President Moon Jae-in’s visit to Washington, D.C. today and Friday for an important summit with President Trump offers an opportunity for the Trump administration to decide whether to double down on its approach to North Korea or change course.
Kim Jong-un continues testing ballistic missiles and refuses to give up his nuclear weapons despite the administration’s strategy of “maximum pressure,” which relies on military posturing, sanctions and a rigid diplomatic position to ratchet up the costs of the nuclear program to an unacceptable level.
Trump is more likely to double down on failing policies than make a significant course correction. Still, while doubling down would be an easy plan to sell to the American people, it would have little chance of changing North Korea’s behavior.
The theory behind maximum pressure is that we just haven’t inflicted enough pain on North Korea yet, in the administration’s estimation. The way to success, those supportive of this strategy argue, is paved with cost imposition. In other words, doubling down would mean placing economic sanctions on Chinese companiesand banks that do business with North Korea, expanding U.S. and allied missile defense capabilities and conducting more shows of military force against North Korea.
Indeed, this policy would probably be a success — at least within the United States. Punishing the odious regime in North Korea would surely enjoy support from Congress and the American people, especially in the wake of Otto Warmbier’s death.
However, all the political support in the world won’t matter if the Trump administration’s theory of victory is fundamentally flawed. Ratcheting up military and economic pressure on North Korea does not change Kim’s calculus that nuclear weapons are the best option for regime survival.
In fact, shows of military force and exercises that simulate attacks against North Korea’s nuclear forces in the early stages of a conflict are likely to increase the value that Kim places on nuclear weapons. Additional sanctions may slow down North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, but they cannot roll back progress that’s already been made.
The United States can impose all the costs it wants on North Korea, but if Kim continues to equate nuclear weapons with regime survival nothing will change. It will be virtually impossible for the United States to inflict high enough costs to force North Korea to denuclearize without fighting a devastating war.
Instead of doubling down, Trump and his administration should reconsider their strategy, reconcile with the fundamental flaws of the current approach, and use the summit with President Moon to start working on a new strategy. Moon’s domestic priorities and desire to move away from the more confrontational North Korea policies of his predecessor Park Geun-hye create an opening for Trump to back away from doubling down.
Moon would be unlikely to support a drastic change in U.S. policy, but there may be an opportunity to begin a transition away from the United States’ flawed approach.
At the very least, it is essential that Moon and Trump avoid antagonizing one another during their summit. One issue that could be a source of friction is the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system. Moon recently suspended the deployment of four THAAD interceptor launchers that would have complemented two launchers and radar already deployed in South Korea.
There is no indication that Moon will order THAAD out of the country, and, in the lead up to the summit, his foreign minister reiterated that the current suspension “does not mean [South Korea will] cancel or reverse [its] decision” to deploy the system. Pressuring Moon to forge ahead quickly on THAAD or demanding payment for the system, which was not sold to South Korea and is operated by U.S. troops, would hurt Trump’s relationship with Moon, deepen negative perceptions of himself and make cooperation harder on other issues.
It is unrealistic to expect a massive change in U.S. strategy toward North Korea as a result of the Moon-Trump summit, but Trump should use the summit to learn more about Moon’s ideas and work with him to lay the foundation for a new strategy. Shedding maximum pressure for an alternative approach is not without risk, but continuing down the current path will not bring success.