Part 2: Past Strategies and the

American Calculus


Effectiveness of Diplomacy


A diplomatic solution would be ideal.  If this threat could be neutralized without military confrontation everyone wins.  It can be seen as encouraging that the US recently made a major deal with the Iranian government regarding sanctions and its nuclear program, a deal that would have seemed unthinkable a short time before its implementation.  A similar deal with the Kim regime, however, seems unlikely.  First, there are many important differences between Iran and North Korea, as well as in the relations each has with the US.  And second, multiple diplomatic efforts have been made to secure a freeze of the North Korean nuclear program, but they have generally been some combination of ineffective and short lived.  To be sure, while diplomacy in this situation has not been overly successful to date, it is not for lack of trying.


The Agreed Framework, signed in 1994, was based upon the North Koreans tempering their nuclear program in exchange for the easing of sanctions which had been in place since the Korean War.  It broke down in 2003 and provides a broad strokes image of future diplomatic forays.  President George W. Bush’s administration was able to negotiate a deal in 2007 that looked similar to the Agreed Framework in that it pledged aid in exchange for the North dismantling its nuclear program.  By 2008, that agreement had gone the way of its predecessor.  In 2012, the Obama Administration took its shot at this elusive diplomatic achievement in the Leap Day Agreement, only to have the North announce plans to launch a satellite 16 days later.  It is difficult not to see a pattern here.  North Korea obviously needs some level of foreign aid and engagement in order to survive, but it also seems to believe, understandably so, that its survival depends in large part upon its possession of a credible nuclear deterrent (as discussed in the previous post).  That being the case, diplomatic trades like the ones mentioned here seem, to some degree, to have been doomed before they took effect.


Along those lines, the Obama years in general were characterized by a policy of “strategic patience”, an attempt to “put pressure on the regime in Pyongyang while insisting that North Korea return to the Six-Party Talks”.  The pressure has included things like coordination with allies, trying to convince China to take a harder line, and enforcement of sanctions, both international and unilaterally implemented through executive orders (United).  All in all, it is a policy of insistence upon denuclearization using sanctions and diplomatic pressure.  The policy itself can be seen as an indictment on this approach, since the sanctions do not seem to have had the desired political affect upon the Kim regime, which for its part has continued to develop its nuclear and missile programs.  Perhaps a harder line would have yielded better results, but such a policy carried risks (to be explored below) to American allies in the region that President Obama was apparently, and understandably, loath to assume.


These policies, of course, are what has been implemented on the surface.  For obvious reasons it is difficult to know what is being done on a covert basis.  One likely strategy is cyber sabotage in some form along similar lines to the Stuxnet virus recently used to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program (Williams).  Though it is likely that the United States is making these efforts in earnest (it would be negligent not to), it can be hard to determine exactly when and to what degree it is successful (Schilling).  Judging by the steady progress of the North’s weapons programs, it is safe to say that any cyber sabotage efforts have not yet begun to pay major dividends.


US Calculus


In a departure from the Obama-era policy, the Trump administration has thus far handled this situation, at least on the surface, with what can best be described as “tough Tweeting” by the President and a steely vice presidential stare-down.  All kidding aside, this administration seems likely to handle North Korea differently from its predecessors, for better or worse (though recent misstatements about the whereabouts of the USS Carl Vinson and Korea once being part of China don’t inspire much confidence).  For example, President Trump has expressed a willingness to talk with Kim Jong Un, something his predecessors were unwilling to do without his meeting certain conditions such as freezing his nuclear program and/or submitting to inspections.  In any case, the rhetoric seems strong, but it remains to be seen whether it will be reinforced by strong action, and whether that action will be the product of careful thought and consideration. 


It seems two major questions must be answered by President Trump.  First, how close is he willing to allow the North Koreans to come to posing a military threat to US territory before resorting to military options?  Despite Kim’s recent claim to the contrary, as far as we know the North is not currently capable of putting a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile, nor have they demonstrated the ability to reach the US with such a missile.  We do know, however, that they are making consistent progress and have shown no willingness to halt that progress, even with carrots such as increased aid and relaxed sanctions dangling in front of them.  It has been suggested the the United States “get tough” on North Korea or risk annihilation once it poses a credible nuclear threat to American cities (Stanton).  However, tough talk and action risk backing Kim into a corner from which he sees no alternative but to lash out.  This brings us to the second question.


