This is a local re-post of an essay I published earlier this month at The National Interest.
President Trump’s outlandish UN speech was yet another national embarrassment, and his threat to ‘totally destroy’ another country verges on a war crime. And it’s not in our interest to do that anyway, so let’s start thinking practically about how we’re going to manage this mess.
My TNI essay below argues that we need to try to manage North Korea, rather than seek some final solution, because North Korea is persistent whether we like it or not, and because it is a nuclear weapons state whether we like it or not. That sucks. But I don’t see what other choice we have. Bombing North Korea is a terrible idea for reasons I’ve been saying all year on this website. Talking to North Korea and getting a real deal that they’ll stick to, like JCPOA, would great. But they flim-flam us so much, and so many hawks in the US and South Korea are unwilling to negotiate seriously with the North (remember that Congressional Republicans helped undercut the Agreed Framework; it wasn’t just Nork cheating which undid it), that I doubt talks will go anywhere. So we’re left muddling through. Did I say already that this sucks?
So what does ‘management’ mean? Recognizing that we can’t sole every problem as we want and that bad stuff we just have to live with, like NK nuclear weapons. They are lots of smaller things we can do – sanctions, going after NK money in Chinese banks, missile defense, pruning NK’s diplomatic/money-raising global network, continuing to bang away on China to take this more seriously, and so on. So please, can President Trump and Nicki Haley stop talking like Dr. Strangelove so that the rest of us can get back to the problem of what we can realistically do about North Korea?
The full essay follows the jump:
As this summer’s North Korea war crisis winds down, the only serious option for dealing with a nuclear missilized North Korea is re-emerging: adaptation. As Richard Hass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, put it: “Not every problem can be solved. Some can only be managed…It remains to be seen what can be done vis-à-vis North Korea. Managing such challenges may not be satisfying, but often it is the most that can be hoped for.” This is almost certainly correct.
Numerous treatments have established that the military options against North Korea are terrible. (Here is mine.) Steve Bannon openly admitted this on his way out of the White House: “There’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats], forget it. Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.” That 10 million number is exaggerated, but the basic problem Bannon taps – Seoul’s tremendous vulnerability, and the strict limitation that puts on kinetic choices – is well established. It is almost certainly the reason the US and South Korea have never yet struck North Korea despite decades of retaliation-worthy provocations. Decentralizing South Korea is a long overdue idea to loosen this constraint, but in the short- and medium-term, military options are, in fact, ‘off the table,’ no matter what Donald Trump says.
Talks would be an ideal choice – if anyone really thought at this point that North Korea would negotiate in good faith or could be trusted to follow through. Sure, we should always try. We have nothing to lose if we enter negotiations with the appropriate doubts. But if any observers are harboring notions of a big break-through or a grand bargain – such as the recent Sino-Russian ‘dual freeze’ proposal to halt North Korean nuclear development in exchange for a US-South Korean military exercise halt – they are not paying attention. North Korea’s record of flim-flamming agreements is so entrenched, that the only way to re-start negotiations would be small, undramatic steps, such as those proposed by South Korean Presidents Park Geun-Hye and Moon Jae-In. And naturally Pyongyang as summarily dismissed those.
There is simply not enough strategic trust – not by a long shot actually – for a big package deal, and indeed, the US and South Korea rejected the dual freeze proposal almost immediately. Lest one think this stems from unremitting US hostility, consider the Iran nuclear deal, which even the Trump administration is grudgingly cleaving too. The US will talk to North Korea – indeed the dual freeze might actually be worth considering if we thought Pyongyang would hold to it. The problem is that no one trusts the North to take talks seriously anymore, not even the Chinese.
Hence we are back to where we started: defense, deterrence, alliances, missile defense, sanctions, cajoling China over sanction enforcement, pruning North Korea’s diplomatic relationships, chasing Northern money out of banks in Asia, hauling Pyongyang before the UN Security Council to keep up the global pressure, and all the rest. One must not call this ‘strategic patience’ – perhaps we can call it ‘management,’ per Haas, or ‘maximum pressure,’ per the Trump administration. But in the end, it is more or less strategic patience yet again. And in fact, strategic patience was just an Obama administration pseudo-neologism for what we have been doing with North Korea for decades. All these actions are depressingly familiar, but there are really no good alternatives. War is much too risky, talks a likely charade.
North Korea is maddeningly persistent. From the outside, it always appears on the verge of collapse, especially since the end of the Cold War. In the 1990s, it suffered the kind of serious shocks – the death of its founder (in 1994), the withdrawal of Soviet aid, a massive famine – which brought down fellow communist states in that era. Yet North Korea persisted. It has survived yet another dynastic transition (in 2011) and punishing sanctions isolation, while astonishly developing a serious nuclear and missile arsenal.
This is not a state on cusp of implosion, and it would help the practicality of our policy proposals if we could accept that. For example, it should be pretty obvious at this point that North Korea is not going to disarm its nuclear weapons, no matter how much the US and South Korea insist on it. The concessions Pyongyang would demand for such disarmament – a retrenchment of the US from the peninsula, or permanent South Korean subsidization of the North, e.g. – would be so large, that Washington and Seoul would never accept. Instead, we need to ask how are going to manage this new, truculent nuclear power.
So muddling along is our future with North Korea, no matter how much we dislike that. The more we focus on small and medium-sized steps rather than ideal, but extremely unlikely, North Korean nuclear disbarment, the more progress we will make. The Iran nuclear deal is instructive here. There too we confronted a (almost) nuclear rogue state. We tried sanctions, deals, sabotage, missile defense, enhancing the defense of regional allies, and so on. Those worked reasonably well in slowing the nuclear march. Next, we clenched a concluding deal, which was surely not ideal. Conservatives worry about the return of resources to Iran, possible future nuclearization, and the regime’s continuance. But we did get a fair amount. North Korea may not come to the table as Iran did, but in the same that way are managing, rather solving, the Iran problem, that too should be our template in Korea.