Under Trump, America can defuse the Korean nuclear crisis – with help from China and Russia
Charles K. Armstrong and John Barry Kotch say North Korea may well be willing to give up its nuclear plans if both Xi and Putin can be convinced to add their weight to the diplomatic outreach
US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said recently at a Council on Foreign Relations forum that dissuading North Korea from continuing its nuclear development was “a lost cause”. The remark is itself a cause for alarm. North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal and increasing delivery capability could render East Asian stability itself a lost cause, substantially raising the risks of regional nuclear proliferation and disarray in America’s alliances with Japan and South Korea – as well as posing a direct threat to the US homeland. It is a principal reason that Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sought an early meeting with President-elect Donald Trump last week.
Throughout most of its tenure, the Obama administration has put its stock into increasingly intrusive sanctions based on a strategy of so-called “strategic patience”, but this has not brought a resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis any closer. On the contrary, Pyongyang has tested nuclear weapons and missiles at an ever-increasing rate.
What has been lacking is a diplomatic component as a complement to the pressure of sanctions. Resolving the issue requires not just outreach conducted at the ambassadorial level by a coordinator, but a high-level diplomatic initiative, the only kind that has succeeded in the past.
Had Hillary Clinton been elected president, one could envisage such an initiative led by two former US presidents – Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton – who have negotiated or held substantive discussions with North Korea’s leader himself or at the top leadership echelon. And while previous agreements reached with Kim Jong-un may have rejected the agreements his father and grandfather made in the 1990s, avowing not to go down the nuclear path via plutonium reprocessing or uranium enrichment, one thing the younger Kim could not have done was spurn the legacy of his father and grandfather in meeting with two former US presidents.
Carter’s negotiations with Kim Il-sung in 1994 led to a shutdown of the nuclear plant at Yongbyon for eight years and the resumption of International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. A bilateral framework established the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation, with the goal of providing light-water reactors to meet Pyongyang’s energy needs. Unfortunately, the agreement fell apart during the first George W. Bush administration.
Towards the end of the Clinton administration, the US moved towards recognising North Korea as a legitimate state actor. The momentum towards diplomatic recognition was symbolised in 2000 by the visit of North Korea’s Marshall Jo Myong-rok to the White House and secretary of state Madeline Albright’s meeting with Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang. The two sides discussed a missile agreement, to be finalised by a presidential visit to North Korea.
Trump now has an opportunity, at the start of a new relationship with Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) and Vladimir Putin respectively, to work with China and Russia in making clear to Kim Jong-un that a North Korean nuclear capability is incompatible with the stability of Northeast Asia. As Stanford University professor Siegfried Hecker has noted, the North’s strategy has evolved from a nuclear deterrent as a bargaining chip to a strategic force, and a 2020 reality of a fully fledged intercontinental ballistic missile capability.
And what of the argument, according to Clapper, that North Korea will never give up this capability, which it views as the sole guarantor of its survival? In effect, this is a false choice – unless one accepts Pyongyang’s proposition that it is faced with an existential threat from the US, making a nuclear deterrent essential for its security. Just the reverse is true: North Korea’s nuclear capability itself puts the country’s survival at risk, because no American president can tolerate the threat a nuclear-armed North Korea would pose to the US homeland.
Given the above, now is the time for China and Russia, both neighbouring states that would be directly affected by a potential US pre-emptive strike on North Korea, to embrace high-level “pincer” diplomacy vis-à-vis North Korea. To date, Beijing has argued that squeezing too hard would force a North Korean collapse, which is China’s worst-case scenario. But clearly the sanctions that China has enforced have been insufficient to deter North Korea. A non-nuclear North Korea would offer Beijing the best of both worlds: a buffer on its eastern border that is not a rogue nuclear state or a threat to regional stability.
President Xi has said to President-elect Trump that “facts have shown that cooperation is the only correct choice” for the United States and China. To gain Beijing’s acquiescence to a diplomatic approach, the first step would be for the US to delay the deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Air Defence (THAAD) system in South Korea. THAAD was to be deployed in response to Pyongyang’s testing an intermediate-range missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead into space, on a trajectory that could reach Guam or the Aleutian Islands. China has been adamantly opposed to THAAD; dropping or delaying the deployment of the system opens the door to a positive diplomatic role for China, to complement sanctions-based coercive diplomacy. Once the North Korean threat was removed, there would be no need or justification for THAAD.
Russia, similarly, has a vested interest in the denuclearisation of North Korea. Engaging Moscow in resolving the nuclear impasse is both logical, given the Soviet role in providing the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, the principal driver of Pyongyang’s nuclear programme, and would take advantage of the political leverage enjoyed by Putin, the only current leader to have successfully engaged with a North Korean leader, in persuading Kim Jong-il to observe a three-year missile moratorium in 1999. He has similarly agreed with Trump to “normalise relations and pursue constructive cooperation on the broadest possible range of issues”. The upside for Putin is an opportunity to bolster his standing in the West by making an important contribution to international peace and security.
Trump will have the opportunity for a fresh diplomatic approach to resolving the North Korean nuclear issue with the cooperation of the most important nuclear powers in the region – an opportunity that should be grasped sooner rather than later. The test for both Putin and Xi will be their willingness, with the full backing of Trump, to intercede directly with the North Korean leader.
Charles K. Armstrong is professor of Korean Studies at Columbia University and John Barry Kotch is a research scholar and Columbia PhD in political science