Opinion: How to be tough and sensible on North Korea (at the same time!)

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.)

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.


28 responses to “Opinion: How to be tough and sensible on North Korea (at the same time!)”

  1. Bryan Meek

    This is really incredible. First off, thankfully after a four years as Sentator and more than that in DC, Murphy finally takes his role as executive oversight seriously, even if seriously misguided.

    I wonder why? He barely said anything when past presidents drew red lines in the sand and sat by while a half million Syrians were slaughtered. Said nothing about billions of unauthorized cash payments to Iran for hostages. Said nothing about Iran dealing with North Korea during supposed negotiations with the west to curtail nuclear weapons development. Said nothing about giving the store away to North Korea on a promise they wouldn’t develop ICBMs.

    Now, he thinks the solution is growing government, negotiating more of our treasure away, and taking a softer stance, while diviulging state secrets that our nuclear arsenal was dramatically neglected while he has been in congress. Oh and that despite failure after failure in the past it is somehow Jared Kushner’s fault for his relationship with China our largest trading partner.

    Really more negotiation and giving away of US resources is your solution? Political grandstanding for your future aspirations? Telling our enemies we are weaker than our President says? Give the store away like we did to Iran and like we did to North Korea that guaranteed their nuclear capabilities and subsequent proliferation?

    GO AWAY already. Your approach sir, is what makes the world a more dangerous place. Not someone actually standing up for the country.

  2. Notaffilated

    Mr Meeks second paragraph says a lot. Let’s not forget that Ronald Reagan talked tough with the Soviets.

  3. Donald

    Just trying to figure out who is the bigger nut Trump or Kim Jong Un.
    We seriously need a mental health test for anyone that wants to be President as the Republican Russian President Dump has proven repeatedly.

  4. steve

    Happy to have Chris Murphy in the Senate. Strong and intelligent minded. The present government is not frighteningly ideological but frighteningly inept and chaotic. Donald Trump is no Ronald Reagan. I find it frightening that a member of the BOE is antithetical to the idea that government needs expertise Reading Mr. Meeks perspectives he replaced Jack Chiaramonte and seems like he’s simply Jack light. Pushing a Wisconsin like system on Ct. without comparing it to neighboring Minnesota (a State with diametrically different policies than Wisconsin, similar demographics but incredibly stronger economic results) Meeks consistently advocating views that are consistent with President Trump and this weird branch of populist Republicanism. .

  5. steve

    Meeks speaketh FoxNews. Frightening that a BOE member would so misread the article. In fact he never deals with it directly. The response is full of rhetoric and claim but with out any facts to support it. Murphy’s point is to have people with knowledge in positions of power. It’s called expertise. Mr. Meeks seems to feel shooting from the hip with little knowledge is a good idea. This from a BOE member??? Is this your position as a board of education member? Understaff positions and then have the few people who are in positions of power lack the fundamental knowledge necessary to succeed? I hope not. Seems to me this is Jack Chiaramonte lite

  6. Rick

    Pick up the phone Chris ,you lost the Quintard ave vote ,every time you open your mouth you lose more ground, your on thin ice as it is.

    No one listens to you anymore in fact most don’t even read what you say,its when you say anything now your ignored.

    your one of the three stooges from Ct ,your last memo to us supports that assumption.

    Your not taking care of your own Chris something we learned from family long ago.

    Ct is in trouble and unless you realize this and act on it no one cares what you think.

  7. Wineshine

    Steve once again tries to shoot holes in a viable response to this political bluster. When someone feels the need to constantly relate anything he opposes with “Fox News”, he stands exposed as someone who cedes logical thinking to rhetoric.

    Mr. Meeks certainly doesn’t need me to defend him, and I hope he doesn’t mind my butting in, but his first paragraph speaks volumes about what your Connecticut Democrat officials failed to comment on for eight years, but not have all the answers.

    As for the several mentions of the BOE, what is that supposed to mean? When you’on the BOE, are you supposed to give up the right to opinion? Why didn’t you ask the Senator if that is his position as a senator? Of course not, because he could tell you donkeys fly and you’d believe it.