How willing is the Trump Administration to risk the security of its East Asian allies?  Any US military action against the North, or perhaps even the perceived inevitability of such action, will likely garner a response against an American regional ally.   While striking the United States is not really an option for Kim at the moment, striking South Korean or Japanese territory with conventional, or perhaps nuclear, weapons is most certainly on the table.  While those strikes would endanger the significant numbers of US personnel in those countries, the brunt of the attack would be borne by an American ally and not the United States itself.  In any case, it looks to be too late for a preemptive strike, given that the North Korean nuclear arsenal is sufficiently spread out and hidden rendering low the potential of completely neutralizing the threat (Delury).  However, if the President determines that military confrontation with North Korea is an inevitability, he may decide that it is in the best interests of the United States to force the issue before the North constitutes a nuclear threat to the US mainland.  His East Asian allies are surely hoping that this is not what “America First” truly means.


So, what is the American President to do?  In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, John Delury suggested a few options.  One possibility is more and stiffer sanctions.  This option would likely allow for at least the postponement of military confrontation, but it is not without its drawbacks.  First, this would be a continuation of the approach that has allowed the North Korean nuclear and missile programs to develop steadily into what they are today.  This alone may be enough of an impetus for President Trump to change policies in a way that underpins some of his tough talk.  Second, as mentioned previously, while stiffer sanctions would enable the US and its allies to threaten the survival of the North Korean state in a non-military fashion, thereby mitigating the risk of nuclear war, American cities would be potential targets in a nuclear war in the event the situation came to a head.  Third, stronger sanctions would likely motivate the North to speed up its development of its nuclear threat.  Fearing that its enemies are ratcheting up the pressure, thus bringing war closer to a reality, Kim would likely pull out all of the stops (if indeed there are stops currently in place) to bring his desire for a nuclear threat to the United States to fruition, thus enhancing his prospects of survival.


Another option is much trickier, but may present more upside.  Delury recommended somehow altering Kim’s focus from self-preservation to prosperity could go a long way toward tempering the push toward nuclear development, since such development is extremely costly and offers little to no benefit to civil society.  If Kim’s desire for “simultaneous progress” is to be taken seriously, then there is reason to believe that he might be open to such a shift in policy.  However, implementation of said shift would require a measure of trust in countries like the US, South Korea and perhaps China, that Kim has not shown to date.  Some sort of verification mechanism would have to be in place, perhaps International inspections of the North Korean nuclear and missile sites to ensure compliance.  Kim’s acquiescence to such a requirement seems to be a long shot at best.


Along these same lines, Delury proposed that the US should offer the North a “security guarantee” in exchange for freezing its nuclear program, but this sounds an awful lot like the type of agreement that the Kim dynasty has made, and inevitably un-made, in the past.  The same problems arise.  Would the North trust the security guarantee of the United States?  Would the US trust that Kim is freezing his weapons programs?  How would the nuclear freeze be verified?  Obviously, trust issues abound on both sides and working through them would undoubtably take extraordinary diplomatic efforts.  It seems questionable at best that the Trump Administration foreign policy team is up to this task.  

Lastly, Richard Rhodes and Michael Shellenberger recently recommended a allowing the North to have nuclear electricity capabilities in exchange for the same concessions previously requested.  This, they argued, would offer the opportunity for civil progress for North Koreans, and could potentially put them on the road to democratization.  Such a shift would obviously take a lot of time to materialize, and this policy would require some measure of trust from parties on both sides similar to the aforementioned strategies.  Allowing Kim to develop peaceful nuclear technology could, however, represent an olive branch of sorts that President Trump may offer as a gesture of good faith.  Of course, gestures of good faith are rather out of character for the US Commander in Chief.

In the final part of the series, I will assess the prospects for success in this situation and what it is likely to take for that success to come about.  If you're interested, please read on.



Delury, John. "Trump and North Korea." Foreign Affairs. 13 May 2017. Web. 13 May 2017.

Gramer, Robbie. "Trump’s North Korea Standoff Rattles Allies and Adversaries." Foreign Policy 20 Apr. 2017: Web.

Rhodes, Richard, and Michael Shellenberger. "Atoms for Pyongyang." Foreign Affairs. 29 May 2017. Web. 29 May 2017.

Schilling, John. "How to Hack and Not Hack a Missile." 38 North. 21 Apr. 2017. Web.

Stanton, Joshua, Sung-Yoon Lee, and Bruce Klingner. "Getting Tough on North Korea." Foreign Affairs. 13 May 2017. Web. 13 May 2017.

United States. Cong. Congressional Research Service. By Emma Chanlett-Avery, Ian E. Rinehart, and Mary Beth D. Nitikin. Cong. Rept. R41259. Print.

Williams, Katie Bo, and Morgan Chalafant. "US Unlikely to Have Been behind Botched North Korean Missile Launch." The Hill. 22 Apr. 2017. Web.