Rethinking Trump’s policy options for North Korea
Strategic patience, as exercised by the outgoing Obama administration, is highly unsustainable as a long-term policy
In 2016, North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests, multiple missiles tests, and staged a rare Workers’ Party of Korea congress signaling the “official start to Kim Jong-un’s era” with no changes in its political course.
At the same time, Pyongyang has been able to withstand the latest round of international sanctions, a spate of defections by North Korean elites, and deepening international diplomatic isolation.
The ongoing impasse in resolving the North Korean nuclear conundrum stems largely from the tightening geopolitical deadlock — the confluence of growing tensions between great powers in East Asia, the varying perceptions, narratives, and historical imprints of North Korea’s “impending collapse,” all of which amplify the country’s siege mentality and encourage its political brinkmanship.
In retrospect, the outgoing Obama administration’s strategic patience, which could also be fairly described as muddling through, might have worked for the two presidential terms, but is highly unsustainable as a long-term policy option for the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump.
This growing realization has propelled a number of task forces around the Washington DC beltway to rethink US-North Korea policies, independently of the outcome of US presidential elections.
Beyond ‘strategic patience’
According to the Independent Task Force on North Korea organized by the Council on Foreign Relations, “it is not enough to maintain the status quo on the peninsula or wait for circumstances to evolve in a favorable way.”
Its main recommendation is to “elevate the [North Korean] issue to the top of the US-China bilateral relationship,” which sounds inviting, but would be costly. Indeed, much to the displeasure of Washington, the policy would likely reflect Chinese terms, with the US forced to return to the negotiating table with North Korea.
The Trump administration may rely on hard power — such as the “Tailored Deterrence Strategy” that contains options for preemptive strikes in case of imminent use of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, while extending the US nuclear umbrella as a key strategic deterrent for the US-South Korea Alliance.
An element of this strategy could be seen in the decision to proceed with the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system battery in South Korea, ongoing integration of US-South Korea capabilities, and strengthening the intensity of joint military exercises.
Beijing, however, opposes US military presence and influence on the Korean Peninsula, so taking this path would further deepen geostrategic rifts between China and the United States in East Asia.
A second scenario is that the new US administration will strengthen its “tailored sanctions” policy against the North Korean elites, primarily by seeking leverage over China to rigorously implement them. Beijing again, however, places a greater strategic priority on the “status-quo” — that is preventing a North Korean implosion.
Such a collapse would arguably undermine China’s regional geostrategic position by removing traditional strategic buffer zone vis-à-vis the US provided by North Korea, and significantly increase the People’s Liberation Army’s military deployment requirements in northeast China.
Alternatively, the US recognizes North Korea as a nuclear weapon state akin to Pakistan or India, and negotiates a peace treaty in a grand bargain deal with China that would provide provisions for US interests on the Korean Peninsula. It is difficult, however to predict whether such a deal would end North Korea’s siege mentality.
Seoul’s failed ‘trustpolitik’
Since 2013, South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s administration has pursued “trustpolitik” toward North Korea, combining a tough line with flexible policies open to negotiation. Implicit in this policy is ambiguity and uncertainty. Its main premise is that North Korea would be deterred by South Korea’s military capabilities, while simultaneously respond positively to parallel inter-Korean negotiations.
In theory, this policy delinks humanitarian outreach and socio-economic engagement initiatives from denuclearization. In practice, after a series of North Korean active measures, including laying landmines in the DMZ that wounded South Korean soldiers, the “engagement” initiatives ceased completely.
The closure of the vital Kaesong Industrial Complex has left the two countries with zero channels through which they could build the “trust” and “co-prosperity” that President Park promised in her Dresden speech in 2014.
Following North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in January 2016, diplomatic pressure increased for international sanctions, and ultimately a “no-dialog” approach as the new guiding principle toward Pyongyang.
Concurrently, South Korea has intensified global public diplomacy efforts with a narrative that the North Korean regime is bound to collapse in the near future, with a “reliable” maximum timeframe of a few years. A new body, the Presidential Committee for Unification Preparation, was established and research teams have been dispatched to select countries of the former Eastern Bloc to extract lessons learned from their transitions to market economy and parliamentary democracy in a bid to prepare for unification at home.
The third way
Current North Korea policies, based on sanctions and military pressure led by the US and coupled with South Korean unification policies, fail to address the geopolitical reality surrounding the Korean Peninsula, most importantly the interests of China. In fact, the very idea of a North Korea policy characterized by a broader consensus by great powers and international community is misleading. Countries will always seek ways to elude sanctions motivated by their national interests.
An alternative strategy would be to shift the North Korean question away from the large structures of the international community, such as the UN, toward either individual countries or local regional platforms that are not hindered by the diversity of interests but rather build their policies based on shared historical experience.
In particular, contrary to the still ongoing Scandinavian models of engaging North Korea through training and capacity building, which had some effect but brought no real change in North Korea’s foreign policies, other countries may be better suited to develop their respective policies to de-isolate Pyongyang.
The historical legacy of close links, contacts, and experiences of post-socialist states in Central Europe such as the Czech Republic suggests this approach could provide new opportunities for cooperation and confidence building measures.
Such an engagement may prove “face saving” for a regime in Pyongyang that is in desperate need of exit ramps.
Jana Hajzlerova is the Director of the Czech-Korean Society, and Ph.D. candidate at the Charles University, focusing on frames and ideology in North Korean media.
Michael Raska is Assistant Professor at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.