With its latest provocation — a ballistic missile launch in the direction of Japan — North Korea is reminding Washington that its boast of having weapons capable of reaching the “heart of the United States” may not remain propaganda for much longer. The threat from Pyongyang should be one of President Trump’s most urgent priorities.
Yet so far, despite the White House’s sharp rhetoric about how North Korea will not be allowed to continue its nuclear program and how China must bring North Korea in line, Mr. Trump’s policy appears to be as ineffectual as those of his predecessors. The proof? With every missile launch, the North moves incrementally closer to having a delivery system for its nuclear arsenal that can reach Seattle and San Francisco.
What is needed is a drastic change in our approach to the Korean Peninsula. Specifically, we should abandon our “One Korea” policy, long embraced by Republicans and Democrats. It’s no longer realistic or viable.
Ever since the cease-fire that halted the Korean War in 1953 and maintained the border between what became North and South Korea along the 38th parallel, the official stance of the United States has been to support a unification of the peninsula under the leadership of its close ally, South Korea. This, of course, is anathema to China, which more than anything else wants to reduce the influence of the United States in Asia.
Under no circumstances will China tolerate what it sees as a client state of the United States (and a vibrant free-market democracy) on its most porous border. The reality on the ground, as difficult as it may be for the Trump administration to stomach, is that despite America’s great military and economic might, it has very limited influence over North Korea. China, on the other hand, has substantial influence over the North: More than two-thirds of North Korea’s trade is with China. The reality is that the path to resolving the North Korea crisis goes through China.
The challenge for Mr. Trump is to find a way to persuade the Chinese that a regime change in North Korea — or, at the very least, serious containment of its nuclear ambitions — is actually in China’s best interest. Short of such a strategy, the president is left with two options, neither of which is practical: He can use force to decapitate the Kim regime on his own, or he can escalate America’s presence in the region by increasing the number of American troops and moving short-range missiles into South Korea and Japan to have an effective response to a first strike from Pyongyang.
The former option would destabilize the region and cause millions of North Koreans to seek refuge in South Korea and China. The latter option faces serious political obstacles. First, China’s foreign ministry spokesman made clear in June that any uptick in United States military presence in the region would “severely damage China’s security interests and undermine the regional strategic balance.” Second, Moon Jae-in, the newly elected president of South Korea, is vocal in his opposition to the installation of the THAAD (terminal high altitude area defense) antimissile defense system that the Pentagon has sought to deploy in South Korea.
So what can Mr. Trump do? The worst possible outcome would be for him to sit back, as some of his predecessors have done, proclaiming ever more red lines as North Korea methodically tests missile after missile. Eventually — and perhaps imminently — the Kim regime will develop a successful ballistic delivery system for its growing nuclear arsenal. And that will present a grave threat to Americans, not just those living in Alaska.
The right option, though painful, is to negotiate with China. Diplomacy is all about carrots and sticks. And the time is right to offer China a real carrot by making clear that our aim is no longer a unified peninsula. A major benefit of abandoning our “One Korea” policy is that if China does not reign in the Kim regime even after the United States assuages China’s concerns about American influence, the United States will then be on much stronger footing in resorting to sticks, such as unilaterally increasing its military presence in the region and deploying a missile defense system, much like Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s when he announced he would put missiles in Britain, Italy and Germany to send a message to the Soviet Union. Moreover, despite paying lip service to unification of the peninsula for reasons of nationalism, it isn’t clear that most South Koreans really want to absorb more than 20 million North Koreans into their nation. So a reversal of American policy could well lead to greater regional stability.
We should hope that the time doesn’t come when the United States has no alternative other than to challenge North Korea militarily. It’s not that Washington lacks the power to do so effectively. It’s that military action, as we have seen over the last two decades, brings with it unforeseen and often problematic collateral consequences. But diplomacy is ineffective when it is untethered from a realistic assessment of the needs and interests of all the relevant parties. And that is what has plagued recent administrations. If the United States finally wants to start making progress in its effort to combat more than a decade of nuclear expansion by North Korea, it has to start by dropping a cornerstone of its Korea policy.
Jay P. Lefkowitz was the United States’ special envoy for human rights in North Korea from 2005 to 2009.