Commentary

Another Week; Another Missile Test: Inching Toward a Freeze – With Eyes Wide Shut?

By James J. Przystup Op-Ed

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On January 20, North Korea became the responsibility of the new Trump administration. After eight years of “strategic patience,” North Korea, as President Obama advised his successor, now poses the greatest threat to the security of the United States. 

President Trump, shortly after taking the oath of office, announced that the era of “strategic patience” was over. Subsequently, the outlines of administration’s North Korea policy have come into focus: a combination of military intimidation (the Carl Vision battle group); diplomatic bluster (”all options are on the table”, and reassuring Japan and Korea that the U.S. seeks a peaceful resolution. The administration is also placing a heavy bet on China to deliver North Korea’s denuclearization. At the same time President made clear that the United States is prepared to “chart our own course if this is something China is just unable to coordinate with us.” 

Clearly, the United States and China share a number of common interests with respect to the Korean Peninsula – preventing the outbreak of a second Korean war, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and a peaceful resolution of North-South differences. The fate of North Korea, unification, and the future strategic orientation of a unified Korea remain open-ended strategic issues between Washington and Beijing. All are issues in which the citizens of a unified Korea will have an immense stake and an important say. 

Following North Korea’s March 6 launch of four ballistic missiles, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi characterized the United States and North Korea as “two accelerating trains coming toward each other” and asked are “the two sides really ready for a head-on collision?” Wang called on North Korea to suspend nuclear and missile tests and for the United States and South Korea to stop joint military exercises and seek talks with North Korea. Subsequently, North Korea became a major agenda item at the Trump-Xi Mar-a-Lago Summit in early April. 

 The good news is that China now appears to be exerting increasing pressure on North Korea to refrain from a sixth nuclear test while pushing diplomacy toward some half-way house -- talks about talks leading to talks about an agreement with North Korea to freeze its nuclear and missile programs. In effect, a freeze would likely be sold as a modest victory, kicking the can of complete and verifiable denuclearization down the road. 

A few policy-related thoughts to be kept in mind on why even contemplating a freeze is a bad idea. 

First: negotiating a freeze with Pyongyang would imply recognition of North Korea as a nuclear-armed power – a major policy shift. While defense planners have had to deal with the de facto reality of North Korea as a nuclear power, U.S. diplomacy has been ordered to the denuclearization of North Korea and the maintenance of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a cornerstone of national security policy. 

Second: beyond tacit recognition of North Korea’s nuclear status implicit in a freeze, both China and North Korea will have their own “asks” of the United States – a security guarantee for the continued existence of the North Korean state; an early down-payment on sanctions relief; agreement not to deploy THAAD systems in the ROK and Japan; and restrictions on U.S.-ROK military exercises – come to mind. 

Third: a freeze would leave in place North Korea’s existing nuclear arsenal, its plutonium and uranium stockpile, and its existing and substantial missile inventory. Intrusive verification will be required to give any freeze any credibility. While the past may not be exactly prologue, the diplomatic record of our engagement with North Korea is not encouraging – the 2005 Six Party Agreement collapsed when North Korea failed to declare its nuclear sites and accept intrusive verification as did an earlier agreement on missile development at the end of the Clinton administration. 

An argument now advanced in various op-ed pages and blogs is that Kim Jong-un wants to turn North Korea into 21st century economy, an objective of his “butter and guns” byungjin policy. But real reform and market-opening, beyond what is currently tolerated, inevitably will work against the regime’s control over North Korean political life, in effect putting the regime itself at risk. Kim Jong-un cannot be blind to this reality. Decades ago, Deng Xiaoping took Kim’s grandfather on tours of China’s special economic zones in the hope of encouraging economic reform in North Korea. Kim Il-sung was not prepared to take the risk. Later, Kim’s father walked away from the economic cornucopia promised in the Six Party agreement. We should not expect Kim Jong-un to be a different, high-stakes risk taker when it comes to assuring regime control. 

Fourth: while a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear and missile program may bring immediate relief to citizens of Seattle, San Francisco and LA., it would, at the same time, leave allies in the ROK and Japan, as well as U.S. citizens resident there, under the continuing threat from North Korea’s nuclear and missile arsenal. A freeze would keep that substantial inventory in place, not to mention North Korea’s nuclear and missile infrastructure. This would certainly be putting “America First” but leave longstanding allies in Seoul and Tokyo asking “what about us?” A freeze would also leave the Trump administration with the challenge of explaining how a freeze and the acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear power in contravention of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is a better “deal” than the oft-criticized one President Obama signed with Iran. 

 If the Trump administration, with China’s help, does succeed in bringing Pyongyang back to the table, the starting point for discussion must not be a freeze but a reaffirmation of the September 2005 Six Party Joint Statement aimed at the denuclearization of North Korea. But the chances of Kim Jong-un accepting denuclearization are close to hell freezing over. 

A freeze may be the best we can get at this time, but we should not be blind to the fact that this is not the denuclearization North Korea agreed to in Six Party Joint Statement of September 2005. In the intervening years, North Korea has repeatedly made clear that its nuclear weapons program is not for barter or sale for any package of economic blandishments. In 2012, North Korea enshrined its nuclear-power status in its new constitution, and subsequently Pyongyang has ordered its diplomacy to securing recognition of North Korea’s status as a nuclear power. It would disingenuous to consider a freeze as a half-step toward some creatively imagined non-nuclear future for North Korea. 

In effect, North Korea represents one of foreign policy’s “wicked problems,” one difficult or impossible to solve at present given its multifaceted complexities. Wicked problems are ones to which there are no good policy options, only a least bad one. While resistant to resolution today, such problems can be managed – until opportunities for resolution present themselves, and, with North Korea, we’re not there yet. 

In the interim, policy should be directed at steps to protect and advance U.S. national security interests and those of our allies in Korea and Japan. 

To move Pyongyang back to the negotiating table, the Trump administration should strengthen international efforts to enforce the North Korean sanctions regime adopted by the UN Security Council. To cut off North Korea’s access to the international financial system and complicate its commercial transactions, the administration also should adopt an Iran-like intensified sanctions regime, including imposition of secondary sanctions against banks and companies that front for Pyongyang. Secondary sanctions will force an economic choice: commercial engagement with the U.S. or North Korea. This should not be a difficult decision. 

At the same time policy should focus on steps to strengthen the defense of our allies and enhance deterrence against North Korea. In particular, the Trump administration steps should focus on: deployment of THAAD missile defense system in South Korea, strengthened missile defense cooperation with Japan, continuing efforts to support Korean and Japanese intelligence sharing on North Korea and developing an integrated trilateral missile defense cooperation. If effected, such step, along with maintaining a robust exercise schedule with both Korean and Japanese allies, would serve to enhance deterrence against North Korea. 

 Yes, the door to diplomacy should remain open, but it is important to remember that it was Pyongyang that shut down the New York channel in July 2016. 

Understanding that there is no easy answer to the challenges posed by North Korea should be the policy starting point for managing this “wicked probem.” However attractive and appealing a “freeze” may be, it is, in itself, not sufficient and will only compromise long-standing U.S. national security interests. In the face of North Korea’s diplomatic intransigence, a strengthened defense of allies and enhanced deterrence can best “manage” the North Korean conundrum until the time is ripe for a diplomatic resolution that yields denuclearization.

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Dr. James J. Przystup is a Senior Research Fellow in the Center for Strategic Research, Institute for National Strategic Studies, at the National Defense University. The views expressed here are solely his own and do not reflect the views of the U.S. government, Department of Defense or the National Defense University. The views expressed in this op-ed are the author’s own and do not reflect the official policy or position of NDU, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.