When Barack Obama first took office, many foreign policy experts predicted that North Korea would be the young president’s first international test. While North Korea never strayed far from President Obama’s mind, its intermittent flares into world news never eclipsed the attention given to the JCPOA negotiations, the Syrian civil war, or the TPP. Now, in President Trump’s first month in office, North Korea is once again on many people’s minds. It is impossible to determine if North Korea will become the defining story of President Trump’s foreign policy, but it is necessary nonetheless to understand what the newest President is up against and, even more so, how he might handle the unstable nation rearing its head.
Just over two weeks ago, on February 11, North Korea launched a ballistic missile into the waters of the Pacific Ocean. While this occurrence was nothing new—the first nuclear test of this kind was in 2006 under President George W. Bush—it marked the first provocation in the age of President Donald Trump. Just two days later, Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un, was assassinated with a nerve agent classified as a chemical weapon. South Korean officials have now formally accused the North Korean government of organizing the murder.
Kim’s apparent assassination of his half-brother is a representative of the unstable and isolated nation that has long sought a nuclear program capable of striking the United States and other Western targets. To be clear, North Korea already has nuclear weapons. Its program is capable of striking regional targets in Northeast Asia, meaning it can already inflict casualties on US military outposts in Japan, Guam, and South Korea. The general population of South Korea faces the most serious threat from its aggressive northern neighbor. The question at hand is how quickly North Korea can achieve its goal, and what the Trump Administration can do to mitigate the threat.
The first thing President Trump must do is to stop demonizing China and realize that the only far eastern superpower poses more than just an economic challenge to the United States. China’s cooperation is vital to any action the United States takes with regard to North Korea. Accusing China of devaluing its currency, threatening China with tariffs, and questioning the long held “One China Policy” will not do President Trump any favors when it comes to North Korea. Since his inauguration, it seems that President Trump may be learning this lesson. Recent rhetoric from the White House has been far less provocative towards China than the near constant stream of claims that came from the Trump campaign.
Furthermore, President Trump should stop threatening to tear up the JCPOA, more commonly known as the “Iran deal.” Any deal that Trump may be able to make with North Korea will likely have more similarities than differences with the Iran deal: easing of sanctions, allowance of inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and a solution to the issue of multi-use uranium. Threatening to go back on the Iran deal will not instill confidence in Kim, who is already an incredibly reluctant negotiator.
Kim Il-Sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong-un, was a communist nationalist who instigated the Korean War in 1950 in an ill-fated attempt to reunify the Korean Peninsula in the aftermath of World War II. Two generations later, the Soviet Union has crumbled, the Cold War is over, and the objectives of the newest North Korean dictator have shifted. Kim Jong Un no longer desires to reunite the Korean Peninsula, at least not outwardly. Based on unofficial transcripts of Kim’s public speeches, one can infer that he wishes to consolidate his own power through the advancement of his nuclear capabilities and to develop a more sustainable domestic economy. The first desire is not something the United States will stand for, as a fully developed North Korean nuclear arsenal would lead to proliferation in the Far East. The second desire is where President Trump must act.
The United States has to ensure North Korea’s security to the extent that its economic desires become the priority. Ensuring that security probably means reducing US military presence in Japan and South Korea. In exchange, China would likely be asked to step up in its role as the regional policeman. Only through economic engagement and reduced US military activity in North Korea’s regional neighbors can Kim be convinced to curb his nuclear program.
It is worth noting, however, that the aforementioned deal assumes that President Trump’s top priority is to stop nuclear proliferation. It is possible that this is not the case. In addition, negotiating a nuclear deal with North Korea will require many resources and many diplomats. President Trump’s recent budget proposal includes increased funding for the Department of Defense and the US Military, but it slashes funding for the Department of State. In order to reach a deal, the State Department must be at full capacity. The United States must also keep itself out of dangerous and costly wars abroad so that it can focus its resources on North Korea. Many in the US foreign policy realm are hopeful that President Trump’s new National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster, is the key to achieving that goal. McMaster is known for his book “Dereliction of Duty”, in which he questions US Generals complicit in going into Vietnam.
A perfect storm of circumstances may be the only way for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Donald Trump to strike a deal with North Korea, but stranger things have happened.