North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal and the regime’s repeated threats to use it have created an increasingly dangerous situation in Northeast Asia. The latest provocation came on Saturday, when the Democratic People’s Republic launched a missile after U.S. warnings not to do so. (The missile reportedly blew up almost immediately.) But, paradoxically, these same escalating conditions have also paved the way for a new diplomatic solution. Let’s hope the administration will see this opportunity and seize it.
It’s important to understand just what dangers we are trying to mitigate. The danger is not, as some believe, that North Korea will make good on its bluster and actually launch a surprise nuclear attack. The North Korean leadership, while it is evil and sometimes reckless, is not crazy or suicidal. Their primary goal is to sustain the Kim dynasty and, against all odds, they have shrewdly succeeded in that for many decades. They know that if they launch a nuclear attack, the American response would bring death to them and devastation to their country.
The primary danger instead is that North Korea might overplay its hand and provoke a military response from South Korea. This could quickly expand into a larger conventional war, inevitably involving the United States, which has almost 30,000 troops based in South Korea. North Korea would lose such a war, and as the leadership sees their regime collapsing, they might then launch their nuclear weapons in one last desperate move—a Korean Armageddon. Our diplomacy should be tailored to prevent that catastrophic outcome.
My perspective on this perilous moment is shaped by two episodes in which I observed the North Korean regime—its motivations and the logic that flows from them—at close range.
In 1994, as secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, I oversaw detailed planning for a military strike against North Korea’s nuclear reactor at Yongbyon to halt their production of plutonium used in bomb-building. We were serious, and the North Koreans knew we were—an exercise of coercive diplomacy that yielded an agreement, imperfectly implemented, that did effectively halt the regime’s nuclear progress for a time.
In Clinton’s second term, after I had left the Pentagon, I led a diplomatic effort aimed at long-term resolution of the North Korean nuclear dilemma. With allies in South Korea and Japan, we discussed a bargain that offered a highly desirable outcome: normalization of relations with North Korea in exchange for them giving up their quest for nuclear weapons. We were tantalizingly close to an agreement, including a presidential visit to Pyongyang, when the clock ran out on Clinton’s term.
President George W. Bush abandoned Clinton’s diplomatic plan for his own more confrontational model, and in my judgment lost a priceless opportunity. Today, North Korea has 10 to 20 nuclear bombs, and it is obvious why diplomacy rather than war is the preferred path.
Why should we believe that diplomacy might be successful now when it has been ineffective for the last 16 years? Our negotiating strategy during that period has been based primarily on economic incentives and disincentives through sanctions. This strategy hasn’t worked, largely because while the North Korean leadership wants to improve the country’s flailing economy, this goal is always subordinate to the goal of sustaining the Kim dynasty, which they believe can be achieved with their nuclear arsenal behind them. Of course, the arsenal achieves its goal only if North Korea does not use it. Once its leaders use their arsenal to attack another country, the fate of the regime is sealed.
With that understanding, a new negotiating strategy can be employed—one that should allow the North Korean regime to see a way of surviving without nuclear weapons, and that should be backed up by more powerful economic incentives and disincentives than before. Thanks to two new international developments, a strategy like this is now possible—and the North Koreans are more likely to accept.
The first is the possibility of the full cooperation of China. This is not to say that China must be solely responsible for solving the problem of North Korea, but rather the U.S. should make China a full partner in the formulation and implementation of the new approach. China is the only nation that can provide powerful economic disincentives for North Korea, by withholding their substantial food and fuel support. China has been unwilling to do this so far, but in recent months, North Korea’s nuclear threats have become increasingly adverse to China’s core interests. Not only could the provocations lead to a destabilizing regional war, which now seems like more than a theoretical possibility, but they also increase the likelihood that Japan and South Korea will develop their own nuclear weapons, a circumstance China is eager to avoid.
The other key to the success of a new negotiating strategy is the growing belief in North Korea that they might already have overplayed their bluster strategy and that the U.S. is prepared to react militarily. During negotiations with the last two administrations, North Korea’s leaders were convinced, with good reason, that the threat of U.S. or South Korean military action was empty, and accordingly, they discounted it. But it is likely that the recent military actions taken by the Trump administration, from the Tomahawk missile strike in Syria to the deployment of an aircraft carrier group to the Korean peninsula, have changed their calculus. Kim Jong Un must now believe that there is a real possibility that the U.S. is prepared to use military force, and must tailor his actions accordingly.
The credibility of American military action today is roughly comparable to what it was in 1994, when the U.S. stated flatly that we would not permit North Korea to build nuclear weapons, that we had a contingency plan (which they were aware of) for destroying their nuclear facility at Yongbyon and that we were in the process of sending major military reinforcements to South Korea. Those actions led Kim Il Sung to request negotiations and promise to freeze the Yongbyon nuclear facility while the negotiations were underway.
The alternative to diplomacy, of course, is military action. The United States could readily strike nuclear facilities in North Korea, just as we struck a military airfield in Syria. But the consequences could be far more destructive. I believe that North Korea would respond with some sort of military strike against South Korea, which in turn could rapidly escalate into a broader war. Any such war would lead to the eventual defeat of North Korea, but with devastating results, especially to our ally, South Korea.
We might have to use military force against North Korea at some point, but now is not the time. We still have a real opportunity for successful diplomacy. The big question is: Do we have the sense to seize this chance? After all, it could be the last one we have.