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The Peninsula

16 Issues for the Trump Administration to Consider in Developing a New North Korea Policy

Published January 17, 2017
Category: North Korea

By Troy Stangarone

As the United States transitions from the Obama administration to the Trump administration, there is significant uncertainty regarding the future direction of U.S. foreign policy. During the campaign, President-elect Trump broke from many of the orthodoxies shared by Republicans and Democrats in the area of foreign policy and since the election has begun to potentially shift gear on some of his campaign pledges. His ultimate foreign policy is still largely unknown.

One area where there will be significant interest in the new administration’s future policy direction will be North Korea. Pyongyang’s increasing efforts to develop both a workable nuclear warhead and multiple delivery systems has made North Korea a problem that will need to be addressed by the Trump administration. While it is still unclear if President-elect Trump will merely tweak existing policy or implement policies that rethink U.S. foreign policy and specifically how the United States addresses the challenges presented by North Korea. If the Trump administration were to consider a significant overhaul of U.S. policy on North Korea, here are 16 issues the incoming administration should consider in developing a new policy:

North Korea and the Trump Administration’s Foreign Policy Priorities

The most important question for the new administration to consider is where North Korea is on the list of foreign policy challenges? While North Korea’s growing weapons programs should make it a priority, other challenges could come to dominate the administration’s agenda and push North Korea down the list. Any White House where decision making is centralized can only handle two or three significant foreign policy issues at a time. If North Korea is not in that top tier, the administration will have to set a policy more in line with an issue of lesser priority. However, if the Trump administration is willing to delegate authority, more issues could be handled simultaneously.

Beyond shaping the approach and resources dedicated to addressing the North Korean nuclear issue, the level of priority the administration gives to resolving the crisis will impact how it handles other foreign policy issues. For example, if North Korea is a top priority for the Trump administration, it impacts how the administration handles relations with China. Most experts consider China a key player in resolving the nuclear issue, something President-elect Trump himself stated during the election. If the administration decides to push for a resolution to the nuclear issue early in its term it will need to consider developing a China policy that will elicit the cooperation needed rather than one that will push China to use North Korea as a wedge against the United States. As with much in life, foreign policy is about tradeoffs and compromises because everything cannot be achieved at once.

Where is North Korea in Terms of U.S. Priorities with China?

If North Korea is among the United States’ foreign policy priorities as one key consideration, the same is true for how the Trump administration will prioritize North Korea among its other challenges in its relationship with Beijing. During the campaign, President-elect Trump ran on a platform of bringing back U.S. jobs and getting a fair deal for American workers. While not a major campaign issue, the South China Sea and China’s military modernization are likely to remain a priority for a Trump administration. Another major issue in the relationship is climate change and the Paris accords. Since election, President-elect Trump has suggested that he might seek to reshape the United States relationship with Taiwan. If the new administration places a priority in its relations with China on addressing trade relations and seeks to withdraw the United States from the Paris accords, it might find Beijing less than willing to help address North Korea. If it seeks to redefine relations with Taiwan, Beijing’s willingness to cooperate on North Korea might be even less.  At the same time, if it prioritizes North Korea over other issues in its relations with China, it may need to refrain from engaging in trade disputes with China or other controversial issues to elicit Beijing’s support for a more effective stance against Pyongyang. Again, the priorities in the U.S. relationship with China will impact the type of North Korea policy the United States will be able to pursue.

How Likely China is to Squeeze North Korea?

China is seen as the key to the North Korea issue. While China has worked with the United States to pass tougher new sanctions on North Korea after each of its nuclear tests this year and has, to an extent, implemented those sanctions, there is a perception that China is not doing as much as it could or not stringently enforcing sanctions. If the new administration views China as the key, how likely is China to truly squeeze North Korea and what might incentivize it to do so? Similarly, if China will not truly squeeze North Korea and the new administration determines that the United States does not have acceptable leverage to shift China’s position that would necessitate a different approach to the North Korea than if the administration determines that China will squeeze North Korea or that it has sufficient and acceptable leverage to do so.

Does Russia Have a Role to Play?

Much like President Obama early in his administration, President-elect Trump has suggested that the United States should have better relations with Russia. While Russia was part of the Six Party Talks, it was not a primary player in the negotiations. Could Russia play a larger role or could it be a potential spoiler?

