Why Trump needs China onside to make Kim Jong-un of North Korea give up his nuclear missiles
Patricia M. Kim says denuclearising the Korean peninsula would require coercive diplomacy and credible assurances to Kim Jong-un about the longevity of his regime. And for this, the US needs to get China, Russia, South Korea and Japan on board
The Korean peninsula has never been closer to the possibility of armed conflict since perhaps the outbreak of the Korean war, nearly 70 years ago. In 2017 alone, North Korea tested 20 missiles, three of which were intercontinental ballistic missiles, in addition to carrying out its sixth and largest nuclear test. Given Pyongyang’s relentless race to develop a nuclear weapon that can strike the US mainland, and President Donald Trump’s remark that “it won’t happen”, the prospects for a peaceful solution in 2018 seem dim.
Fortunately, we are not yet at a point at which war or acquiescence to North Korea’s nuclear status are inevitable, and coercive diplomacy is still the best option. But to convince Pyongyang that it can never achieve regime security through nuclear weapons, the US, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia must collectively signal both clearer demands and credible assurances to bring the Kim Jong-un regime to the negotiating table. And, in addition to addressing the immediate nuclear crisis, they must also find ways to integrate North Korea into the region so it does not become another Iran – a state without nuclear arms but a destabilising actor nonetheless.
Watch: Celebrations in Pyongyang as North Korea tests latest missile
Just last week, the UN Security Council passed another set of biting sanctions which will cut North Korea’s refined petroleum imports by 89 per cent come January and force North Korean workers abroad to return home within 24 months, among other measures. While these measures will squeeze Pyongyang, it’s uncertain whether they will be quick and tough enough to change its strategic calculus.
Unfortunately, there’s not much left to threaten North Korea with, other than a complete embargo on its oil imports. The options that remain after that begin to veer into the category of military action, such as intercepting North Korean ships suspected of violating sanctions, or striking nuclear facilities and missile launch sites. Such steps have been avoided thus far out of fear of provoking a response from North Korea and spiralling into a regional war. But, according to reports, the White House may now be seriously considering a pre-emptive strike on North Korea, to give it a “bloody nose” and demonstrate that the United States will not tolerate a nuclear North Korea.
A unilateral strike without any further clarification or coordination with other states would be counterproductive, to say the least. First, the move would immediately alienate the US from South Korea, China, and others who insist military measures should not be used. Division among its neighbours is precisely what North Korea seeks and uses to its advantage. Second, pre-emptively “punching” North Korea “in the nose”, without making specific demands in advance, would undercut the purpose of coercive diplomacy, which is to induce a state to comply by threatening, but not actually using, force.
If, and when, the time comes when leaders believe threatening limited military strikes is the only means left to push the Kim regime to denuclearise and uphold the security of the region, everything possible must be done to maximise the odds that the threats will succeed, before force has to be employed.
Watch: Donald Trump speaks after North Korean missile launch
One basic step in this regard includes communicating explicit demands to Pyongyang, so that it understands what exactly it must do to avoid a strike. Simply stating it must give up its nuclear weapons, as the Trump administration has repeatedly expressed, is not precise enough. Does North Korea need to declare a moratorium on its missile and nuclear tests? Must it volunteer to turn over its weapons or open its borders to international nuclear inspectors? North Korean compliance is impossible if no one tells Kim Jong-un what satisfies our demands.
The Chinese Envoy, who just returned from North Korea, seems to have had no impact on Little Rocket Man. Hard to believe his people, and the military, put up with living in such horrible conditions. Russia and China condemned the launch.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 30, 2017
In addition, the threat of a limited strike would be much more fear-inducing for North Korea if it came not unilaterally from the US, but with the support of all of the powers of the region. If Seoul, Beijing and Moscow were to stand with Washington in delivering the threat, Pyongyang would realise that it cannot count on anyone to apply the brakes, and that it would be futile to lash out in response.
Most importantly, to set up such a strategy for success, North Korea must be convinced that complying with the specified demands will leave it indisputably better off than defying them and engaging in a military confrontation. To reinforce this idea, the US must make its assurances more credible. Pyongyang must believe that Washington is truly willing to engage in negotiations and that it will not overturn the Kim regime if it gives up its nuclear weapons.
So far, the Trump administration has sent mixed messages on its willingness to negotiate, with the State Department emphasising engagement, and the White House maximum pressure. To demonstrate that Washington is committed to both and not just the latter, President Trump should personally affirm Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s “four noes”– that the US government does not seek regime change or the collapse of Pyongyang, an accelerated reunion of the Korean peninsula, or an excuse to send in American troops above the 38th parallel.
Furthermore, President Trump himself should outline the specific assurances North Korea can expect to receive if it lays down its weapons. By doing so, the negotiated path will become much more credible and therefore appealing for Pyongyang.
Finally, while it may be difficult to think beyond the nuclear crisis at this moment, it is essential for the five powers to work on a comprehensive solution to integrate North Korea into the region while concurrently tackling the issue of denuclearisation. The Iran nuclear deal is a case in point that simply focusing on a state’s nuclear weapons without resolving deeper conflicts cannot lead to peace in a region.
Watch: America unveils new stealth submarine which could challenge Kim
Besides its nuclear sabre-rattling, Pyongyang has long engaged in many other destabilising activities to achieve its objectives. It has shelled a South Korean island and sunk a South Korean navy ship in recent years, and it unabashedly perpetrates cyber aggression, drug trafficking, and money-laundering. Even if North Korea’s nuclear weapons were dismantled, there is no guarantee that Pyongyang will stop these other disruptive undertakings.
What can the five parties do to give North Korea a stake in the stability of the region, to encourage good behaviour? What steps can be taken so Kim believes his regime’s survival and longevity will be guaranteed through economic development and living in peace with its neighbours? In the chaos of the nuclear crisis, these larger questions are being overlooked. But they must be part of the equation, or else only disillusionment and sustained conflict will follow, even with the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.
Patricia M. Kim is the Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, US