  8. Bryan Meek

    Nancy’s cloak of anonymity doesn’t apply to unpaid volunteers. However, it does afford protection to civil servants on the payroll who also enjoy labor protections that members of the private sector do not have. Nancy feels as if someone in my position has more power over this type of individual than I really have. The fact is very few in society enjoy these protections that certain individuals do and it is one of the very reasons our state is going bankrupt. Not just economically either. As long as we live under an unethical system where just a few are more equal than others, we will never have equal outcomes. Call me Jack Chiramonte light, whatever that means. Disparage my views that all members of society should have equal and fair protection. Say whatever you want. It won’t change the fact that our junior Senator is nothing but a political opportunist who could really care less about global insecurity than he does about his own political ambitions. For the record, I paid off my student loan debts without campaigning on them like our Senator, who gets paid well over $200k a year in salary and benefits by our tax dollars and still won’t pay off his student loan, just so he can campaign on how unfair it is he had to take one. Sorry, I can take a lot of contemptuous politicians. But Murphy is not one of them.

  9. Non Partisan

    Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama all negotiated peace with Notth Korea. It didn’t work in the long run

    Maybe this will

    But here is the important part – unless the Chinease step in and stop NPK The NPK will try to take over South Korea which will lead to all out war.

    Trump is the first to be honest about this.

  10. Steve

    Has he defaulted on his student loans if so, please provide proof. If not what difference is it to you, Or anyone. Wineshinr everyoney has a right to their opinion. But the logic, facts and rationale they use in making their opinion is subject to critique. If the person has a public role it’s fair to assume they use the same methods to analyze other situations that might confront organizations such as the BOE

  11. Bryan Meek

    I never said he defaulted. What I said is he uses his student loan debt in a perverse way to claim common ground even though his handsome salary and benefits should have extinguished that debt. The same way he is using hysteria about a situation that has existed for over a decade (while he was completely silent on the subject of Obama admin encouraged proliferation in DPRK and Iran) to promote himself.

    Your preconceived (and false) ideas of what news I watch has nothing to do with Murphy’s opportunistic impulses. For me, they ring hollow and patronizing. For you, I guess I am the problem and how I might react when confronted with the nuclear option? Don’t worry, we don’t have anything tactical. Quite the contrary, we are subject to the tyranny that is our state government right now. Coincidentally run by Murphy’s pals, not that any of that formed my opinion of his blatant grandstanding here.

  12. Norwalk native

    The Marxist-Leninist Junior Senator lost my vote when he starting advocating for illegals. We are unfortunately represented by Snowflake opportunists who are more interested in the photo ops that Identity politics offer them then they are in real solutions for the the taxpayers they claim to represent. Get out of your bubble Mr. Murphy and spend some time with the legal voters in your State.

  13. Missy Conrad

    To clear up the statement that Senator Murphy “Said nothing about billions of unauthorized cash payments to Iran for hostages,” that money was Iran’s money that had been frozen in our banks after sanctions. Our country did use it to negotiate.

  14. Ryan


    We have negotiated with these people enough. Enough as to allow them to build a nuclear weapon capable of reach the lower 48.

    Please let the adults figure this out.

    America voted for change and change we will have.

    The time for niceties is well over.

  15. Bryan Meek

    @MissyConrad. Some of us believe that Iran forfeited any right to that money because of the 100s and 100s of American soldiers wounded, maimed, and murdered by their support of the Iraqi opposition against us, supplying IEDs and other weapons. The Senator and you on the other hand, seem to think that doesn’t matter and have no issue with the past administration assisting Iran and North Korea with their nuclear proliferation. Thankfully neither of you are in charge now. But thanks for reminding us how we got here.

  16. steve

    What is perverse about a Senator having student loans that he continues to pay? Makes no sense. As for North Korea, Mr Meek you never touch on his arguments but only empty rhetoric about the prior years. Murphy’s criticism was simply that Trump has still to make important selections for an enormous number of positions in a variety of cabinet departments. Many of these empty seats are for positions dealing w/North Korea. 8 months into the President’s terms he still doesn’t even have selections for 100s of positions…You seem so focused on spewing your diatribe against Murphy that you completely neglect the substance of his arguments

  17. Peter Franz

    Mr. Meek,

    Thank you for admitting your position relies on lies and other fabrications. Hopefully this is not your practice on the Board of Education.

  18. Bryan Meek

    @Steve. He doesn’t simply doesn’t have student loan debt. He campaigns as a victim of it. Meanwhile he has done nothing meaningful to curtail it for the citizens at large even when in a majority. Still this discussion is only relevant here to the extent that his position here is founded in political ambition. You think he means well and that is your opinion you are entitled to as much as I’m entitled to my opinion that it is hollow patronization.

