomatic, economic, and military support as it deems desirable.
Trump should instead take steps to make the “maximum pressure” campaign live up to its name.
The U.S. should first focus on instilling a real sense of strategic rationality in Seoul. President Moon Jae-in continues to focus his ire toward Japan — today, its only benign neighbor — while downplaying the threat that North Korea and China pose to its security and interests. Moon remains committed to the “Three Nos” he promised China in return for Beijing ending its informal trade boycott against South Korea: no more U.S. missile-defense systems, no South Korean integration into a regional U.S. missile-defense system, and no trilateral military alliance with the U.S. and Japan. Trump should take steps to encourage Seoul to properly identify its true friends and enemies and reverse the Three Nos.
Trump should also increase the pressure on China on as many fronts as possible: trade and economic issues; the systematic abuse of ethnic and religious minorities; its failure to respect its commitment to Hong Kong’s autonomy; and the worsening repression and censorship of its own people. These are worthy issues to press in and of themselves, but the strategic logic is equally sound. Pressuring Beijing on all fronts will make it less willing to absorb further criticism for enabling North Korea’s illegal weapons programs.
It will also be important to elevate explicitly Japan’s role, given the increased role Tokyo is playing as the anchor for the U.S.-led security architecture in Asia. Expanding military cooperation between the U.S. and Japan should be a priority. The U.S. should consider North Korea’s development of missiles capable of reaching Japan a grievous development, emphasizing to both North Korea and China that their attempts to divide American alliances will not succeed. Deterring shared threats alongside allies increases the credibility, and therefore the effectiveness, of deterrence.
Finally, the implementation of the plan to bolster homeland missile defenses has been lackluster since it was announced three years ago. Reversing that trend should a priority. The Pentagon has begun pursuing a Next Generation Interceptor for the homeland missile-defense system to defend against highly complex missile threats, but that won’t be ready until 2030. Doing nothing until then to bolster homeland defenses sends all the wrong messages.
When the deadline passes, Trump should not reward Kim’s ultimatum with patience, much less appeasement. In 2020, what Kim, the regime, and its Chinese backers need is maximum pressure.
—John Lee and Rebeccah Heinrichs are senior fellows at the Hudson Institute.