While on the campaign trail, Donald Trump once suggested he’d negotiate directly with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un over a hamburger to help defuse the threat posed by Kim’s nuclear weapons programs.
As president, Trump and his top appointees are pursuing a more traditional, arms-length approach. They are warning Kim about the consequences of continuing to develop nuclear weapons and are preparing to tighten sanctions. They are keeping a small door open for negotiations, but with caveats. As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said during his recent visit to South Korea, “Conditions must change before there is any scope for talks to resume.”
Trump is sure to take a more aggressive stance toward North Korea than his predecessor, but he faces the same big obstacle – China. Chinese trade helps prop up the Kim regime. For the Trump administration to change that equation, it either needs to persuade China to turn the screws on its rogue neighbor or have the U.S. Treasury Department apply “secondary sanctions” on Chinese firms that do business with North Korea.
Applying such sanctions, however, would be sure to inflame tensions with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is scheduled to meet with Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida in early April. So to weaken the Kim regime and force him to the bargaining table, Trump needs to either win over President Xi or go it alone – possibly undermining a fragile partnership with China to halt Kim’s development of intercontinental missiles.
“Everything is building up to the meeting in Mar-a-Lago,” said Stephan Haggard, a North Korea expert at UC San Diego who is also affiliated with the Peterson Institute in Washington. “A lot will depend on what Xi is willing to offer on this issue.”
Once dismissed as a “Hermit Kingdom” with little prospect of developing reliable nuclear weaponry, North Korea has been fine-tuning its arsenal faster than many expected. Over the last year alone, it has conducted two nuclear tests and more than 20 missile tests. While some of tests have failed – including one this week – Kim’s engineers appear to be learning from each failure.
Many arms control specialists believe that, by 2020, North Korea could have the capacity to launch a miniaturized nuclear device on an ICBM, with the range to strike at least the U.S. West Coast.
China has long condemned North Korea’s nuclear program, but has been unable to slow it and is wary of triggering the regime collapse that might come with heavy sanctions. Beijing fears a flood of refugees would result from Kim’s downfall. It also fears a reunification of the Korean Peninsula that would place U.S. forces, and U.S.-backed Korean forces, directly on its northeast border.
More recently, China and Russia have strenuously objected to U.S. deployment of an advanced missile defense system in South Korea they say will upset the region’s balance of power. U.S. officials have countered that this missile defense system wouldn’t be needed if Beijing and Moscow were more aggressive in helping to halt North Korea’s weapons development.
Speaking at a nuclear proliferation conference in Washington Tuesday, one of Trump’s top National Security Council officials suggested that the ball was in Beijing’s and Moscow’s court.
“I would suggest that if China and Russia were ever willing to come on board and help us stop those missiles programs in their tracks, we would be able to have a much more interesting discussion about BMD (Ballistic Missile Defense),” said Christopher Ford, the NSC’s senior director for weapons of mass destruction and counter-proliferation.
Ford was speaking at the Carnegie International Nuclear Conference, where several experts lamented the limited options available to contain North Korea. Whereas experts were once hopeful, the current consensus is that “the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is now a vanishingly remote possibility,” said Andrea Berger, a senior research associate with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California.
One option for containing – or even eliminating – the threat would be a direct U.S. military strike on North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities. Tillerson appeared to raise this possibility in Seoul by saying that “20 years of talks with North Korea have brought us to where we are today” and that “all of the options are on the table.” Some interpreted those comments as meaning that the United States might take preemptive action against North Korea.
Yet analysts consider it unlikely that Trump would order such a strike, for the same reason that previous administrations ruled it out: North Korea has chemical weapons and artillery trained on Seoul, a region of more than 20 million people that sits just 35 miles from the North Korean border. Any U.S. strike would trigger retaliation from the North, likely killing thousands.
A military strike also would be unlikely to take out all of North Korea’s mobile missile launchers and hidden nuclear warheads, which then could be used against South Korea, Japan and U.S. bases in both countries.
In 2006, former Defense Secretary William J. Perry co-authored an opinion column urging President George W. Bush to launch a peremptory strike on North Korea’s weapons facilities to stem missile development. More recently, however, he said he’d advise against such a strike. “Any such plan would have to be agreed to by South Korea’s leadership, since their country would bear the brunt of any retaliatory action,” Perry wrote this year in The Washington Post.
Clearly the North Korean threat is one that we do, and need to, take very seriously
Christopher Ford, a senior director for the National Security Council and President Trump’s top nuclear policy advisor
Earlier this week, Reuters reported that the Trump administration is considering sweeping new sanctions against North Korea to cut it off from the global financial system. The sanctions proposals are expected to be presented to Trump in coming weeks, possibly before he meets with President Xi at Mar-a-Lago.
Critics of the Obama administration complained it didn’t do enough to sanction Chinese banks and others firms that help prop up North Korea’s economy.
On Wednesday, the NSC’s Ford wouldn’t comment on what the administration is considering, but said the reviews are ongoing.
“Clearly, the North Korean threat is one that we do, and need to, take very seriously,” he said. “It has an unchecked nuclear weapons program, an accelerating missile testing program that is increasingly poised to deliver a nuclear weapon over intercontinental ranges to the United States.”
Some long-time North Korea watchers are skeptical that increased sanctions will have much affect on the regime’s decisions. While still very poor, North Korea is improving its economy and becoming more self-reliant, said Andrei Lankov, a respected North Korean scholar at Kookmin University at Seoul.
“They are quietly dismantling what is left of the Stalinist economy, and doing what the Chinese did in the early 1980s,” Lankov said during the Carnegie conference.
Along with some other analysts, Lankov advocates that the United States and its allies consider negotiating with North Korea on a “freeze” of its weapons and missile programs. One downside of this proposal, Lankov acknowledged, is that North Korea would demand payment for agreeing to a weapons moratorium. “They always demand money,” he said. “They never do anything for free.”
Other analysts, however, said it would be a mistake to buy into any North Korean “extortion” demands before the international community steps up its efforts to enforce existing sanctions, and perhaps add new ones.
“North Korea is still extremely reliant on external trade,” much of it with China, said Haggard, the UC San Diego North Korea expert. Shutting down that spigot would put the United States and its allies in a better negotiating position, he and others argue.
Trump’s meeting with Xi Jinping in early April is expected to be informal, but it will likely include a heavy emphasis on the Korean Peninsula. It is less likely Trump will extend such an invitation to Kim Jong Un, although at one point, he said he would.
At June rally in Atlanta, Trump said he’d invite Kim and eat “a hamburger at a conference table” with him, while discussing North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
“There’s a 10 percent or a 20 percent chance that I can talk him out of those damn nukes because who the hell wants him to have nukes?” Trump said.
Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth