There is a growing consensus that the first genuine crisis of Donald Trump’s presidency could involve North Korea and, more specifically, its ability to place a nuclear warhead on one or more ballistic missiles possessing sufficient range and accuracy to reach the continental United States. A crisis could stem from other factors as well: a large increase in the number of nuclear warheads that North Korea produces, evidence that it is selling nuclear materials to terrorist groups, or some use of its conventional military forces against South Korea or US forces stationed there.
There is no time to lose: any of these developments could occur in a matter of months or at most years. Strategic patience, the approach toward North Korea that has characterised successive US administrations since the early 1990s, has run its course.
One option would be simply to accept as inevitable continued increases in the quantity and quality of North Korea’s nuclear and missile inventories. The US, South Korea, and Japan would fall back on a combination of missile defence and deterrence.
The problem is that missile defence is imperfect, and deterrence is uncertain. The only certainty is that the failure of either would result in unimaginable costs. In these circumstances, Japan and South Korea might reconsider whether they, too, require nuclear weapons, raising the risk of a new and potentially destabilising arms race in the region.
A second set of options would employ military force, either against a gathering North Korean threat or one judged to be imminent. One problem with this approach is uncertainty as to whether military strikes could destroy all of the North’s missiles and warheads. But even if they could, North Korea would probably retaliate with conventional military forces against South Korea. Given that Seoul and US troops stationed in South Korea are well within range of thousands of artillery pieces, the toll in lives and physical damage would be immense. The new South Korean government (which will take office in two months) is sure to resist any action that could trigger such a scenario.
Some therefore opt for regime change, hoping that a different North Korean leadership might prove to be more reasonable. It probably would; but, given how closed North Korea is, bringing about such an outcome remains more wish than serious policy.
This brings us to diplomacy. The US could offer (following close consultations with the governments in South Korea and Japan, and ideally against the backdrop of additional United Nations resolutions and economic sanctions) direct negotiations with North Korea. Once talks commenced, the US side could advance a deal: North Korea would have to agree to freeze its nuclear and missile capabilities, which would require cessation of all testing of both warheads and missiles, along with access to international inspectors to verify compliance. The North would also have to commit not to sell any nuclear materials to any other country or organisation.
In exchange, the US and its partners would offer, besides direct talks, the easing of sanctions. The US and others could also agree to sign—more than 60 years after the end of the Korean War—a peace agreement with the North.
North Korea (in some ways like Iran) could keep its nuclear option but be barred from translating it into a reality. Concerns over North Korea’s many human-rights violations would not be pressed at this time, although the country’s leaders would understand that there could be no normalisation of relations (or end of sanctions) so long as repression remained the norm. Full normalisation of ties would also require North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons program.
At the same time, the US should limit how far it is willing to go. There can be no end to regular US-South Korean military exercises, which are a necessary component of deterrence and potential defence, given the military threat posed by the North. For the same reason, any limits on US forces in the country or region would be unacceptable. And any negotiation must take place within a fixed time period, lest North Korea use that time to create new military facts.
Could such an approach succeed? The short answer is ‘maybe.’ China’s stance would likely prove critical. Chinese leaders have no love for Kim Jong-un’s regime or its nuclear weapons, but it dislikes even more the prospect of North Korea’s collapse and the unification of the Korean Peninsula with Seoul as the capital.
The question is whether China (the conduit by which goods enter and leave North Korea) could be persuaded to use its considerable influence with its neighbor. The US should offer some reassurances that it would not exploit Korea’s reunification for strategic advantage, while warning China of the dangers North Korea’s current path poses to its own interests. Continued conversations with China about how best to respond to possible scenarios on the peninsula clearly make sense.
Again, there is no guarantee that diplomacy would succeed. But it might. And even if it failed, demonstrating that a good-faith effort had been made would make it less difficult to contemplate, carry out, and subsequently explain to domestic and international audiences why an alternative policy, one that included the use of military force, was embraced.