Strong leverage is required if Donald Trump hopes to reach a nuclear deal with North Korea, writes Leszek Buszynski. Yet such an approach also carries important risks.
This article is part of a new series of Inside Policy posts that will explore different aspects of global security - in a continuation of MLI's Global Security Look Ahead project.
By Leszek Buszynski
According to the US Department of Defense’s report to Congress in 2015, North Korea was ”one of the most critical security challenges for the United States and the broader international community.” In a similar vein President Obama called North Korea a “grave threat to regional security and to international peace and stability.”
Despite international condemnation the North has conducted five nuclear tests that have demonstrated progress in the development of its nuclear weapons program. Its first nuclear test on 9 October 2016 was a weak “fizzle,” but by the time of the fifth test of 9 September 2016 it may have reached a yield of 25 kilotons – or somewhat larger than the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki. Its ballistic missile program has revealed similar advances, and Kim Jong-un in his new year address of 4 January 2017 claimed that the North had reached final stage of preparation for the test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
If it is successful in this effort, North Korea would finally be able to target the West coast of the US.
If it is successful in this effort, North Korea would finally be able to target the West coast of the US, although key technical problems would still have to be resolved. For instance, the North has yet to develop a protective heat shield for a re-entry vehicle that could allow an ICBM to carry a warhead. The North would also have to miniaturise a nuclear weapon to place it in a missile warhead to pose a credible threat to the US. In any case, the shock effect of the successful launching of an ICBM that could reach across the Pacific may be sufficient to jolt the American leadership into direct negotiations, which is what the regime has sought all along.
How should the US respond to this threat? The Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience” was a reaction to the failure of the Six Party Talks from which the North withdrew in 2008, and the North’s violation of six UN Security Council resolutions that condemned its nuclear and ballistic missile tests. This policy was based on the hope that time would eventually convince the North to reverse its decision, as economic conditions would deteriorate under the weight of the sanctions imposed by these resolutions. Despite everything, the regime has managed to survive by evading sanctions, though there are signs of possible domestic instability.
Obama’s policy has been criticized for excessive passivity, allowing the regime to improve its nuclear and ballistic missile programs by taking advantage of weak enforcement of those sanctions on the Chinese side. Critics, such as former Defense Secretary during the Clinton administration William Perry and former State Department coordinator of policy towards North Korea, Joel Wit, have called for negotiations with the North as the only way to bring about a change. They argue the North is amenable to negotiations – that the Agreed Framework of October 1994 came close to freezing the North’s nuclear program, but it was not given a chance by the Bush administration. They call for negotiations. As William Perry argues, the talks would aim for an agreement with the North not to conduct further nuclear tests, to desist from testing an ICBM, and not to export nuclear technology. The ultimate goal would be the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, a goal that has been unsuccessfully pursued in the Six Party Talks.
President Donald Trump is free of the ideological baggage that encumbered previous presidents when dealing with seemingly intractable issues such as North Korea.
Would the Trump administration adopt this approach? President Donald Trump is free of the ideological baggage that encumbered previous presidents when dealing with seemingly intractable issues such as North Korea and has been hailed as a “dealmaker.” However, there are few indicators of his view of the issue, though he has said that China was the key and has “absolute control over North Korea.”
If the Trump presidency were to consider a deal with North Korea the first and most critical consideration is the incentive for the North to respond. This part of the Perry proposal has not been fully fleshed out and relies on the naïve belief that the North would play ball if only the US changed its attitude. However, what the North wants is recognition of its status as a nuclear power. Unless the US is prepared to offer that, negotiations would be unlikely.
If some form of dialogue were initiated, the North would have the upper hand knowing that the Americans would be impatient for a deal and fearful of its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. In the past, North Korean negotiators said that the Americans, having accepted India and Pakistan as nuclear powers, will eventually accept North Korea as well. The North would hold out until it tested an ICBM to exploit the shock effect on the American public to achieve this aim. The US has little leverage to bring about the intended aim of freezing the nuclear and ballistic missile programs and denuclearising the Korean Peninsula.
To imagine it could attain this objective without such leverage is fanciful. If the US, however unwillingly, accepted the North as a nuclear power to remove a missile and possible nuclear threat, it would not only entail repudiating the non-proliferation regime but would also undermine US credibility with its key regional allies, Japan and South Korea. The North’s medium-range ballistic missiles, alongside its emerging submarine-based ballistic missile capability, could be brandished to threaten their security. As a result, America’s alliances with these countries would be in tatters.
A President with Trump’s instincts would most likely act like Nixon, who resorted to coercion to extricate America from the Vietnam War.
Whatever may be said about Donald Trump, he would presumably know that strong leverage is necessary to reach a deal. Simply put, the US cannot negotiate while the North is able to call the shots. A President with Trump’s instincts would most likely act like Nixon, who resorted to coercion to extricate America from the Vietnam War.
To gain leverage in negotiations with the North, Trump may couple strong condemnation of the North’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests with threats of a pre-emptive strike to induce panic in the regime. Trump would resort to his characteristic unpredictability not only to bring about North Korean compliance with American demands but also to obtain Chinese cooperation in pressing the North. The incentive for the Chinese to cooperate would be to deflect the danger of US retaliation against the North and to avoid the collapse of a regime that it has maintained and supported over the decades.
Trump’s reactions would indeed be high risk but he may calculate that risk taking is necessary to break a logjam.
Leszek Buszynski is a Visiting Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. His latest book is Negotiating with North Korea: The Six Party Talks and the Nuclear Issue (Routledge 2013).