As North Korea doubles down on its nuclear weapons, Trump and the US are stuck with ‘strategic patience’
- From the ‘fire and fury’ days of Donald Trump’s opening year as president, the US seems to have come full circle to the Obama era’s approach to North Korea
- Slowing Pyongyang’s nuclear programme and adjusting militarily to nuclear weapons on the peninsula are more realistic than demanding complete denuclearisation
The North has also denounced US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US National Security Adviser John Bolton, the American officials most closely associated with the process, other than Trump himself. It has announced that the US has until the end of the year to break the deadlock.
There’s just one problem: no one who has devoted a substantial amount of time to monitoring the North’s activities believes this. North Korea has enshrined its nuclear deterrent into its constitution.
It has an ecosystem of nuclear scientists and officials devoted to its development that can’t easily be shuffled elsewhere. And, most importantly, its leaders have an ideology that makes them “the world’s greatest realists”, as one scholar puts it.
Van Jackson, a professor at Victoria University of Wellington and author of On the Brink: Trump, Kim and the Threat of Nuclear War, told me that this could include “credible arms control” – that is, not demanding total denuclearisation – military-to-military dialogue and “adjust[ing] our posture in South Korea to adapt to the reality of deterring a nuclear-armed adversary, which means a smaller but more rapid-reaction conventional military presence”.
Vipin Narang, a nuclear proliferation expert at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said North Korea could be convinced to freeze fissile material production and that its Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Centre is reaching the end of its life, meaning it is possible to “slow the growth of [the] programme”.
But the fate of the non-nuclear-armed Gaddafi and former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein has taught North Koreans “don’t give up your nuclear weapons because … the United States may one day decide to get rid of you”, Narang said.
It’s not that Barack Obama did nothing – aside from those diplomatic gestures, he did tighten sanctions – but, by the end of his term, “strategic patience” had become a colloquialism for, indeed, “doing nothing”. By the time Trump took office, North Korea was no less hostile than at the start of Obama’s presidency, but was far better armed.
Recently, though, he has signalled a willingness to make a deal with Tehran to address its nuclear programme and said this would be preferable to conflict.
Imagine that – an “Iran nuclear deal”. Novel concept. One wonders if Trump will respond to a future long-range missile test by North Korea by announcing that the US will be “patient, but in a strategic way”.
Rob York is a production editor at the Post and a PhD candidate in Korean history at the University of Hawaii