On North Korea, Trump’s on the Right Track

Kim Jong-un of North Korea, in Pyongyang in April. Credit Wong Maye-E/Associated Press

Henry Kissinger once offered a good description of the way in which policy choices come before a president. “If forced to present options, the typical department will present two absurd alternatives as straw men bracketing its preferred option — which usually appears in the middle position,” he wrote in his memoirs.

“A totally ignorant decision maker,” he added, “could easily satisfy his departments by blindly choosing Option 2.”

What are Donald Trump’s options when it comes to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs? Conventional wisdom offers the usual three: more sanctions on Pyongyang, renewed diplomacy or military strikes. The first option can handicap the regime but has not stopped its nuclear drive. The last option is only responsible as a last resort.

That leaves diplomacy, which has the presumptive virtue of buying time against a decaying regime while allowing deterrence to work.

But this is likely to fail, too, and not just because the North always cheats. North Korea’s economy isn’t nearly as decrepit as previously thought, and — given its successful test this week of an intercontinental ballistic missile that could put Anchorage within range — time isn’t on our side.

As for deterrence, if it really works, then there’s no need for Washington to negotiate another bargain. We can simply carry on as before in the confidence that Mutual Assured Destruction works as well with Pyongyang today as it did with Moscow in the Cold War.

The hellish thing about Kim Jong-un is that we can have no such confidence: He acts with apparent rationality until he doesn’t — as when he executed his deputy premier for slouching. And the North’s advancing capabilities put other vital United States interests at risk.

We don’t want the North to share its capabilities with its friends — Syria, for instance, or Iran. We don’t want to tempt South Korea or Japan to develop indigenous nuclear arsenals. We don’t want to allow North Korea to use a cycle of nuclear threats and negotiations to edge the United States out of East Asia.

If direct sanctions, negotiations or strikes don’t advance our goals, what does?

Welcome to Option 4, which begins with rethinking what our goal should be.

The usual answer — a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula — is wrong. There is no strategy of inducement or coercion that can persuade Pyongyang to relinquish an arsenal that is both its best defense against coercion and its best way to extort benefits from the West.

A more recent answer — an agreement by the North to freeze its nuclear and missile programs in place in exchange for United States concessions, such as the suspension of joint American-South Korean military exercises — is also wrong. The North will inevitably violate it, but the agreement will persuade Pyongyang and Beijing that they can drive a deep wedge between Washington and Seoul.

The right answer is that we want the Kim regime out of North Korea. It isn’t the nukes that ought mainly to worry us. It’s the hands that hold them.

Critics of a regime-change strategy note that the only way it could be brought about — short of war, coup or uprising — is with China’s acquiescence. Beijing could end the flow of diesel and gas to Pyongyang, invite Kim for a parley, and permanently ensconce him in the guesthouse that once housed Cambodia’s deposed Prince Sihanouk. Instead, Beijing prefers to maintain the North as a buffer state, a diplomatic bargaining chip and a tool for indirectly threatening the United States.

Until recently, Beijing paid no price for this behavior. It went along with ineffectual United Nations sanctions but enforced them lackadaisically, if at all. That started to change only last year, when the Obama administration charged four Chinese individuals and a Chinese company with laundering funds for the North.

The good news is that the Trump administration has picked up the theme with a new round of sanctions on Chinese entities. It shouldn’t stop there. As Anthony Ruggiero of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies notes, the goal should be to push Chinese banks and businesses to make a fundamental choice between trading with Pyongyang and having access to dollars. The market will reach its own verdict. Last month’s billion-dollar United States arms sale to Taiwan, along with United States Navy challenges to Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea, should also send the message that the administration will exact a price on Beijing for ignoring American security interests.

In other words — gasp! — the administration’s on the right track. What’s missing is the articulation of an overall strategy and a renewed invitation to the Chinese to be a part of the solution, not the problem. Washington can recognize a North Korean state, even a nuclear one, provided the Kim dynasty doesn’t control it. Beijing should recognize that its interests are best served with Kim gone and North Korea intact, stable and under control.

There’s a bargain to be struck. Missing is sufficient pressure on Beijing for them to understand it’s in their best interest, too.

Bret Stephens

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