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Trump to North Korea: Surrender First, Talk Later

Doug Bandow

For Washington, the most satisfactory solution to the North
Korea Problem would be Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s surrender.
Complete and abject. Abandon nuclear weapons, close labor camps,
hold elections, invite South Koreans to take over, and recognize
President Donald Trump’s international leadership.

Maybe that will happen. It would be great if it did. We can
dream — but it wouldn’t be wise to count on that outcome.

Yet that appears to be the Trump administration’s approach to
the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Kim says a nuclear deterrent is necessary for his nation’s
defense. The president responded by stepping into a corner,
insisting that he will loose the dogs of war before the North
develops the capability to hit the United States.

Of course, it is difficult to determine the actual reach of
Pyongyang’s weapons, allowing the Trump administration to fudge a
bit. However, some officials already stated that they have only
months to act. Moreover, the DPRK routinely claims inflated test
results and regime capabilities. In fact, Pyongyang recently
declared its deterrent to be complete. Unless Kim soon genuflects
toward Washington, it will become obvious to all that Pyongyang has
called Washington’s bluff.

So, if the administration is serious, war seems inevitable.

The Costs of War

Alas, this would be no “cakewalk” à la Iraq. Presumably the
administration would target missile and nuclear sites — but
not all locations are known, some facilities are buried deep
underground and the North relies on mobile launchers. Washington
also could try to kill Kim, but that might merely reinforce other
members’ concerns about regime security, rather than bring forth a
liberal regime that is well disposed toward America.

There is plenty wrong
with U.S. foreign policy. But the single worst approach, which
could lead America into a devastating war in Northeast Asia, might
be that toward North Korea.

Unfortunately, retaliation is highly likely. Pyongyang might
focus on U.S. military facilities, threatening to hit South Korean
and Japanese cities if Washington went another round. Or Kim might
decide an American attack was a prelude to regime change, and go
all in at the start. Although the United States would ultimately
triumph, the course of any war would be unpredictable, and
estimates of potential casualties routinely break a million. If the
North dropped nukes on Seoul and Tokyo — North Korea’s
capabilities remain uncertain — the number of dead and
wounded would rocket upward.

Thus, few analysts believe there is a viable military option.
That claim should be filed with proposals for preventive war
against the Soviet Union and China when they were developing nukes.
Uncle Sam played it safe, and was not sorry as a result.

If not war, then negotiation is necessary.

Does Diplomacy Still Have a Chance?

Yet last week, the world watched the unseemly gelding of Rex
Tillerson (who is secretary of state for a little while longer, at
least) over precisely this issue. He suggested initial talks about
talks, or something else, without preconditions, with the
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

But after being publicly reprimanded by the president, the
secretary abased himself and went before the UN Security Council to
announce that the North had to “earn” its way back to the
negotiating table by ending missile and nuclear tests (receiving
nothing in return) and agreeing to give up its nukes and missiles
(with only the exact terms of surrender to be determined). There
was no difference between him and the president, explained
Secretary Tillerson — as he genuflected deeply toward the
Oval Office.

The bizarre spectacle made serious negotiations between the
United States and North Korea less likely.

The North first must wonder with whom it could talk. Secretary
Tillerson seems like a decent chap who might be worth a few minutes
at a UN cocktail party, but he obviously is irrelevant to solving
the North Korea problem. He doesn’t speak for the president, and
isn’t likely to be around much longer. There’s no reason to waste
time discussing anything serious with him, such as relations
between the United States and the DPRK.

Second, President Donald Trump demonstrated that he is
interested only in the North’s virtual surrender. He previously
labeled talks a “waste of time” while criticizing Secretary
Tillerson on Twitter. Yet only the secretary, among a gaggle of
constantly hyperventilating administration officials, made much
effort to deny support for regime change. Moreover, even if the
president publicly agreed, his assurances would have no value.
President Trump abandoned his earlier proposals to engage Kim and
ostentatiously repudiated his predecessor’s agreement with Iran,
which rewarded Tehran for accepting additional safeguards against
nuclear-weapons development.

