When President Trump met with President Obama after the election, Obama reportedly advised him that the most difficult challenge of his presidency would be dealing with the threat posed by North Korea. There is every reason to believe that Obama’s advice was sound, but it is less clear how fully Trump has absorbed the complexity of the issue. Communicating by tweet, he has focused on his hope that China would solve “the North Korean problem:”
On April 11 (4:59 AM), after meeting with China’s President XI: I explained to the President of China that a trade deal with the U.S. will be far better for them if they solve the North Korean problem!
On April 11 (5:03 AM): I explained to the President of China that a trade deal with the U.S. will be far better for them if they solve the North Korean problem!
On April, 13. I have great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea. If they are unable to do so, the U.S., with its allies, will! U.S.A.
Then on April 16, tucked between an Easter greeting and announcement of the White House Easter Egg Roll:
Why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korean problem? We will see what happens!
On April 17, in Seoul Korea, Vice President Pence, offered his own version of the administration’s position:
Since 1992, the United States and our allies have stood together for a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. We hope to achieve this objective through peaceable means. But all options are on the table.
Just in the past two weeks, the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new President in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan. North Korea would do well not to test his resolve — or the strength of the Armed Forces of the United States in this region.
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Strategic patience has been the approach of the last American administration and beyond. For more than two decades, the United States and our allies have worked to peacefully dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program and alleviate the suffering of their people. But at every step of the way, North Korea answered our overtures with willful deception, broken promises, and nuclear and missile tests.
Over the past 18 months, North Korea has conducted two unlawful nuclear tests and an unprecedented number of ballistic missile tests, even conducting a failed missile launch as I traveled here for this visit.
The era of strategic patience is over.
Taken together, the Trump tweets and the Pence statement raise many more questions than they answer. If the era of strategic patience is over, it is not at all clear what will supplant it. The danger inherent in the opposing interests of the United States and Korea is compounded by the apparent instability of the Korean leader as well as the ever present possibility of confusion that could lead to a miscalculation. An embarrassing example of such confusion was provided by a misunderstanding on the part of the White House and the Secretary of Defense as to just where the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson was heading (not towards North Korea as it turned out.)
More fundamentally, there is a question as to whether, or to what degree, China can be counted on to solve “the North Korea problem.” It is clearly in China’s interest to avoid a major military conflict on the Korean peninsula, and there is no question that China has an important, perhaps crucial, role to play in resolving the current crisis and reaching a long term solution. But that role remains undefined. Despite the confidence of his tweets, President Trump was more candid and realistic in an April 12 interview with the Wall Street Journal that followed his meeting with China’s President XI:
Mr. Trump said he told his Chinese counterpart he believed Beijing could easily take care of the North Korea threat. Mr. Xi then explained the history of China and Korea, Mr. Trump said.
“After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” Mr. Trump recounted. “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power” over North Korea,” he said. “But it’s not what you would think.”
It is doubtful the China will be greatly influenced by Trump’s blandishments such as declining to name it a currency manipulator—which China has not been for some time—or a trade deal that would supposedly be far better in some vague and unspecified ways. (Given that trade with China has long been one of Trump’s favorite punching bags, it would not be surprising if his idea of “far better” turned out to be “somewhat less punitive.”)
Admittedly, there are some encouraging signs. In February, well before the meeting between Xi and Trump, China had announced a suspension of coal imports from China in support of the United Nations sanctions imposed as a result of North Korea’s missile and nuclear test. (Still, the most recent data indicated that overall trade between China and North Korea had increased during the first quarter.) A hopeful note of Sino-American co-operation was also reported by the New York Times, indicating that “the Chinese have agreed to crack down on their second-tier banks that have helped finance the North’s trade” and that China and the United States ” have also agreed to share some intelligence about suspected North Korean shipments of arms and other illicit goods.”
Some observers have pointed to a strongly worded editorial in Beijing’s Global Times which is often regarded as a semi-official organ of the Chinese government:
It would be a pity of historical consequence if Pyongyang were to continue with its obsessive and unrealistic nuclear ambitions, along with its ongoing complaining. As for China, the denuclearization of North Korea is a priority that sits above all of its other interests.
On the other hand, a statement by China’s foreign minister on April 14 was decidedly even-handed:
The United States and South Korea and Nort Koreaare engaging in tit for tat, with swords drawn and bows bent, and there have been storm clouds gathering. If they let war break out on the peninsula, they must shoulder that historical culpability and pay the corresponding price for this.
How far China is prepared to go in reining in North Korea remains to be seen. In any case, it is questionable to assume that China alone could achieve what the Six-Party talks that it hosted over several years could not: denuclearization of North Korea. Those talks, which were joined by the United States, North Korea, South Korea, Japan and Russia, appeared to reach agreement at one point but ultimately ended in failure. Moreover, the present situation appears even more difficult because in the interim North Korea has gained the leverage of more advanced nuclear and missile capability. In addition, it would be even more reluctant to part with those assets when its fear and distrust of the United States may have reached an all-time high.
Denuclearization of the Korean peninsula remains the goal today. In the short run, however, it may be more realistic to hope that China can pressure North Korea to defer further nuclear and missile tests and once again return to negotiations with it and the United States and perhaps the other participants of the Six-Party talks. The United States might itself regard such negotiations as a return to strategic patience, and North Korea might make demands that are wholly unacceptable. Nevertheless, the unattractiveness of the alternative cannot be ignored.
The alternative, of course, is military action, an option to which Pence clearly alluded in his statement. Clearly nothing is “off the table” at this point, but if military action were actually initiated, it would involve considerable peril to the United States—even if taken before North Korea has developed a delivery system capable of reaching our shores. Pence’s bold attempt to extrapolate from our recent actions in Syria and Afghanistan was, to put it as kindly as possible, unpersuasive. Apart from the fact that it is not clear how much either operation accomplished, the salient point is that neither Syria nor al Qaeda in Afghanistan had the capacity to strike back. That, however, would not be the case with North Korea.
Any attack by the United States would be almost certain to trigger retaliation from North Korea and, even if the retaliation were confined to the Korean peninsula, it could spark a major conflict. If we launched a single strike at the site of a nuclear test or missile launch , we might regard that as limited and “proportionate,” but it is unlikely that Kim Jong Un would feel obliged to be similarly proportionate. All of South Korea, including the bases where 28,000 Americans are stationed could be targeted. If we mounted a broad attack, designed to destroy North Korea’s entire nuclear capability, there is no guarantee that it would be completely successful. Even a crippled North Korea might be capable of a nuclear attack on South Korea that could claim hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of lives. Finally, a further complication lies in the fact that, as discussed in Lawfare, China has promised to render military assistance to North Korea if it is subject to an armed attack.
One subject that has received surprisingly little or no attention from the media is what authority from Congress the Trump administration must or should obtain from Congress before launching a preventive attack against North Korea, and whether Congress would provide such authority. Even the Syrian attack was criticized by some in Congress for having been undertaken without Congressional authority, but given the limited nature of the raid, the criticism was muted. An attack on North Korea, however, would carry the potential for grave consequences and would be quite another matter. Donald Trump would detest giving up any element of surprise, but surely considerations both legal and political would seem to demand that Congress be brought on board before such a momentous step is taken.