The confrontation between the United States and North Korea is in a more dangerous zone than at any point in decades. Each side has announced tough positions, issued threats and underscored that its positions are nonnegotiable. Each side is now boxed in, with little room to maneuver. How to get off this perilous path?
The Trump administration has made a huge mistake in ramping up its rhetoric without any solid strategy to back it up. It remains unclear as to why it has done this. Partly, it seems this White House wants to reverse every Obama-era policy. Partly, it is the undisciplined approach that characterizes so many of this administration’s policies, with top people freelancing and showboating. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, for example, appears to take a hard line in order to outflank Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, effectively auditioning for his job.
But perhaps most fundamental is that President Trump likes to be the tough guy. Previous presidents reacted with sobriety to the bellicose statements of leaders such as Nikita Khrushchev and Mao Zedong. The United States was always disciplined and cautious; it was the other guys who did the crazy talk. But Trump seems determined to have the last insult.
We need to tone down the rhetoric and formulate a strategy. North Korea has one — indeed, it has had one for decades. It has determined that given how isolated and threatened it is, it needs a nuclear deterrent. And Pyongyang has made astonishing strides in getting there. Nuclear weapons are all that is keeping Kim Jong Un from suffering the fate of Saddam Hussein or Moammar Gaddafi. The regime will not give up this insurance policy. If you were in Kim’s position, would you?
The denuclearization of North Korea right now is a fantasy. It will not happen unless the United States is willing to wage a war on the Korean Peninsula. Everyone knows this, but no official in Washington is willing to publicly admit it. So the United States has adopted a zombie policy, one that has no chance of success but staggers along nonetheless. It means that we cannot make any progress on what is in fact an achievable and desirable goal — to freeze the North Korean arsenal, end further tests, and place the weapons under inspection.
A way out of this paralysis would be to reframe the issue and broaden its scope. Joshua Cooper Ramo, co-chief executive of Henry Kissinger’s consulting firm, has devised and shared with me a plan — one that has been circulating among officials in Washington — to convene an international conference on nuclear proliferation. All existing nuclear weapons states would agree not to test or expand their arsenals for some period of time — say, 36 months. Inspectors would verify that these limits are adhered to. All other nations would affirm that they do not intend to acquire nuclear weapons. Crucially, North Korea would be invited to sign onto this agreement as a nuclear weapons state, with the idea of freezing progress for now and aiming to later denuclearize the country.
Ramo says that the advantages of this approach are that it lodges the North Korean problem in the broader context of global proliferation, giving everyone an exit ramp so previous nonnegotiable statements don’t apply. It creates a global coalition that could be marshaled to sanction North Korea if it were to renege or cheat on its commitments, giving cover to China to truly clamp down on its ally. The plan also deals with Beijing’s core security concerns: preventing the collapse of North Korea and keeping South Korea and Japan from acquiring nuclear weapons. (Ramo, who has a deep knowledge of China, believes that this broader approach would allow the Chinese government to change its position.)
The specifics of such a plan could be adjusted. Perhaps the conference could be an effort to update and expand the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty itself, which is somewhat dated. (The treaty, crafted in 1968, assumed a clear line between peaceful nuclear energy and weapons, but that distinction is much harder to detect these days.) Perhaps it could be done as a regional forum, emphasizing the participation of Japan and South Korea, so that their commitment not to acquire nuclear weapons is seen as key — as is the implicit threat that if there were to be no agreement, they would in fact be free to move in that direction.
There is no good — let alone perfect — policy for the North Korean problem. But the Trump administration needs to stop the insults, get serious and try to find some way to stabilize the situation. Otherwise, we are on a road that will force Washington to either go to war or tacitly admit defeat to the Little Rocket Man.
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