The Debate

How Trump Can Pressure North Korea With the Stroke of a Pen

The new president should look to past Bush administration efforts to deal with Pyongyang.

How Trump Can Pressure North Korea With the Stroke of a Pen
Credit: Pixabay

Donald Trump’s abundance of presidential initiatives this past week has added new vitality to the term “energetic executive.” Among the most controversial executive orders have been those on the Affordable Care Act and immigration. However, with the stroke of a pen the new president could bring additional pressure to bear upon North Korea. Specifically, he could bring back the Bush administration’s Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and strengthen the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

America needs to face a brutal truth: North Korea is a nuclear power, and is likely to remain one for the foreseeable future. Pyongyang’s leaders have little to gain from such deal to denuclearize and everything to lose, given the fates of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi after they gave up their nuclear programs. While North Korea’s ballistic and nuclear capabilities have improved, our answers to this threat remain the same: the hope that a combination of dialogue and sanctions will resolve this crisis once and for all. We need to readjust our aims from denuclearizing Pyongyang to containing its nuclear capabilities and capacity to wreak atomic havoc.  

The Trump administration can help by immediately bringing back the Bush administration’s Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). The second Bush administration launched the PSI in 2003 in order to interdict dual-use items that appeared to be on their way to suspected proliferators (e.g., North Korea and Iran). The Obama administration inexplicably jettisoned the effective multilateral program upon entering office. However, the PSI is worth bringing back due to the threat proliferation poses to multiple nations, not just the United States. According to former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, what makes North Korea threatening is they will “sell anything they have to anybody who has the cash to buy it.” This is partly due to the North’s need for hard currency. It is especially risky given their growing reliance on criminal networks.  

Second, the Trump administration can easily upgrade the status and attention paid to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). The MTCR has been proven to be effective when it comes to reducing states’ ability to develop ballistic missiles in the short-term. The status of the voluntary regime – and, thus, its effectiveness – can be bolstered in at least two ways. First, the Trump administration can appoint a high-level White House czar to the organization (bypassing Senate confirmation) and signal its seriousness about containing missile proliferation. Second, it can use its executive prerogatives to coordinate export control policies with other G7 states.   

We should stop deluding ourselves into thinking that we can cut a deal with Pyongyang that will bring about its denuclearization. Instead, we need to focus on means to limit North Korea’s ability to threaten America. This can begin with the stroke of a pen. The Trump administration can immediately bring back the Proliferation Security Initiative and upgrade our participation in the Multilateral Technology Control Regime. North Korea has often been called the “Hermit Kingdom”;  measures like these will help to keep it in its box.

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Dr. Albert B. Wolf is a legislative assistant for foreign affairs in the U.S. House of Representatives.  The views presented here are his and his alone.