The foreign policy that President Trump previewed as a candidate – lots of rhetorical bluster with no actual policy ideas behind it – has metastasized as advertised during the first six months of his administration. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Trump’s approach to the growing nuclear weapons capability of Kim Jong Un’s despotic regime in North Korea. This week, Trump promised to rain “fire and fury” down on Pyongyang if Kim continued to threaten North America with a possible future ICBM-mounted nuclear warhead. As per usual, this threat had no specifics behind it, and was immediately backtracked by Trump’s Secretary of State, who feared an escalation of words that could spin into an escalation of actions.
But as a frequent and pointed critic of our president’s foreign policy (or lack thereof), let me give Trump credit for getting halfway there on a workable North Korea policy. For years, we thought North Korea was a decade away from being able to threaten America with a nuclear weapon. But Kim Jong Un has rapidly increased the pace of testing and development of rockets and nuclear weapons. In the face of this new evidence, we believe that the threat could mature before the end of Trump’s first term.
The most crucial question that remains is that of Kim Jong Un’s state of mind. There are, of course, two basic possibilities: either Kim is a rational actor who wants nuclear weapons as a means of securing his survival and will not actually use them because he knows the counterattack would be the end of his regime; or he is an actual madman and could be provoked into using the weapon despite the apocalyptic consequences that would follow. A sensible U.S. policy toward North Korea needs to acknowledge that both scenarios could be true and seek to counter both possible interpretations of Kim’s intentions.
If you believe the first interpretation, then tough talk – backed up by a credible military threat – is not an irresponsible policy tool. If Kim Jong Un is a rational actor, then he will not use the weapon out of fear of his own destruction. Thus, he needs to know that if he ever does something insane like launching a weapon at Guam, we have the capability and the willingness to respond disproportionately. Now, as could be expected, Trump mishandled the tough talk by using over-the-top language that seems more suited to Game of Thrones than modern international diplomacy. And his claim that in six short months he has dramatically upgraded America’s nuclear arsenal is both false and easily knowable as pure braggadocio since that upgrade could not happen in such a short timeframe and without funds or authorization from Congress. But Pyongyang does need to know that we are serious about a military response if the regime ever decides to test us with an attack on or near the U.S. or our treaty allies (like South Korea or Japan).
The problem is that tough talk and credible military options are only half of the necessary policy. The other half – an actual policy designed to protect our allies and pursue a path to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons program – seems to be intentionally non-existent right now. And if you are worried that Kim Jong Un might launch a weapon of mass destruction, then you either have to use the military option preemptively (assuring the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Koreans) or have a political and diplomatic strategy to either end the regime or end their pursuit of an ICBM-mounted nuclear weapon.
Here are some of the most important components of the second missing half of a tough and sensible North Korea strategy.
1. Name an Ambassador to South Korea and staff the senior State Department positions that deal with North Korea. Overall, Trump’s decision to gut the State Department and leave dozens of key posts unfilled has sent a chilling message to the world that the United States is engaged in a massive, unprecedented withdrawal from its position of global leadership. Nowhere are the consequences of this policy more disastrous than on the Korean peninsula. The failure of Trump to appoint an Ambassador to Seoul has symbolic ramifications – the North Koreans take it as a sign that the United States is disengaging from political and security questions on the peninsula. But no top diplomat in South Korea also makes it much harder for the United States to work hand in hand with Seoul to counteract the increased sabre rattling from Kim Jong Un.
It’s just as unthinkable that we’re seven months into President Trump’s term and he has not nominated anyone for two of the most important posts in the State Department – the Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and the Assistant Secretary for Non-Proliferation. If there is a diplomatic path out of this crisis, it’s unlikely that a president with no diplomatic experience and a Secretary of State with no diplomatic experience can find it alone. These two key positions are vitally necessary to find a path to peace. You simply cannot solve this problem if you have no one to solve it. Unbelievably, that’s the position we are in right now.
