On January 20, 2017, Donald J. Trump will become the next president of the United States. One of his most pressing foreign policy priorities will be North Korea, which has been advancing its nuclear and missile capabilities at an alarming pace. Yet, Trump will not be the first president to face the North Korean threat; George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all attempted but failed to address the issue.
Trump cannot pursue the same policy as his predecessors and expect different results. But before looking for a different path, the new administration should ask a number of hard questions that might better shed light on the nature of the problem and the decisions that could or should be made.
First, where is North Korea on the Trump administration’s list of priorities? If it does become a top priority, is the administration ready to stick with it and not become distracted? North Korea has always been seen as a serious threat. Yet every administration that has dealt with the North Korean nuclear issue has found itself distracted by other problems. North Korea more or less dropped off on the agenda among senior officials in the Clinton administration for the first few years after the 1994 agreed framework was signed. The Bush administration was understandably distracted by the September 11 attack but then doubled-down on a Middle Eastern focus when the United States went into Iraq, a country that had no weapons of mass destruction. The Obama administration dealt far more with Russia and the Middle East, despite the intent to rebalance to Asia. Resolving the North Korean issue will involve an enormous level of attention and political capital by the president and his staff. Will the Trump administration be able to maintain its focus?
Second, if North Korea is indeed the number one foreign policy priority, is the Trump administration willing to accept further deterioration in relations with China in order to seriously clamp down on North Korean trade? Sanctions on North Korea will not work unless China decides to enforce them strictly, but it is unlikely that Beijing will ever do so. China is loathe to pursue any policy that might lead to North Korea lashing out or collapsing. The only way to truly cut off North Korea from the rest of the world would be to sanction every person, entity, and probably a large portion of an entire economic sector (since it is difficult to track every person or entity) that conducts trade or financial dealings with Pyongyang. This would obviously have economic repercussions for China, which is North Korea’s primary trading partner. So how far is the Trump administration willing to push U.S.-China relations in order to truly squeeze North Korea?
Third, if necessary, is the Trump administration willing to use force to destroy or at least significantly degrade North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities? If not, is the administration willing to live with a North Korea capable of hitting the continental United States with a nuclear weapon? Use of force should always be the last resort, but if all else fails, and North Korea is nearing the capability to flight-test an intercontinental ballistic missile, as it might be now, how far is the Trump administration willing go? Not using force might lead to a North Korea that poses a concrete threat to the continental United States, while using force might lead to serious North Korean provocations or retaliation, particularly against South Korea and U.S. bases in the country. Moreover, the United States would have to consider how China would react to a military strike against North Korea. The difficult problem of using force against North Korea is one that the Trump administration might eventually be forced to confront.
Fourth and finally, is the Trump administration willing to send a top-level special envoy to meet and talk with Kim Jong-un without any precondition? The idea of holding direct talks with the dictator seems pointless, given Pyongyang’s position that it will not put its nuclear weapons on the table, and even seems to legitimate the leader. Regional powers might also raise concerns about such exclusive talks. But this method might be the only gambit to make any diplomatic headway with North Korea. Communication over public channels or talking with North Korean officials will have limited effects. The Kim regime will be reluctant to compromise in public out of concerns about losing face, while North Korean officials have no power to change or shift the regime’s official position. The only way to create room for diplomatic flexibility would be to send a top-level envoy with enough prestige, someone that Kim is willing to receive, and allow the envoy to engage in deep discussions with the leader himself in private.
These questions need to be asked and answered in a straightforward manner because policymaking, in the end, is about trade-offs and value judgments. Several issues, domestic and foreign, will be competing for the next president’s attention, but he will not achieve anything by focusing on all of them. Coming up with a policy to achieve certain objectives also might mean accepting the deterioration of relations with other countries, including some very important ones. The next president will also have to weigh the consequences of using, or not using, force on the Korean Peninsula. Lastly, he will have to weigh the risk and cost of losing political capital in an endeavor relative to the importance of the issue at hand. Without understanding these trade-offs, North Korea is likely to be an even greater problem for the United States and its allies in the future.
Mr. Sungtae (Jacky) Park is research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.