In the past, I have written about why the U.S. needs to keep the military option on the table in dealing with the rogue regime in North Korea. Simply put, a state with nuclear weapons and the ability to deliver them to the United States (plus an expressed eagerness to do so) ought to be an unacceptable outcome for the Trump administration and the American people. Would the use of military force against North Korea be risky? Yes, and we should weigh these risks carefully, but the fact is that pusillanimity and cowardice also carry risks, and the U.S. has been indulgent, even enabling, to North Korea for far too long.
President Trump, however, to his credit has not undertaken military action lightly. He has used the strongest rhetoric in criticizing the regime of Kim Jong-un, and he has expressed a willingness to do whatever it takes to remove the nuclear threat that the country poses, but he has also shown remarkable patience, allowing time for diplomacy and sanctions to work. Although his belligerent tweets (“Rocket Man”, “fire [and] fury”, etc.) undoubtedly got North Korea’s attention, it is likely that the tightening of U.N. sanctions, which has been engineered by Trump’s U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, was the decisive factor in convincing Kim that he needed to pivot from saber-rattling to diplomacy. The sanctions that the Trump administration has imposed on North Korea have been the most comprehensive and severe in recent history, and more importantly even North Korea’s principal sponsor, communist China, has assisted in bringing maximum pressure to bear on Kim Jong-un. These sanctions, combined with aggressive U.S. military deployments and maneuvers in the region, clearly have convinced the North Koreans that it’s time to change direction. North Korea’s announcement on Friday, April 20ththat it will suspend nuclear and missile testing is a sign of the regime’s seriousness.
Now, thanks to the Trump administration’s successful rhetorical, economic, and military moves, we find ourselves in a unique situation: an opportunity has presented itself to bury the hatchet with North Korea. The contours of a comprehensive settlement with the regime of Kim Jong-un are coming into view.
For years, the primary goal of the North Koreans, vis-a-vis the United States, was to achieve a peace treaty that formally ends the Korean War (some readers may be shocked that this wasn’t accomplished long ago) and a security guarantee that, in effect, removes any possibility that the U.S. will pursue regime change in North Korea. That North Korea has stubbornly sought nuclear weapons and missile technology for the last couple of decades is largely a consequence of the United States’ equally stubborn refusal to give in on the issues of a peace treaty and a security guarantee. I believe we should concede these points, since doing so involves no real sacrifice on our part, and it could immeasurably reduce North Korean suspicions.
One thing must be made clear: the North Korean leadership inhabits a parallel world of Stalinist semi-lunacy. While Kim and his close associates are not suicidal or obviously self-destructive, they have been born and bred to believe that the United States of America is their sworn enemy and will stop at nothing to destroy them. The presence of powerful U.S. military forces in the region, including approximately 25,000 American troops in South Korea, does nothing to reassure the paranoid North Koreans. Their pursuit of nuclear and missile technology is based on their (rational) desire to deter U.S. aggression, and their (irrational) fear of American “imperialism”.
A peace treaty to end the Korean War is long overdue. The U.S. should happily agree to this condition, and it should engage in whatever bilateral or multilateral talks are needed to facilitate it. A security guarantee is also a reasonable request on North Korea’s part. This certainly will not create anything like an alliance between the U.S. and North Korea. It would more likely take the form of a Non-Aggression Pact between our two countries. Again, this is not a sacrifice on our part, since I believe we have never had any intention of attacking North Korea. Why would we? We would be inviting terrible retaliation on our allies and potentially Chinese intervention. Much as we might like to rescue the people of North Korea from communist oppression, the cost of doing so, or even attempting to do so, is much too high. It would be far better to reassure the North Korean regime that we respect its sovereign rights.
What other elements could a comprehensive deal include? Clearly, North Korea must denuclearize in a way that is total and verifiable (but not necessarily instantaneous). Curbs on North Korea’s criminal enterprises, including cyber warfare and arms smuggling, must also be instituted. Meanwhile, the U.S. should consider changing the disposition of its military forces in the region to assuage lingering North Korean fears. I would suggest that a pathway to demilitarization on the Korean Peninsula also be found. In other words, the U.S., South Korea, and North Korea could all agree to a drawdown of their conventional forces. The U.S. could also gradually eliminate sanctions against North Korea, and full diplomatic relations could be achieved.
It seems to me that all sides have much to gain by reducing the potential for armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Arguably, no one has anything to gain from a war that could turn nuclear very quickly.
President Trump, by bringing fresh eyes and an iron will to our North Korean imbroglio, has opened the door to peace. Let us seize the day and make the hard choices that will allow this door to stay open. The people of North and South Korea may not be united and free overnight, but peace will create the potential for further progress in the North, and who can say where that will lead.