Turning a Blind Eye

More generally, Washington cares little about past assurances
and agreements that prove inconvenient. Recently released Cold War
records demonstrate that Soviet leaders reasonably believed NATO
would not be expanded to their nation’s borders. Yet once Moscow’s
military had withdrawn, the United States played the Russians for
fools and accepted as members former Warsaw Pact members and Soviet
republics. Only after the revival of the Russian military was
President Vladimir Putin able to win some degree of revenge.

Moreover, the Obama administration took advantage of the Qaddafi
government’s elimination of its nuclear and missile programs to
impose regime change. When Muammar el-Qaddafi faced a domestic
insurrection, the United States and Europe turned on their newfound
friend, making Libya’s disarmament the prelude to his regime’s
destruction and his gruesome death.

It should surprise no one that Kim is unlikely to take Qaddafi’s
path — voluntarily, at least. President Trump certainly would
have to do more than whisper a few sweet nothings into Kim’s ear.
But the North Korean leader isn’t likely to get much more if he
begins any negotiation by accepting America’s position, as
Washington insists.

In short, diplomacy appears to be a dead end … which brings
us back to a war, which would be mad to contemplate.

No one — outside of Kim, anyway — wants the DPRK to
have a nuclear arsenal. But then, the prospect of the much larger
People’s Republic of China, led by the even more radical Mao
Zedong, possessing nuclear weapons was much more fearsome.
Likewise, the Soviet Union under America’s chief Cold War bête
noire, Joseph Stalin, was far scarier than North Korea. Despite
proposals for preventive war in both cases, Washington responded by
containing and deterring the new nuclear powers.

Time to Get Serious

Nothing suggests that Kim is suicidal. To the contrast, by all
accounts he follows his father and grandfather in seeking his
bounty in this world, rather than the next. Should he hope to use
nuclear weapons to force reunification on his terms, he can be
deterred — just as he hopes to deter America.

Thus, the starting point in confronting Pyongyang is
containment. It could be by some combination of South Korea, Japan
and the United States — and perhaps even China. The DPRK
should know that to start a war means the defeat and destruction of
the North Korean state and Kim dynasty. That is precisely why the
North has not renewed its takeover attempt over the last
sixty-four-plus years.

Next, the United States should talk to Pyongyang. Negotiation is
communication, not concession. To have not talked with Moscow
during the Cold War would have been diplomatic malpractice. The
lack of relations with China in 1950 contributed to Beijing’s fear
of America’s plans in Korea and prevented the PRC from effectively
warning Washington about the former’s red lines, such as sending
American troops to the Yalu.

In the short term, the United States should concentrate on
slowing the North’s rush to develop its missile and nuclear
capabilities. For instance, trading a freeze on new tests for the
suspension of U.S.-South Korean military exercises, as proposed by
China and Russia, would be a good deal for America: canceling
nonessential maneuvers in order to buy time, during which the
potential combatants can step back, take a breath and seek peaceful

In the longer term, there is much more to do. Washington should
talk to China about how Beijing can toughen its sanctions. The
United States and its allies should develop a package of benefits,
backed by China, in return for North Korean denuclearization. And
Washington should confront a future in which the DPRK possesses a
nuclear arsenal capable of hitting the American homeland: options
including negotiating to limit Pyongyang’s nuclear stockpile,
encouraging South Korea to develop its own nuclear deterrent and
withdrawing U.S. conventional forces from the peninsula, since they
are not needed to defend the Republic of Korea, but rather entangle
America militarily with a nuclear-armed North.

Of course, to achieve any of these objectives requires the
president to work with his officials, and not publicly undercut
them. Admittedly, that would be a new experience for President
Trump. But he might surprise himself while succeeding in putting
his policies into action.

There is plenty wrong with U.S. foreign policy. But the single
worst approach, which could lead America into a devastating war in
Northeast Asia, might be that toward North Korea. Today, the
administration essentially hopes something magical will happen to
denuclearize the peninsula. If not, threatens the president, he
will plunge the Korean Peninsula, Northeast Asia and America into
war. For the sake of America, both Koreas and the region, the
administration instead should find a peaceful path out of the
current impasse.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and coauthor of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.