US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shake hands following a meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam, on February 27, 2019. Since then, North Korea has undertaken missile tests and Trump has voiced confidence that Kim will not “break his promise”. Photo: AFP
by Rob York
by Rob York

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
What happened to North Korean officials in charge of diplomacy with the US? As frequently occurs with the opaque dealings of the North’s leadership, the signals have been mixed – especially common with reports coming from Seoul’s intelligence sources via the anti-communist wing of South Korea’s media.
From what we can gather, Kim Yong-chol, vice-chairman of the central committee of the ruling Workers’ Party, survived the affair with his life and career intact despite reports of a purge.
As for special envoy to the US Kim Hyok-chol, the latest reports are that he was not executed, though he may be going through the North Korean version of career counselling in a re-education camp. This would signify North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s dissatisfaction with the results of negotiations with the US administration since the Hanoi summit breakdown – if earlier signals weren’t clear enough.
North Korea has, since the summit, tested short-range projectiles, which the pro-dialogue government in Seoul has played down and US President Donald Trump refuses to admit he worries about.

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.

For good measure, South Korea has admitted that its efforts to improve relations with the North are hemmed in by US sanctions until Washington-Pyongyang talks improve.
The response of the US administration has not been encouraging, but has been instructive. Trump has taken to Twitter to say Kim will ultimately make the right call. Other officials have insisted that North Korea must completely dismantle its nuclear programme and expressed confidence that it will.

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.

In other words, treaties and promises are nice, but the ability to defend yourself is how you ensure survival. This is the mindset that leads the North Korean leadership to vociferously refuse to follow the example of the previous poster boy for denuclearisation, former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
No one is eager to see a return of the “ fire and fury” days of 2017, nor of rumours of a “ bloody nose” strike and the need for Americans to vacate the Korean peninsula. North Korea’s nuclear arsenal should be addressed through means other than unhinged threats of total destruction.
People watch news footage of North Korea’s missile launch at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea, on May 9. North Korea fired at least one unidentified projectile from the country’s western area, South Korea's military said, the second such launch in five days. Photo: AP

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”.

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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.

One should not merely disagree with this administration’s current approach, but note the irony of it, two years after it clearly signalled the end of “strategic patience”.
“Strategic patience” was the informal name for the strategy of the Obama administration which, having had its diplomatic overtures to Pyongyang rebuffed, focused its energy elsewhere, such as negotiating the Iran nuclear deal, while maintaining deterrence with South Korea and waiting for the North’s behaviour to improve.

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.

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Yet, Trump is now in the position of not lifting sanctions and not (at the moment) threatening war, but waiting for the North to make the right call. Like Obama, he has also lately been preoccupied with Iran, although here, too, he took the opposite approach from the previous administration and, in this case, withdrew from the Iran deal.

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