Henry Kissinger is known to have been advising President Donald Trump on China and North Korea issues over the past year, so the Senate Armed Services Committee paid close attention when he testified this week that North Korea is “the most immediate challenge to international peace and security.”
As he has often done, Kissinger lamented the failure of the U.S. government and the world community to address the problem before it became an imminent and “urgent” crisis.
Paradoxically, it is only after Pyongyang has achieved nuclear and intercontinental missile breakthroughs, accompanied by threatening assertions and demonstrations, that measures to thwart these activities have begun to be applied.
It is a long-standing Kissinger theme. In 2009, he wrote:
It is time to face realities. This is the 15th year during which the United States has sought to end North Korea’s nuclear program through negotiations… If this pattern persists, diplomacy will turn into a means of legitimizing proliferation rather than arresting it. (my emphasis)
Yet, frustrated as he is with a futile and counterproductive negotiating process, he ends up recommending the same policies followed by four successive presidents until the Trump administration, often based on Kissinger’s own advice at the time.
He did it again in this testimony, proposing new negotiations with Pyongyang, “perhaps by the revival of the established Six Party Forum” that he previously condemned for facilitating the advance of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.
But this time, Kissinger envisions the talks expanding to address the ultimate question: “the future of Korea.” This, he notes, is “the essence of the matter: North Korea acquired nuclear weapons to assure its regime’s survival; in its view, to give them up would be tantamount to suicide.”
Kissinger accepts that self-preservation rationale at face value, and continues to ignore an alternative explanation: North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles are intended not for defensive but offensive purposes — to deter a Western response during a second invasion of South Korea to unify the Peninsula under Pyongyang’s rule.
That outcome would also nicely suit China’s strategic interests. It would enlarge the protective buffer it says it needs against an allegedly hostile West, and eliminate a democratic neighbor in South Korea, whose real threat to Communist China is its free and open political model. In the meantime, North Korea provides a useful distraction for the West and postures China as a helpful ally, which explains why it is unwilling to spoil a good game by genuinely squeezing Pyongyang.
Yet, Kissinger prefers to see Beijing as Washington’s good-faith negotiating partner, telling the Senate committee that if China “took an unqualified opposition to North Korea’s program in a joint effort” with the United States, a solution could be found. But, realist though he is, he stops short of the logical conclusion that Washington must impose a significant price on Beijing for supporting and enabling Pyongyang all these years.
Instead, China persists in peddling the Kim regime’s survivalist pretext for developing and keeping nuclear weapons: “Successive American administrations have appealed to China to ‘solve’ the problem by cutting off Pyongyang’s supplies. China has not done so because it could lead to the collapse of North Korea,” Kissinger told the senators.
Beijing has long convinced Westerners, especially Kissinger, that fear of regime collapse in Pyongyang is the reason is has refused to use its economic leverage to maximum effect. But the argument is only plausible if two conditions were to exist: (a) China would give Pyongyang a credible ultimatum — the end of your nuclear weapons program or the end of your regime, and (b) Pyongyang would chose to give up power rather than give up nuclear weapons. In other words, Beijing argues, in effect, Kim would opt for regime suicide — the very outcome it was trying to avoid, according to China, and Kissinger, by going down the nuclear path in the first place.
Of course, Beijing has never presented any of the Kim regimes with that existential choice. Instead, it has reinforced “North Korea’s capacity for procrastination and obfuscation” which, Kissinger once wrote, has created a crisis “similar to what the world faced in 1938 and at the beginning of the Cold War.”
The decisive factor in both historic periods was the existence or nonexistence of the will to use force in response to aggressive behavior, according to Kissinger: “The failure of that test in 1938 produced a catastrophic war; the ability to master it in the immediate aftermath of World War II led to victory without war.”
At one time, Kissinger says he favored the use of force to solve the North Korean nuclear problem. In a 1994 radio interview on The Diane Rehm Show, Kissinger said he once thought the United States should unilaterally “knock out the nuclear capability of North Korea, if necessary even by aerial strikes.” But he later came to believe that it would be “too dangerous for us to do this alone given the general mentality that now exists in Washington and unwillingness to support it.” Instead, he said, we should tell China “we are willing to go as far as you are willing to go in doing away with the nuclear capability… including a blockade and total economic isolation.”
But now that the “general mentality” about stopping North Korea has changed under the Trump administration and there is a “greater willingness to support” the use of force even outside the government, would Kissinger himself now advocate such a course? He was asked at the Senate hearing whether we have reached that decisive “fork in the road,” given administration statements that we will not allow North Korea to possess nuclear weapons.
Kissinger responded that we are, or are about to be, at that point: “The temptation to deal with it with a pre-emptive attack is strong and the argument is rational. But I have seen no public statement by any leading official…” He did not finish the sentence, which may or may not suggest that he was getting uncomfortably close to revealing internal administration deliberations.
He did, however, offer his own view, which differed somewhat from his 1994 statement on the use of pre-emptive force: “[M]y own thinking is, I would be very concerned by a unilateral American war on the borders of China and Russia in which we are not supported by a significant part of the world, at least of the Asian world.”
So, Kissinger finally has a presidential administration prepared to take the “strong, rational” action he says he once favored, and a public mood in which many former officials and military leaders now publicly advocate such a course — and Kissinger has moved the goal posts. The zeitgeist must now include not only American popular and elite opinion, but also Chinese and Russian buy-in — which would give them the same veto power they have been wielding to protect North Korea and its nuclear weapons program. It is a prescription for continuing the very policy paralysis Kissinger has been decrying for three decades.
Pyongyang, Beijing, and Moscow may take great comfort at Kissinger’s public testimony, but, given his mastery of realpolitik, they would be imprudent to assume it is necessarily what he has advised President Donald Trump in private, or what the administration is considering on its own.
Joseph Bosco is a former China country director in the office of the secretary of defense, 2005-2006.