Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un impersonators together in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park, January 2017.

Following the inauguration of President Trump, North Korea immediately started to test the new U.S. administration, launching a ballistic missile during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the United States in February, and then conducting two more rounds of missile tests in March. Far from being the irrational activities of an unhinged state, these events are clues to the calculus of a regime that is highly pragmatic, using shrewd policy measures and carefully designed actions to manipulate an unfriendly international environment in its favor.

While the Trump administration’s North Korea policy is still under development, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has already rejected a continuation of the old U.S. policy of “strategic patience,” the name Obama administration officials used for their policy of slowly ratcheting up sanctions pressure while waiting for North Korea to denuclearize. Still, it remains unclear whether the Trump administration’s stance towards North Korea will actually be any different than the strategy under President Obama.

The prospect of a continuation of Obama’s foreign policy may come as a relief to those concerned that President Trump’s twitter-based policymaking could embroil the United States in a war with North Korea. However, the North Korean regime’s current calculus regarding its nuclear weapons program suggests that maintaining the foreign policy status quo might be increasingly dangerous for the United States, and the new administration may be forced to adapt to changing conditions.

For “any new administration to take some time to figure out how to respond to North Korean provocations is entirely reasonable,” said Rizwan Ladha, a Research Fellow with the Project on Managing the Atom at the Harvard Kennedy School. “But that uncertainty is compounded in the case of the Trump Administration, which has been especially slow and unwilling to fill key staffing positions, assign policy priorities, and formulate deeper policy response options beyond public rhetoric.”

“To be clear, this isn’t a partisan thing,” Ladha explains. “This is a function of a group of outsider neophytes who, so far, have refused to listen to the people who actually understand how things work.”

During his March tour through Asia, Secretary Tillerson’s statements hinted at the possibility of a pre-emptive strike to destroy nuclear capabilities. Despite alarm over Secretary Tillerson’s words, the Trump administration’s rhetoric may simply be an indication that they are still trying to determine their policy stance towards North Korea. In practice, current evidence seems to suggest that the new administration’s policy may not be very different from the policy under President Obama.

Nuclear weapons as a means of survival

North Korea began to develop its nuclear weapon and ballistic missile program in earnest in the 1990s. During this time, “the collapse of the Soviet Union dealt a big blow to North Korea economically and in the security system,” explained Avram Agov, faculty member at the Asian Studies Department of Langara College, Vancouver, in an interview with the HPR.

“In the 1990s, the DPRK used its nuclear weapons program for diplomatic coercive purposes as a bargaining leverage in its relations with the United States,” Agov added. The coercion to which Agov alludes refers to the way the North Korean regime used its nuclear weapons as leverage during international nuclear talks to extract financial concessions. “But more importantly,” he continued, “the program had [a] defense component to serve as a deterrent against attempts for regime change in North Korea.”

Many experts, including Hui Zhang, a Senior Research Associate at the Project on Managing the Atom in the Belfer Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, contend that after North Korea lost one of its major financial and diplomatic backers, it developed nuclear and missile technology as a tool of diplomatic intimidation and as a bid for greater national defense. “Without nuclear weapons, there will not be any guarantee for the [North Korean] regime’s survival,” notes Zhang.

The calculus of the North Korean regime also changed significantly during and after the collapse of the Six Party Talks, a multilateral effort to negotiate the denuclearization of North Korea. Near the end of 2008, when the talks started to sour, Kim Jong Il became ill, setting off chaos over succession to the leadership of North Korea.

After Kim Jong Il’s youngest son, Kim Jong Un, took power, North Korea’s incentive to cooperate with international parties fell to the wayside, and a recognition of nuclear weapons as a way to provide legitimacy for the new leadership arose. As Agov explained, “the transfer of power in North Korea from Kim Jong Il to his son was a factor in the intensification of military buildup, which was seen as further legitimization of Kim Jong Un’s power.”

Therefore, a hostile outside force such as the United States justifies diverting economic power towards nuclear buildup. The nuclear weapons provide Kim with a degree of legitimacy by helping him expand North Korea’s degree of credible military capability. Thus, nuclear weapons, instead of just being useful negotiating tools as in the previous era of provocation and concession, became even more integral parts of regime survival, and provided an excuse to continue hostile relationships with the United States.

The Dangers of Maintaining the Status Quo

The past eight years of U.S. strategy towards North Korea have been characterized by the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience.” Despite the connotations of the name, this policy involved the ratcheting up of sanctions against North Korea in an attempt to pressure to country to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

“There is a big gulf between the term strategic patience and what it actually is,” explains John Park, a Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “Strategic patience, it has a connotation of being really passive… but in reality, the Obama administration applied a lot of sanctions on North Korea,” eventually creating a robust sanctions regime against the country.

However, the strategy failed to stop Kim Jong Un’s development of nuclear weapon and missile technology. According to experts on North Korea, international sanctions proved fruitless in deterring Kim Jong Un’s aggression and nuclear build up. As Park, remarked, “using sanctions to try and convince North Korea to come back to those talks [such as the Six Party Talks] essentially failed.” Although North Korea’s belligerence incurs rounds of sanctions, international condemnation, and isolation, they still view their military capabilities, and their nuclear weapons program in particular, as an essential part of their continued existence.