2. Make a run at Iran-style multilateral economic and political sanctions. Yes, North Korea is not Iran. When the early framework of the Iran Deal was being negotiated, the Supreme Leader didn’t yet have a bomb and was deeply worried about the viability of his regime. He was willing to deal in order to gain economic security. Kim Jong Un appears to have decided that his greater threat lies from outside and is willing to economically starve his people in order to get a weapon that keeps his foreign enemies at bay. But why not test this assumption and see how domestically secure Kim Jong Un really is? Quietly, during President Obama’s first term, he sat across the table from world leader after world leader and asked for one thing – sanctions on the Iranian regime. Without fanfare, countries slowly obliged, and Obama built up a backbreaking multilateral network of sanctions that ultimately forced the Iranians to the negotiating table. Admittedly, this seems to be an impossibility for Trump, who has alienated world leaders at a blinding pace since being sworn in. And with nobody home at the State Department, it’s hard to imagine this kind of effort working. But it’s not too late. Kim Jong Un may not respond to crippling sanctions like Iran did. But North Korea has come to the negotiating table before, and with time running out, the cost of trying this path does not outweigh the risk of it failing.
3. Drop the demand that negotiations must come with preconditions. Holding the position that you won’t negotiate until certain steps are taken by your adversary is a strategy that rarely works. It makes for good tough guy talk, but unless you have the upper hand, it just telegraphs that you’re afraid of sitting down. Again, the Iran nuclear negotiations offer a template. Dropping preconditions doesn’t mean you don’t drive a tough bargain when the talks begin. And it allows for small incremental agreements like the one that started the Iran negotiations. Tie an economic noose around North Korea and then extend an open offer to talk. The administration might be surprised at the answer they receive.
4. Ramp up the information campaign inside North Korea. Trump’s deconstruction of the State Department comes with a myriad of costs to U.S. national security. But at the top of that list is the lost opportunity to tip the political balance in North Korea away from the oppressive regime. My friend Tom Malinowski, former Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, made a compelling case for how the United States, through increased State Department capacities, could ramp up the flow of information to the North Korean citizenry, giving them the ability to see the fraud that is being perpetuated on them by Kim Jong Un. Malinowski makes the case that the fall of Kim Jong Un is frankly more likely than the leader willingly giving up nuclear weapons, and though “regime change” doesn’t have to be official U.S. policy, helping set the conditions for the fall of Kim might be our best long-term strategy. The North Korean regime’s only hope of maintaining complete control over the country rests on its ability to keep the citizenry in the dark and strictly control what they see and hear about the world. Senator Rob Portman and I passed legislation last year establishing a new counter-propaganda office at the State Department. Inexplicably, Secretary of State Tillerson is now refusing to accept funding to help stand it up. This is the kind of center that could help counteract the Pyongyang’s misinformation campaign inside North Korea and provide the North Korean people with the truth ― that they don’t need to live the way they do.
5. Put someone other than Jared Kushner in charge of China. Foreign policy pundits often overstate how much influence China has over Kim Jong Un, but it’s not unfair to say that without China on board, no North Korea strategy will work. Right now, President Trump has no one on his senior national security leadership team with any experience in China, or for that matter, in the entire Pacific region. The three generals close to Trump – Mattis, McMaster, and Kelly – all earned their stars through Middle Eastern combat. None of the three ever served in a senior role in Asia. Neither Tillerson nor his new Deputy Secretary have any China experience. Trump is right to prioritize North Korea with the Chinese right now, but it appears that Trump’s main lines of communication with the Chinese are his Twitter feed and his son-in-law, who has zero foreign policy experience. This is outrageous and dangerous. An experienced China hand who can order our priorities with China and guide a more functional relationship is more necessary now than ever.
North Korea isn’t an easy problem to solve. There is no policy that has a high likelihood of success. But failure is virtually guaranteed if all you have in your arsenal is Hollywood western style threats and a policy that is dictated by the impromptu whims of the president’s Twitter finger. This problem requires a thoughtful approach with unity and clarity among the United States, diplomats and our allies. Keeping our country safe must be Washington’s top priority. America needs to be tough and smart at the same time – before it’s too late.