TOKYO — If the U.S. attacks North Korea, the world could see another nuclear war. Yet negotiations won’t work — leader Kim Jong Un won’t live up to his promises even if he were to make any. And China — if only it would help more!
Those sentiments have produced a collective shrug from many as they watch the North make rapid strides toward developing nuclear missiles capable of striking anywhere in the United States.
But Washington hasn’t tried everything yet.
Below, three experts offer ideas on how the U.S. might get out of its policy box on North Korea.
And none of them require firing a shot.
DETERRENCE: A FAMILIAR GAME FOR U.S.
Deterrence is about making sure your opponent has no good military moves. Kim Jong Un has proven to be pretty good at it.
Vipin Narang, a nuclear strategy and nonproliferation expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, believes U.S. policymakers need to let that sink in.
“Saying that this nuclear program has not augmented or improved North Korea’s ability to deter particular actions, especially regime change or invasion or disarmament, is simply denying reality and putting our head in the sand,” he said.
The good news is deterrence is a game the United States has played before.
“We know how to do this,” he said. “We did it with China and the Soviet Union and managed to reassure West Germany and Europe during the Cold War. There is no logical reason we cannot do it with North Korea. Kim is not crazy or irrational and responds to strategic and domestic incentives.”
Upping the game will require two things Narang believes are now lacking: a coherent and unified message to Pyongyang from President Donald Trump’s administration, and strong, believable reassurances to America’s regional allies.
Along with preventing a U.S. attack, North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile tests are intended to create discord among the U.S., Japan and South Korea — and, though it’s not an American ally — China. If America’s ability to handle North Korea is in doubt, there is more pressure for South Korea and Japan to pursue independent strategies and even consider developing nuclear weapons of their own.
Moreover, the different messages coming from the White House, State Department and Department of Defense — ranging from Trump threatening “fire and fury” to the more conciliatory tone of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — Pyongyang has more incentive to push ahead quickly to either take advantage of what it sees as weakness or bolster its capabilities ahead of what it fears to be a looming invasion.
“So long as this incoherence persists, it becomes very difficult to craft deterrent positions clearly and effectively,” Narang said. “At this point, the way forward it seems to me is to always keep the channel for negotiations open while simultaneously practicing deterrence and reassurance to our allies.”
And maybe one more thing. Tone down the tweets.
“When President Trump tweets the day after the alleged H-bomb test that South Korea should stop ‘appeasement’ of North Korea, Pyongyang can be nothing short of delighted at its strategy working,” Narang said.
NOT CHINA’S JOB
Previous efforts to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons have leaned heavily on Beijing, and to a lesser extent Moscow, to enforce sanctions and apply political pressure. It’s an approach Trump seems to support wholeheartedly. Right after the North’s nuclear test Sunday, he tweeted that Pyongyang has become “a great threat and embarrassment to China, which is trying to help but with little success.”
But China’s and Russia’s national interests aren’t the same as Washington’s. Shifting the onus to them for a solution diminishes U.S. leadership and control, said Joel Wit, a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies and a former State Department official who developed strategies to deal with the crisis over North Korea’s weapons program in the 1990s.
“Under the best of circumstances, China can play a supporting role, both in supporting limited pressure on the North and in supporting diplomatic outreach to Pyongyang,” he said. “But it has not and will not do what Washington wants — solve this problem for the United States by creating overwhelming pressure.”
Even if Beijing went along, Wit said it still wouldn’t work: “The North Koreans are not going to roll over and play dead when faced with an existential threat to their regime. They will lash out.”
Wit also said the Trump administration will have “virtually no prospect of securing Chinese cooperation” if it insists that reining in North Korea is mainly a Chinese problem. He believes North Korea is already taking advantage of the growing split between Washington and Beijing to “sprint to the WMD (weapons of mass destruction) finish line.”
He said that instead of pointing fingers, Washington needs to accept that the core problem is between the U.S. and North Korea and firmly take the wheel.
“The idea that this is the land of no good options leads everyone to move on,” he said. “Almost every foreign policy challenge facing the U.S. could be called the same thing. But this fatalistic attitude has permeated U.S. policy for over a decade and has led us to where we are today.”
THE ART OF THE DEAL
If the U.S. is going to get what it wants, it has to know what it wants. And it will probably need to give up something to get it.
John Delury, an associate professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, believes the most realistic path forward involves three steps: “dialogue, negotiation, settlement.”
“Without talking to Kim Jong Un or his senior advisers, we just don’t know who we are dealing with, what their positions are, what we can give them that they really want, and what we can get in return. That moves us into the negotiation, for short-term steps that reduce risks, decrease hostility, even build a little confidence.”
Washington’s focus should be clear and specific. Negotiators should push for a missile and nuclear test moratorium, a freeze on the production of nuclear weapons, the return of nuclear inspectors and increased transparency. There must also be nonproliferation commitments.
Delury stresses there must also be some give and take.
“For these things, things that are in U.S. interests, the Trump administration, in close consultation with Seoul and Tokyo, will have to consider what it is willing to do, or forego,” he said.
Pyongyang says it wants some sort of security guarantee and the removal of the U.S. nuclear threat from the Korean Peninsula. Neither would seem to be a good starter topic, but another item on Pyongyang’s list — scaling back or canceling the U.S. military’s annual wargames with the South — might be an area the two could at least talk about.
In the longer term, Delury says, the U.S. must directly address “the true heart of the matter, which is working on a political settlement” that fundamentally transforms the U.S.-North Korea relationship.
“Let’s call those ‘peace talks,’ for lack of a better phrase,” he said.
Technically, the countries have remained at war since 1953, when an armistice rather than a peace treaty ended fighting in the Korean War.
Delury said negotiations “should also involve a heavy dose of economic cooperation, since the only alternative to the status quo that might appeal to Kim Jong Un is a North Korea that is not only secure, but also prosperous.”
The hope is that more political and economic engagement would over time prompt the North to ease its authoritarian controls. But the negotiation process would undoubtedly be fraught with ambivalence and resistance on both sides.
“It’s true there are no easy answers, no quick fixes, no silver bullets,” he said. “Even if we made a determined effort to improve the relationship, it would be hard and slow going.
“So being realistic about dealing with North Korea is prudent. But the current level of fatalism is counterproductive to coming up with a better approach.”
Talmadge has been the AP’s Pyongyang bureau chief since 2013. Follow him on Twitter at EricTalmadge and on Instagram @erictalmadge.