Donald Trump and Xi Jinping with their spouses, during President Xi's trip to the United States, April 2017.

Donald Trump and Xi Jinping with their spouses, during President Xi’s trip to the United States, April 2017.

Implementation of the sanctions has suffered from a lack of enforcement by North Korea’s number one trading partner and only ally, China. The current trade that sustains North Korea’s arms buildup runs through a business apparatus of Chinese companies and middlemen working with North Korean businesses. Until a coal embargo earlier this year, China was hesitant to enforce UN sanctions in full because of the possibility that North Korea would fall, leading to a refugee crisis and a possible U.S. military intervention on its northern border.

With North Korea conducting 24 missile tests and two nuclear tests, as well as making important technological progress towards developing submarine-launch-capable missiles and intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Hermit Kingdom appears only to have strengthened, and a new policy approach might be needed.

The Trump Administration Strategy Thus Far

 North Korea’s continued provocations, even in the face of increasing international sanctions, suggest that maintaining the status quo will only lead to more instability on the Korean peninsula. This continued escalation complicates the formulation of viable U.S. policy towards North Korea in the coming years.

As the Trump administration prepared to move into the White House, President Obama warned his successor that the North Korean nuclear crisis would be the most pressing issue facing the incoming foreign policy team. Developments on the Korean peninsula since President Trump’s inauguration have stayed consistent with this prediction, with North Korea conducting a coordinated, multiple-missile launch and a separate rocket engine test launch earlier this year.

These alarming advances in missile technology, and especially those developments seen as steps to creating a missile powerful enough to reach the continental United States, are the main focus of U.S. frustration. When Kim Jong Un used his New Year’s address to announce that North Korea was in its “last stage” of preparations to test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), President Trump responded, via tweet, with the words, “it won’t happen!”

Although “it won’t happen!” provided ambiguous indications of President Trump’s potential strategic steps, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has started to delineate how U.S. policy will shift under the Trump Administration. During his March visit to Asia, Secretary Tillerson signaled a significant change in U.S. policy, announcing that “the policy of strategic patience has ended.” Although this pivot away from “strategic patience” is an appropriate first step to breaking away from the stagnation and failure of previous policy, Tillerson also stated that “all options are on the table” when questioned about a “military option,” opening the door to the idea of preemptive war.

Tillerson’s statement might have also been an empty threat, meant to remind North Korea of the United States’ military capabilities while also reassuring regional U.S. allies their commitment to defending the region. This reassurance is important in a time of transition to a new U.S. White House team, since, as William Tobey, a senior fellow at the Belfer Center who also served on the National Security Council under three presidents for 11 years, noted, “[the Trump administration has] got the policy [on North Korea] under review at the moment, so I don’t think we yet know, which direction they’re headed.” Tobey also said that, “the options [the Trump administration officials] are considering are ways to mount more economic pressure on the North and perhaps to incentivize China to be more active.”

U.S. policymakers have historically been fond of the phrase “all options are on the table” and its variants. President Obama, for example, famously used the line when addressing the looming Iran crisis in 2012. “The beauty of this phrase is that it sounds vaguely ominous and threatening, but at the same time is just that––vague,” notes Ladha. “It does not commit the United States to a specific course of action.”

Thus, despite alarm bells over Secretary Tillerson’s words, there is little reason to believe that his rhetoric signals an actual commitment to a pre-emptive military strike. As Ladha reasons, “an experienced White House with a seasoned Administration and Cabinet would likely have used the phrase “all options are on the table” as well.”

In fact, these ideas may simply indicate a continuation of the previous policy. “Basically, they are talking about the exact same policy tools that made up the North Korea policy of the Obama administration,” explains Park. “You’re going to see an increasing application of sanctions under new administration; you’re going to see continued strengthening of the ballistic missile defense system.”

Even the Trump administration’s focus on pressuring China to help is, as Park describes it, a “hallmark of the Obama approach, which was applying political pressure on China to get China to somehow effect a breakthrough in the stalemate.” Thus, despite insistence that they are dropping “strategic patience,” Trump administration policy towards North Korea seems to be eerily similar to policy under the Obama administration. “While we’ve seen a lot of very public statements from Secretary of State Tillerson as well as from the White House that they will essentially dismantle and walk away from strategic patience, if you look at the other statements, they look very contrary to the notion of dismantling strategic patience,” says Park.

The fact that President Trump and members of his cabinet are starting to stick to the rhetoric of previous U.S. foreign policy makers suggests that the future of U.S. policy may not be as unpredictable as President Trump himself. In the words of Ladha, “Donald Trump, for all of his personal convictions and constant bluster, will ultimately have to succumb to sensible, consistent, and steady U.S. foreign policy.” However, in the case of North Korea, this may mean the continuation of a strategy that allowed for the massive growth of the North Korean nuclear program.


Image source: Wikimedia/ Kim Wing summailo // Twitter/@POTUS

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