In July 2017, North Korea tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles that it claims can deliver a nuclear payload anywhere in the world. Pyongyang tends to exaggerate its military capabilities, but its nuclear and missile programs are on a credibly threatening trajectory. A frustrating history of military posturing, economic sanctions and diplomatic initiatives has led to a standoff with no ready solutions. However, options remain on the table, if South Korea’s pro-engagement President Moon Jae-in and the uncertainty-wielding President Donald Trump coordinate strategies rather than submit to popular myths. Dealing with North Korea does not call for a radically new approach, but rather dogged implementation of policy.
The first myth is that sanctions don’t work. On 5 August, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2371 to reduce North Korea’s foreign currency earnings by banning its trade in coal, iron and seafood, and prohibiting countries from hiring additional North Korean laborers and investing in new ventures with Pyongyang. Those who advocate a rush to dialogue with North Korea tend to see sanctions as ineffective or counterproductive. But saying that sanctions haven’t achieved denuclearization mischaracterizes their purpose, and blaming sanctions for Pyongyang’s provocations discounts the Kim regime’s aggressive intentions and record of cheating. Sanctions aim to frustrate North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, punish its repeated violation of UN resolutions, and push Pyongyang back to the negotiating table. Returning to the table would involve suspending illegal tests, so that relevant parties can talk about security and economic incentives for a continued freeze and a capabilities cap, while maintaining denuclearization as the ultimate goal.
A second myth is that the U.S. isn’t willing to talk with North Korea and is on the verge of military action. In fact, the Trump administration has left the door open to talks and expressed support for inter-Korean dialogue. It is Pyongyang that has prioritized its nuclear missile development over diplomatic engagement and rejected numerous overtures from Seoul. The U.S. has strengthened deterrence by conducting military exercises with its allies and brandishing strategic assets. Nuclear-capable B-1 bombers have flown through the region, escorted by South Korean and Japanese fighter jets. But Washington is not looking to start a preventive war. Such a military option isn’t attractive because of the vulnerability of South Korea to North Korean retaliation via artillery, missile and terrorist attack. The Trump administration has said that its goal is denuclearization, not regime change. A pre-emptive strike (more targeted and limited than a preventive war) would only be considered if a North Korean attack was imminent.
A third myth is that we’ve tried everything before, so must now admit that North Korea is a nuclear power and focus on deterrence, containment and even diplomatic normalization. That is problematic, for the diplomatic and nonproliferation dangers of accepting North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and because further non-military options exist. Washington can increase “left of launch” efforts at cyber and component sabotage of North Korean missile systems, and broaden cybersecurity cooperation against North Korea’s hacking of banks and businesses. Efforts at information penetration into North Korea could also be increased. Greater scrutiny of human rights and targeted humanitarian assistance could pressure the regime while helping the North Korean people.
After the death of Otto Warmbier, Washington banned American tourists from visiting North Korea. Congress is considering additional sanctions and the administration has the option of relisting North Korea as a state sponsor of terror after Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, was assassinated in Malaysia with a VX chemical weapon. Significant diplomatic legwork is needed to enforce sanctions. A UN panel of experts has exposed numerous loopholes in Southeast Asia and China where the U.S. and its allies can offer capacity-building assistance or apply secondary sanctions. The UN can be more timely in passing resolutions (Pyongyang managed to test a second ICBM while the Security Council debated the first) and telegraph additional measures in response to North Korea’s next test, including a global ban on Air Koryo and the suspension of oil shipments.
To facilitate “implementation diplomacy,” relevant parties should minimize linkage between negative externalities and efforts to deal with Pyongyang. U.S. – South Korea burden-sharing and FTA amendment talks, Korea–Japan history issues, U.S.–Russia political controversies, and U.S.–China trade frictions shouldn’t derail cooperation on North Korea. Meanwhile, the U.S. and its partners should clearly reject “fake solutions” that deflect responsibility regarding North Korea. Beijing’s and Moscow’s criticism of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system is misplaced and their “freeze for freeze” recommendation is a non-starter. THAAD is a defensive system justified by the North Korean missile threat, and Chinese economic coercion against its deployment is unseemly. While Seoul and Washington could feasibly scale down military exercises if North Korean behavior changes, it’s nonsense to suggest a freeze on legal military readiness and defensive interoperability in exchange for North Korea’s abstaining from violations of international law.
Finally, the U.S., South Korea and Japan should build upon alliance and missile defense cooperation. Recent trilateral meetings—Trump–Moon–Abe at the G20 and Tillerson–Kang–Kono at the ASEAN Regional Forum—are a good start. The three countries could advance their intelligence sharing, contingency planning, and anti-submarine and missile defense exercises. Seoul is well advised to expedite THAAD deployment after recent successful tests in the United States. Extended deterrence policy coordination and updates to the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review will make clear that North Korea can’t compel Washington to abandon Seoul and Tokyo.
There are no quick fixes for the North Korean threat; attempts at rushed solutions and grand bargains risk unintended consequences. Better to pursue both the rhetoric and actions of “implementation diplomacy”—enforcing sanctions, strengthening deterrence, seeking meaningful dialogue, and reinforcing alliances for dealing with Pyongyang over the long term.
Leif-Eric Easley (PhD in government, Harvard University) is assistant professor in the Division of International Studies at Ewha Womans University and an international research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. This article originally appeared in The Strategist and draws from a larger study, “From strategic patience to strategic uncertainty: Trump, North Korea, and South Korea’s new president,” in the Summer 2017 issue of World Affairs Journal.