On North Korea, Diplomacy Is the Sensible Option

The Trump administration’s approach to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development has been almost exclusively an emphasis on military confrontation. The latest eruption of escalatory actions and rhetoric is in keeping with the norm.

Following Pyongyang’s successful testing of an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) this week, Trump referenced “some pretty severe things that we are thinking about” in response. Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, commander of U.S. forces in South Korean, warned ominously that “it would be a grave mistake for anyone” to doubt our willingness to use military force in response to North Korean “provocation.” UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said in a statement that we will use “our considerable military forces…if we must, but we prefer not to have to go in that direction.” Finally, U.S. and South Korean forces “fired a barrage of guided-missiles into the ocean” off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula, as a show of force.

Many Americans believe the hardline approach to North Korea is wise because peaceful negotiations, in Eli Lake’s words, have been used by Pyongyang “to buy time and extract concessions from the West.” Diplomacy doesn’t work on the intransigent North Korea, we’re told.

But that conflicts with the historical record. According to Stanford University’s Siegfried S. Hecker, the record from the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations shows that “Pyongyang was willing to slow its drive for nuclear weapons” but “only when it believed the fundamental relationship with the United States was improving, but not when the regime was threatened.”

This is a crucial point. For decades, Washington’s general approach has involved economic sanctions, military encirclement, and regular threats of preventive war. In this environment, and without good faith overtures from Washington, North Korea is going to continue to insist on having the ability to deter invasion or attack by the United States or its allies.

We came close  to real progress in the 1990s. The imperfect “Agreed Framework,” struck by Pyongyang and the Clinton administration, froze Pyongyang’s nascent nuclear program and opened it up to inspections in exchange for economic and diplomatic concessions from Washington. It held promise of sustainable de-escalation.

But problems arose. In Hecker’s retelling, the agreement:

was opposed immediately by many in Congress who believed that it rewarded bad behavior. Congress failed to appropriate funds for key provisions of the pact, causing the United States to fall behind in its commitments almost from the beginning. The LWR [light-water reactor] project also fell behind schedule because the legal arrangements were much more complex than anticipated. The Agreed Framework, which began as a process of interaction and cooperation, quickly turned into accusations of non-compliance by both parties.

Nevertheless, the Agreed Framework continued to be the basis for constructive diplomacy. According to Mike Chinoy, a senior fellow at the University of South California’s U.S.-China Institute, “Despite North Korean frustration at U.S. delays in providing much of the promised assistance, the political thaw reached a high point in 2000” when the two countries issued a joint communique “pledging that neither would have ‘hostile intent’ towards the other.” Chinoy continues:

Then Bush took office. After a review of Korea policy, Bush declined to reaffirm the communique pledging “no hostile intent.” Meanwhile, leading conservatives in his administration — Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Undersecretary of State John Bolton and others — actively sought to torpedo the Agreed Framework. The president labeled North Korea a member of the “axis of evil,” along with Iran and Iraq. In mid-2002, a U.S. intelligence determination that North Korea had taken initial steps to acquire the capability to make a uranium bomb was used by the conservatives as an excuse for Washington to pull out of the 1994 framework deal.

In the following months, Kim watched as U.S. troops toppled Saddam Hussein while the Bush administration, in the name of the “war on terror,” expounded a doctrine of regime change for rogue states. Rumsfeld formally proposed making regime change in Pyongyang official U.S. policy, while Bolton warned Kim to “draw the appropriate lesson” from Iraq.

With the Bush administration’s abrogation of the Agreed Framework, North Korea announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, kicked out inspectors, and became determined to obtain deliverable nuclear weapons in order to avoid the fate of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, and later Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi.

Would Pyongyang have permitted improved relations with the U.S. and South Korea and forfeited its nuclear ambitions under sustained diplomacy? It’s hard to say. The Bush administration suspected early on that North Korea was exploring uranium enrichment, which would have violated the spirit but not the letter of the Agreed Framework. But the fundamental issue is that North Korea’s perception of its threat environment is existential. They believe – not without reason – that the survival of the regime is at risk unless they possess a credible nuclear deterrent.  

Given the progress they have now made, de-nuclearization is no longer really in the cards. Nor is there a viable military option (even a minor surgical strike is expected to unleash a massive war involving potentially a million deaths, and that’s if it doesn’t go nuclear). The United States must simply learn to live with a nuclear North Korea. Diplomatic efforts should focus on de-escalation measures, as recently suggested by Russia and China, and freezing Pyongyang’s weapons development where it is, in exchange for economic and diplomatic concessions from the U.S.

But before any of that, we need to get beyond this myth that diplomacy isn’t an option.