As we enter a new year, let’s reflect on what happened this past year in North Korea and what needs to be done to better address developments with a nuclear North Korea. I think most would agree that the Trump administration was dealt a bad hand with North Korea. The previous administration’s policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea didn’t prevent North Korea from racing forward with its nuclear and missile programs.
Thus in the absence of any dialogue with North Korea, the North felt justified in building a formidable nuclear and missile arsenal, despite U.N. sanctions. When the Trump administration came to power in 2017, there was a significant policy shift toward North Korea, concerned with the North’s nuclear and missile programs. President Donald Trump made it clear that all options were on the table — from dialogue to military action — in dealing with North Korea.
Unfortunately, this policy shift didn’t distract Kim Jung-un from his ultimate objective — a nuclear arsenal capable of targeting the U.S. With over 23 missile launches of short to long range missiles, to include an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the continental U.S., and a nuclear test of a claimed hydrogen bomb, assessed to have been close to a 150 kiloton event, it’s obvious that 2017 was a good year for Kim Jung-un.
What wasn’t so good, however, was the international condemnation North Korea received given its reckless behavior. U.N. sanctions on North Korea were historic and brutal, significantly restricting the North’s ability to accrue resources for its missile and nuclear programs. U.S. Executive Orders were equally biting, imposing secondary sanctions on any and all entities doing illicit business with North Korea.
Missile defense deployments to the region were intensified, with Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) deployments in South Korea, and discussions for additional deployments in the region. Joint military exercises with South Korea were enhanced, with the inclusion of strategic air and naval assets. Most importantly, leaders from the U.S. made it clear to our allies in South Korea and Japan that U.S. extended deterrence commitments to our allies were inviolable.
As we enter 2018, we are at an inflection point with North Korea. Things could either improve or deteriorate, quickly. As Kim Jung-un stated in his New Year’s speech, North Korea has a nuclear arsenal capable of targeting the U.S. and appeared confident enough to propose “an immediate dialogue with South Korea to ease military tension and create a peaceful environment.”
This same confidence could convince Kim Jung-un to enter into a dialogue with the U.S., for a discussion of the North’s security concerns and demands, while unambiguously understanding that the U.S. will never accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state. Indeed, it’s important for Kim Jung-un to understand that the U.S. and South Korea are committed to a policy of the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Kim Jung-un could now feel emboldened enough to enter into these talks with the U.S., and possibly South Korea, without losing face, given his claim that North Korea has the capability of targeting the U.S. with nuclear weapons. The immediate goal of these discussions could be an immediate halt to North Korea’s missile launches and nuclear tests, in return for a discussion of sanctions relief and scaling back certain joint military exercises.
Ideally, North Korea will return to negotiations and halt its missile launches and nuclear tests. However, if Kim Jung-un persists with his nuclear and missile programs, regardless of his peace overture to the South, it’s possible and likely that there will be some form of conflict in the region, whether it’s intercepting and destroying an ICBM viewed as an imminent threat to our allies or the U.S. or if through miscommunication or misunderstanding, North Korea takes an action that necessitates a response, which could then spin out of control.
There are other scenarios that could prove unfortunate and disastrous. The best scenario, obviously, is a return to negotiations and an immediate halt to missile launches and nuclear tests.
If a return to negotiations is the best option for dealing with North Korea, then this is what the U.S. and China should set about to do, working in tandem to accomplish a goal of mutual concern to both countries. There is a precedent for the U.S. and China to work together to defeat a common enemy or to accomplish a goal important to both countries. This cooperation goes back to the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, when China worked closely with the U.S. and others to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. It continued through the decades with efforts to counter terrorism and piracy on the sea and other issues of common interest.
With North Korea, the U.S. and China are in sync when it comes to the ultimate objective: the denucleariztion of the Korean Peninsula. A North Korea with nuclear weapons, that could spark a nuclear arms race in the regions, is not in the interest of China or the U.S. A return to negotiations and a halt to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs is in the interest of all countries.
President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping have established a close and productive relationship. Both countries could draft a strategy to engage with North Korea through dialogue, with China, an ally of North Korea, and the U.S. agreeing to meet with North Korea, as they did in April 2003 in Beijing, when tensions were high and North Korea agreed to enter into six party talks, with the U.S., South Korea, Japan, China and Russia. This should be the North Korea dialogue playbook for the U.S. and China in 2018.
• Joseph R. DeTrani was the former special envoy for negotiations with North Korea. The views are the author’s and not that of any government agency or department.