Two days after the 2016 US Presidential Election, then-President-elect Donald Trump traveled to Washington DC for a meeting with then-President Barack Obama. During their discussion Obama warned Trump that North Korea could wind up being the most urgent foreign policy/national security issue facing his administration early on. Obama’s assessment was on target, and in line with Trump’s own position. The incoming president firmly grasped the reality that North Korea’s accelerating nuclear and ballistic missile programs are the greatest threat facing the United States in contemporary times. The current-president has also recognized, correctly, that 23 years of inconsistent US policy on North Korea’s WMD programs has failed miserably. He was determined to create an effective, and decisive doctrine to succeed the widely maligned era of strategic patience.
President Trump’s predecessors had achieved little success with their own respective North Korean policies. Bill Clinton’s administration was the first to contend with Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions in 1994 as it became apparent that the North was actively working producing a nuclear device. Fear of a regional war breaking out as a result of US military action against North Korea motivated Clinton to adopt a policy of accommodation over confrontation. The Agreed Framework that came about in October 1994 was intended to replace the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, capable of producing weapons-grade material, with light water reactor powerplants which could not be used to produce that type of material. Implementing the agreement faced problems from the start, however, facets of the agreement functioned well until 2002 when the US obtained evidence of a North Korean uranium enrichment program underway. Agreed Framework collapsed the following year. Practically speaking, Clinton’s diplomatic approach did freeze plutonium production in North Korea from 1994 to 2002. Yet it did not prevent the North Koreans from starting a uranium enrichment program. Essentially, Bill Clinton kicked the North Korea can down the road for his successors to deal with. He was out of office by the time of the Framework’s collapse, and from that point forward it was the problem of President George W. Bush.
To his credit, Bush recognized the North Korean regime’s evil nature, and its intentions early on in his presidency. He branded North Korea as a founding member of the Axis of Evil in his 2002 State of the Union address, grouping Kim Jong Il’s nation in with the likes of Iran, and Iraq. Unfortunately, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan consumed the lion’s share of the Bush administration’s foreign policy focus. A cohesive North Korean non-proliferation diplomatic effort supported by the credible threat of military action to ensure Pyongyang’s compliance never came to light. Instead, the six-party talks came about, and while there was some progress made, it was all negated by events taking place in the real world. In October, 2006 North Korea successfully detonated its first nuclear device. Twelve years of diplomatic efforts to ensure that the North did not obtain nuclear weapons had evaporated in the blink of an eye. Other pressing issues soon appeared on the Bush administration’s plate from 2006 until January 2009 and no major progress was made with regard to North Korea. As Barack Obama was sworn into office it became clear that Bush had followed his predecessor’s example and kicked the can to the incoming chief executive.
Under Obama’s watch North Korea grew bolder and more conspicuous with its rhetoric and weapons testing. In spite of this, it was clear from the beginning of his tenure that Obama was committed to preventing a regional war from erupting at all costs. He relied on sanctions and diplomacy as the primary instruments to combat North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. The shaky ground which the Pyongyang regime seemed to be on gave Obama added incentive to pursue a policy of strategic patience. Six party talks went nowhere, North Korea’s tone and actions became more bellicose, and nothing substantial changed from 2009 through to December 2011. The death of Kim Jong Il that month and his son Kim Jong Un’s succession added fuel to an already combustible relationship between the North and the US.
Jong Un brought a new realm to the decades long game between Washington and Pyongyang. As a young, relatively unproven leader of a regime contending with internal and external enemies, he used the deteriorating situation with the United States to his advantage internally and abroad. Missile firings and nuclear tests became a regular occurrence. Brinkmanship became a regular instrument of Jong Un’s foreign policy. He took the West’s terminal fear of a major war in Asia breaking out and used it to keep the US and its allies at bay while still flexing his muscles obnoxiously in their faces.
In retrospect, it should have been discernible that Jong Un’s threats and boasting were nothing less than a diversion. He was banking everything on holding the United States at bay until his weapons designers could produce an ICBM capable of reaching US cities. With a handful of these missiles, the playing field would be evened out and Washington would have to regard North Korea as an equal. After the results of its latest missile test, the Pyongyang regime is now closer to achieving its goal than anyone previously thought possible.
The Trump administration’s options for dealing with North Korea are little different from those that had been available to its predecessors. It can choose to accept North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile strength as the new status quo in east Asia, start a renewed diplomatic offensive to curb or eliminate North Korea’s WMD programs, advocate and actively work towards a regime change, or use military force to neutralize the threat now posed by Pyongyang. Each course of action contains its own exclusive pros and cons but in the case of military action they are even more pronounced.
Acceptance of the transformed alignment fundamentally translates to ‘do nothing.’ Accept it as the new status quo in east Asia and move forward secure in the assumption that US missile defense, and its nuclear arsenal’s overwhelming superiority will guarantee deterrence. It places the US in the same box Japan and South Korea are currently in, facing the threat of North Korea’s nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. Unlike Japan or South Korea, however, the US has the capability to respond massively to any North Korean attack. Diplomatic efforts to curb North Korea can continue, and on the surface nothing substantial would change. However, Pyongyang will certainly view the situation in a different light and brand reluctance by the United States to challenge its new capabilities as a colossal victory. North Korea would be emboldened on other fronts, from the expansion of its nuclear capabilities, to other regional security matters. Internationally, US acceptance of a nuclear and ICBM armed North Korea could invigorate the ambitions and plans of other nation-states seeking a similar status. Iran immediately comes to mind, but there are certainly others.
Extensive diplomacy is the preferred method of many statesmen around the world for dealing with the North Korean matter The trouble is that over twenty years of diplomatic efforts, interim deals, and negotiations have not prevented Pyongyang from obtaining nuclear weapons, or long range ballistic missiles. Doubling down on a failed approach is pointless. The menacing prospects of escalation and potentially full-blown war hung over every negotiating session and the North used it to its advantage whenever possible. There was never a sincere effort on North Korea’s part to resolve the concerns of the international community. Feigning a desire to negotiate sincerely with the US, Japan, and South Korea served to buy the time necessary for the North’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles programs to grow.
A regime change in Pyongyang, brought about by internal collapse has long been a pie-in-the-sky scenario for a peaceful end to the North’s WMD programs. Many analysts and observers concluded the regime was living on borrowed time after Kim Jong Il’s death and the transition of power would only hasten the regime’s demise. It did not happen this way, unfortunately. Kim Jong Un managed to consolidate his grip on power. Despite the continued economic woes and other issues facing his government, that will likely not change at any point soon. There will be no North Korean collapse and subsequent regime change anytime soon. This could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. A collapse could be chaotic and the presence of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles practically guarantees a response from the outside, making a bad situation even worse.
The final option available is military action. This course of action is wrought with peril, but strangely enough, it is the most effective one available. Since this post as turned out to be much longer than I anticipated, I’m going to divide it into two parts. Part Two will cover the military option, and the argument as to why unilateral military action on the part of the US is the best available course of action for dealing with North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.