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Strategic Impatience Won’t Defeat North Korea

Doug Bandow

It’s been barely three months, and already I’m starting to miss
Barack Obama. Even worse, I’m pining for Hillary Clinton. Neither
one of them would have so dramatically botched dealings with North
Korea.

True, there’s no easy answer to Pyongyang’s challenge. The
isolated Communist monarchy might have enough nuclear materials to
construct twenty or so weapons. We don’t know what it can deliver
where, but we can’t discount the possibility that the North can hit
South Korea, Japan and U.S. bases in the region. Moreover, North
Korea’s arsenal is only going to expand in the years ahead.

So with great fanfare, the Trump administration announced that
the policy of “strategic patience” was over. Okay. But
officials offered nothing in its place. Strategic impatience,
apparently. To what end, one wonders?

The more Washington
threatens, the stronger the case becomes for the North to develop
long-range missiles capable of hitting U.S. targets.

The president put great emphasis on getting China to
“solve” the problem. If Beijing didn’t do so, he
proclaimed, America would do the solving. But the president soon
admitted that he had little understanding of either the problem or
the solution.

Absent an invasion, which is a tad unlikely, the People’s
Republic of China cannot simply halt North Korea’s nuclear
and missile research. What the PRC can do is apply economic
pressure, cutting off trade, especially in food and energy.
However, Pyongyang could choose to accept the consequences and
continue with its current policies.

The human cost would be high, but mostly for folks already at
the bottom of the human heap. During the late 1990s, hundreds of
thousands of North Koreans starved to death. The regime, headed by
the present ruler’s father, stayed on course, pursuing
nuclear weapons, rejecting economic reform and maintaining
political control. The current regime might similarly survive.

Then what?

The president and his aides intimated that military action was
just around the corner. Pyongyang must “behave,” it was
said. All options are on the table, intoned various officials. A
carrier battle group sat off North Korea’s coast while the
president said he was sending an (it turns out, nonexistent)
“armada” to monitor the Democratic People’s
Republic of Korea.

After that buildup, nothing. Vice President Mike Pence stood at the DMZ and peered northward, making a
stern face for Kim to see. Then he came home. And everyone started
thinking about other issues.

It actually has the feel of an Obamaesque red line. President
Trump huffed and puffed, but didn’t blow the house down.
Instead, he exhaled and walked away. The next time the
administration revs up the threat machine, the DPRK is going to pay
less attention. After all, strategic impatience might not end up
looking that much different than strategic patience after all.

Results might have been better had the president known something
about the subject. One can forgive him for being largely ignorant
of the complexities of the issue when he ran for
office—believing that China “controlled” the
North, for instance. But he apparently wasn’t briefed before
his summit with Xi Jinping, the president of China. How else to
explain President Trump’s comment that only after his
counterpart explained the subject did he realize how complicated it
was?

He lost a great opportunity to negotiate with Xi. President
Trump did dramatically put the North Korean issue to the Chinese
government. However, Beijing has good reason to avoid doing
America’s bidding. As noted earlier, even applying
bone-crunching economic sanctions might not bring “Young
Marshall” Kim Jong-un to heel. Then the PRC would have ruined
its relationship with the North for nothing.

Or the Kim regime and North Korean state might collapse,
unleashing a deluge of refugees across the Yalu, triggering
factional fighting and military combat, and loosing nuclear
materials to states and groups. Before taking such a risk, the
Chinese government might appreciate a U.S. promise to aid the PRC
in coping with the consequences.

Moreover, while Washington would welcome a reunited Korea,
Beijing would not, especially if the Republic of Korea retained its
military alliance with America and continued to host U.S. troops.
In effect, the PRC would be aiding its own military containment.
Here, a few assurances from Washington and Seoul also might
help—that, for instance, U.S. forces would return home after
reunification and a new, enlarged Korea would follow a policy of
military nonalignment.

Finally, if the Trump administration is going to ostentatiously,
if not entirely convincingly, threaten war, it should offer a
peaceful alternative to surrender. Attacking the DPRK very likely
would trigger a horrendous war in which hundreds of thousands or
even millions of people would be killed, injured or displaced. That
ugly reality undermines the credibility of the threat. Certainly
war should be a last resort.

The best reason to make the threat is to convince Pyongyang to
come to the negotiating table. Yet Vice President Pence declared that “all of those negotiations
and discussions failed, miserably,” so there was no reason to
talk. The plan now is to bring sufficient pressure on the North,
primarily through China, to force the North to abandon its missile
and nuclear programs. And if that doesn’t work?

“We are going to achieve the end of a denuclearization of
the Korean peninsula—one way or the other,” said the
vice president. But again, how? With military action? If forced to
choose between war and surrender, surrender which the Kim regime
might view as the equivalent of war, just under less favorable
circumstances (think Libya!), Pyongyang might choose the first. If
Washington ends up only bluffing, however, another dead end would
be reached. And administration credibility would be in tatters.

The greatest irony may be that the more Washington threatens,
even if its warnings turn out to be empty, the stronger the case
becomes for the North to develop long-range missiles capable of
hitting U.S. targets. How else to deter the superpower from yet
another exercise in regime change? Obviously the DPRK has other
reasons for desiring a nuclear arsenal, but the price for yielding
it can only grow to the extent that it genuinely fears U.S.
military action.

It was evident during the campaign that President Trump put a
high value on bluster. So apparently do his appointees.
Unfortunately, huffing and puffing won’t solve the North Korea
problem.

The president still has time to return to some of his campaign
ideas, such as being willing to talk to Kim Jong-un. It turns out
that candidate Trump unscripted is more sensible than President
Trump programmed. If he doesn’t rediscover his voice, his foreign
policy will be no more successful than that of his predecessor. And
America could find itself in a flurry of wars, including Korea.
There would be no quicker way to wreck his presidency.

Doug Bandow is
a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and former Special Assistant
to President Ronald Reagan.