You have to hand it to Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s unpredictable president: Launching a new ballistic missile just as President Trump and Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe were meeting in Washington couldn’t have been more provocative.
Factor in the assassination of Kim’s estranged half-brother a few days later and you have to figure this is a busy young man with a tight schedule.
The North tested more than a warhead-bearing technology last Sunday. It also tested the incoming administration’s resolve, and with good reason. For the first time in nearly a decade, there’s serious talk of new negotiations to resolve what is now a crisis over Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
There is no debate on this point: The North’s tests contravene a Security Council resolution barring the development of ballistic missiles and the weaponization of what nuclear capabilities it may have. The Chinese, the Russians, the South Koreans, the Security Council itself—everyone condemned this latest act of bold assertion. In Washington, Trump and Abe stood shoulder to shoulder.
Abe said, “North Korea’s most recent missile launch is absolutely intolerable,” while
Trump replied, “I just want everybody to understand and fully know that the United States of America stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent.”
“Intolerable” is a pretty big word and raises a big question: If the North’s nuclear advances are unacceptable, what’s the rest of the world going to do about them?
That’s Trump’s question more than anyone else’s. As the Chinese just reminded the U.S. for the umpteenth time, a solution to the North Korea question lies in talks involving Washington and Pyongyang.
As Barack Obama’s second term drew to a close, the outgoing president warned his successor—then widely assumed to be Hillary Clinton—that the Korean peninsula would be the most pressing foreign policy problem on the Oval Office desk. At the time, campaign officials indicated that Clinton vigorously agreed that this was the priority issue.
Now Trump inherits precisely the same three policy options Clinton had in her dossiers:
- China gets an ultimatum: Force Pyongyang to curtail its nuclear program or the U.S. will prepare for one or another kind of military intervention. There was an influential constituency behind this option at the time of Trump’s election, Washington sources said then; during his visit to Seoul earlier this month, Defense Secretary Mattis signaled that it’s still in place.
- Do nothing. In other words, the status quo—persistent tensions, occasional provocations from the North—reigns. Last week’s test, U.S. analysts said, marked a minor advance from previously tested intermediate-range missiles and didn’t pose a threat to North America.
- Reopen negotiations. While the Obama administration dismissed the thought, preferring to strengthen sanctions, there is a decades-long history of talks with Pyongyang. On his first visit to Beijing as Obama’s secretary of state in 2013, John Kerry sought China’s help to bring the North back to the negotiating table.
A military solution, a diplomatic solution, no solution: That’s about it. There are problems with all three of these alternatives, but one has fewer than the other two.
Unless China brings the North Koreans around, forceful intervention overestimates Beijing’s leverage in Pyongyang and its willingness to exert what influence it has. China has seen the North as a useful if troublesome buffer since the Korean War. Most important, military analysts say the North could destroy a quarter to a third of Seoul within a matter of minutes after it is attacked. This risk alone takes the military option more or less off the table.
Doing nothing just got a lot less tenable. Last Sunday’s test sent a missile 310 miles into the Sea of Japan. That’s slightly less than half the distance between the North and the Japanese coast, but Kim’s signal is clear: We’re upping the ante, and there’s more where this came from.
That leaves negotiation. With a record of failures in view, let’s call it the least unpromising alternative.
Talks with the North on its nuclear program go back to the mid-1990s when President Clinton signed an “Agreed Framework” to bring Pyongyang back into the International Atomic Energy Agency. When that accord fell apart in 2002, six countries met regularly -- South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China -- until 2009.
It is time to try again, for two reasons:
- Many Asians—including Japan’s premier—mark down Obama’s sanctions against North Korea as a failure, and they would be correct. Sanctions hurt, but they don’t get other nations to do things much differently. See Russia. See Iran.
- Turn last week’s test upside down, and it could be a positive signal. Kim looks at the Iran nuclear accord, and then at Trump’s inclination to negotiate a better relationship with Russia, and wonders if he has a chance to make a deal with the artful dealmaker. Note in this connection: Kim may have eliminated a dynastic rival if he had his half-brother assassinated this week, but the president who craves acceptance also furthered his reputation as an international pariah.
Japan, China, and South Korea’s main opposition party, the Democrats, are now on the record favoring a new round of talks. So are many influential China experts and former officials in the U.S. For his part, Trump appears to leave the door open. Look again at his statement while he stood at the podium with Abe: He didn’t mention the missile test. And it was after his talks with Trump that Abe suggested to parliamentarians back home, Let’s try something new.
If talks materialize, there’s a clear advantage for returning to the six-party format. China and Russia are powerful influences, given the Kim dynasty’s long shared ideological history with Beijing and Moscow.
There’s a big advantage for Trump, too: Even beginning a negotiation process would help repair the president’s stony start in his relations with Beijing. Trump seems to know this.