    @Peter. I listen to facts and form a position. Yours seems to simply be to dismiss me without any facts or rebuttals of your own. It’s not my fault you never made the debate team, but at least try to form a cogent argument. My position on the BOE doesn’t curtail my right to free speech as much as you and Steve would like to use that as some foil against me. Unlike the OP here, I hide no naked political ambitions.

  19. John ONeill

    I would like to thank Chris Murphy for sharing his words of wisdom with us. I would also like to thank Chris for demonstrating how partisan our politics have become. Where was Chris while Obama and others were “kicking the can” down the road on North Korea? Where was his input on many other Obama initiatives which have put us in a Foreign Policy bind?. Where has Chris been over the past 8 years, while Connecticut has struggled economically? Have these problems just begun on January 20th of this year? It’s time we elected practical leaders, and not political leaders. Thanks for the insight Chris..Keep up the good work, and you’ll be practicing law full time in Cheshire sooner rather than later.

  20. Gordon Tully

    It’s very sad to watch the take-over of blog comments on NoN by angry right-wingers. People who prefer to engage in civil discourse based on evidence flee from sites (and newspapers) when this happens. I encourage the majority who find Senator Murphy to be an intelligent, effective and productive official to chime in.

    Being attacked by ideologues doesn’t hurt physically, even if it is emotionally draining. Unless reasonable people chime in NoN will follow so many other blogs into a swamp of ad-hominem diatribe. NoN is too valuable to let this happen.

  21. steve

    Bryan you still haven’t addressed the substance of Murphy’s statement. Murphy writes about x and you respond about his personality and your inferences on his purpose (ambition)…Geez.

  22. Bryan Meek

    Clueless leftist support for do nothing politicians is why DPRK even has nukes. Sorry, enough already. Calling someone angry for having a differing view of the situation and wanting them to be censored is chilling, but not a deterrent.

  23. steve

    More name calling from Mr. Meek Nothing of substance, just a lot of tired rhetoric that is both off topic and non-sensical. The knee-jerk responses are akin to the man (Jack Chiaramonte) who’s seat he took on the board of ed.

  24. Bryan Meek

    Steve. I’ll type real slowly this time so you can comprehend. Murphy has no substance other than repeating the same old failed policies that have been tried before. His record is one of self promotion and not much more than that. That isn’t name calling. That is calling it what it is. Run a better candidate next time and lose your obsession with Jack C already. Your bullying tactics don’t affect me or the truth about the failed, hollow policies outlined here. Even though, it is doubtful a would be South Korean ambassador could be anywhere near the failure of the last one.

  25. Bryan Meek

    So Kim Jong Un blinked today. I guess we didn’t have to give them more money and technology like Murphy and my fan club here support. Looks like a stern warning was effective after all. Now Murphy can move on to his next political gambit and fundraising effort. What will it be next? There was a terrible mud slide in Africa today. Let’s hear about how pulling out of the Paris accords (while VW and Audi cheat on emissions tests) is the cause of this.

  26. Notaffiliated

    What happened this past week is our President spoke in a manner similar to some prior leaders. It was met with calls of him being a war monger similar to when Ronald Ray-gun was in office.

    Now, North Korea has backed down. I wonder, if President Obama were still in office how the media and people,would have responded. My guess is we’d hear words of his deftness and steady hand while showing how strong he is. On certain news outlets all I heard were the proverbial “crickets”.

    Just sayin’

  27. Notaffiliated

    I’ve read through all the posts. To argue that these posts are being taken over by angry right wing voters is ludicrous. Having a differing opinion is just that. It’s sticks and stones stuff and, if we all want to agree, NON will need Three comment sections. LEFT, RIGHT, and none of the above

  28. Wineshine

    Mr. Tully’s post reeks of the myopia that has consumed the left. Start an agrument, call the other side names, and then cry foul when there’s a response? The left has become a joke. A foul-mouthed ill-concieved, hypocrical, non-objective joke, xenophobic joke. Isn’t it rich that the same side that bemoans the right as Nazi’s and supremacists is now toppling statues, burning books, disrupting peaceuful demonstrations, and telling the world that their way is the only way? Sounds like the pot calling the kettle black to me.

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