The horrific death of Otto Warmbier should be a wake-up call to the United States and China that we are failing terribly with North Korea. Kim Jong-un appears indifferent to the death of this young American held hostage in Pyongyang and with the continued detention of three Americans.
The international outcry with North Korea’s 12 missile launches in 2017 hasn’t deterred the North Korean leader from overt preparations for a sixth nuclear test and the imminent launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the whole of the U.S. The brazen assassination of his brother, Kim Jong-nam, in Malaysia using VX nerve agent and the dissemination of YouTube videos simulating nuclear attacks on Tokyo and Washington are other manifestations of a confident and insensitive Mr. Kim.
We are at an inflection point with North Korea, where things can further deteriorate quickly or stabilize, with the prospect that the situation can improve. Frankly, any improvement seems unlikely. North Korea appears confident that its playbook for dealing with the U.S. and China is working. It’s unlikely we’ll get North Korea to agree to any form of denuclearization in return for a more normal relationship with the U.S., South Korea and Japan. What may be possible is to get North Korea to realize that its strategy for dealing with the U.S. and China will fail; that North Korea will never be recognized as a nuclear weapons state; and that further pursuit of nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems will further sanction and isolate North Korea, ensuring that its leaders are denied access to resources necessary to sustain their nuclear and missile programs and their lavish lifestyles, indifferent to the needs of the people.
Key to any potential success with North Korea is ensuring that the U.S., China, South Korea and Japan are united in their goal of comprehensive and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. North Korea’s recent extreme provocative behavior requires an equally compelling response. For the U.S., joint military exercises with South Korea should continue and be enhanced. Additional trilateral U.S., South Korea and Japan intelligence and military cooperation should be pursued, with plans for the introduction of additional missile defense systems in the region.
The visit of South Korean President Moon Jae-in to the U.S. and his meeting with President Trump should focus on these important collaborative steps. Immediately, the U.S. should impose secondary sanctions on any third-country entity — businesses or banks — that do illicit business with North Korea, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. Since a number of these businesses and banks are in China, and given President Xi Jinping’s agreement with Mr. Trump to work more closely on resolving issues with North Korea, these secondary sanctions should not adversely affect bilateral relations with China. Rather, they should facilitate the work of the authorities in China to take action against those Chinese businesses and banks that continue to do illicit business with North Korea.
The new Moon government in South Korea also has an opportunity to convey to Pyongyang that intimidation and threats will not succeed. Accordingly, agreement to deploy the four additional THAAD launchers should be approved soonest, ideally during or immediately after Mr. Moon’s meetings with Mr. Trump. South Korea’s decision to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Park should, at a minimum, be conditioned on North Korea halting any additional nuclear tests and missile launches. Being too anxious to accommodate a belligerent Kim Jong-un could be interpreted by the North as weakness.
China has been clear in stating that comprehensive and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is also its objective. The recent agreement between Presidents Trump and Xi to collaborate on actions toward North Korea should be incentive enough for China, in addition to its moratorium on coal imports from North Korea in 2017, and to gradually reduce the amount of crude oil China provides to North Korea. Estimates are that China provides close to 90 percent of North Korea’s annual crude oil requirements. Any diminution of this amount would impact North Korea’s economy and get Mr. Kim’s attention. One would hope that China can effectively use its leverage with North Korea to at least convince Mr. Kim that an immediate, unconditional halt to nuclear tests and missile launches is in Pyongyang’s interest.
In the final analysis, it’s Kim Jong-un who can de-escalate tension quickly, especially after the horrific death of Otto Warmbier. Despite recent protestations from Pyongyang that Warmbier was treated humanely, an official statement from Pyongyang apologizing for his detention and death would help, as would the immediate release of the three Americans — Kim Sang-duk, Kim Hak-song and Kim Dong-chul — imprisoned in North Korea. Indeed, a willingness of North Korea to halt all nuclear tests, missile launches and the production of fissile material and the return to unconditional negotiations would help stabilize conditions in the region, with the remote prospect that eventually North Korea would once again agree to comprehensive and verifiable denuclearization, in return for security assurances, economic development assistance, civilian light water reactors and a more normal relationship with South Korea, Japan and the U.S. The prospect of this happening is remote, but with the U.S., South Korea and Japan united as allies, and with greater assistance from China, there could be a breakthrough.
Immediately, however, the U.S. needs to move forward, especially with secondary sanctions, greater regional missile defense and enhanced trilateral military and intelligence cooperation between the U.S., South Korea and Japan. Failure to do so could further embolden Kim Jong-un and result in actions from North Korea that could escalate into conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
• Joseph R. DeTrani was the former special envoy for negotiations with North Korea. The views are the author’s and not any government department or agency.