If relations with Russia improve, the administration will need to determine if Russia could manage a larger role. However, if Russia demurs, it will be important to consider how Russia could impede the process. In the two most recent UN sanctions debate Russia held up the process to water down the sanctions. If China were to come on board for stronger sanctions, including cutting off North Korea’s oil, Russia could serve as an alternative source. While Russia has its own reasons for not wanting to see North Korea’s program advance, Putin has shown a willingness to back outsiders when he thinks it could bring a geopolitical advantage. The one challenge for Russia would be keeping North Korea in line, as it has historically been a less pliant client than Russia’s more recent efforts at developing useful clients.

What Type of Deal is the Trump Administration Willing to Cut?

In the past, the United States has sought the complete, verifiable and irreversible disarmament of North Korea. Should that remain the goal of the United States? Should the United States pursue only a freeze or a final deal that addresses the nuclear issue and a wider range of issues? In light of prior efforts to negotiate with North Korea, should Pyongyang also be prohibited from utilizing nuclear power or should it be allowed to maintain certain aspects of a civilian nuclear program? What elements should be in any agreement with North Korea? Should it only cover the nuclear program or should it include elements such as a peace treaty ending the Korean War? What type of concessions would the administration be willing to make to North Korea to secure an agreement? These are just a few of the elements of a potential deal that the administration will need to consider.

What Would a Trump Administration Be Willing to Trade Away?

The art of any good deal is finding a way to meet the needs of the negotiating parties in a manner that is acceptable to all involved. Over the last three decades the complexity of what is acceptable for North Korea, South Korea, the United States, China, Russia, and Japan has kept a comprehensive deal out of reach. If the Trump administration decides to enter into negotiations with North Korea, they will have to determine what they are willing to give Pyongyang in return for it abandoning its nuclear program.

In the past, there has been an assumption that North Korea wanted some combination of recognition by the United States, security guarantees for the regime, and energy and economic assistance. In regards to security, North Korea has often called for the end of U.S. troops on the peninsula and the abdication of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. While the administration should not trade away items which would remove the ability of South Korea and Japan to defended themselves against North Korean aggression after any deal, it will need to give consideration to what hard choices it is willing to make to reach an agreement. If it is unwilling to take minimal steps such as provide some type of security guarantee or recognition of the regime, a policy other than negotiation will likely be needed.

The Importance of U.S. Allies to North Korea Policy

In the campaign President-elect Trump broke from long-standing U.S. foreign policy and suggested that he saw relationships with allies as more transactional in nature than as part of a broader relationship where the United States will live up to its commitments to defend allies. Since the campaign, some of that rhetoric has been walked back, but in dealing with North Korea the administration will need to determine how it views alliances and what their role is in tackling the North Korean nuclear issue.

If the Trump administration is going to “re-baseline” U.S. alliances as incoming National Security Advisor Michael Flynn has suggested, the administration will need to determine what advantages does having supportive allies in South Korea and Japan bring in terms of military and diplomatic contributions. What would be the costs to the United States of pursing a more independent or transactional policy in dealing with North Korea, specifically if the U.S. was no longer willing to assure allies that their concerns would be met. What is the tradeoff in having willing partners in dealing with North Korea as opposed to partners who might become more aggressive in pursuing their own interests solely if the U.S. were to as well?

What Are the Military Options?

As North Korea continues to make advancements on its missile program calls for the United States to take preemptive action before North Korea is able to demonstrate or utilize an ICBM that could reach the United States will likely grow. What are the merits and potential downsides of either blowing up a North Korean ICBM on the launch pad prior to liftoff or shooting a North Korean ICBM down in flight? If the U.S. choose to preempt a launch how would North Korea respond and what are the prospects for escalation? If the U.S. were to shoot down a North Korean ICBM, a successful intercept would likely be a strong deterrent, but what would be the consequences of a failure to intercept the missile?

Perhaps more boldly, are there other military options on the table such as covert operations that could slow the program or remove key individuals that could change North Korea’s decision structure. If you engage in military operations beyond those that are clearly defensive in nature, such as shooting down an ICBM on a trajectory for the United States or one of its allies, what are the prospects that China would be drawn into any escalation in conflict?

For all of these options, the administration would need to determine if they are willing to accept the risks and costs that any military option from shooting down an ICBM to engaging in a new war would entail not only for the United States, but also for our allies in the region. The bottom line for the administration will be is there a military option that has a high degree of success that will also minimize the potential for significant retaliation on the part of North Korea.

Is the Obama Strategy Working?

There is a tendency for incoming administrations to follow an “anything but” the previous administration policy, especially if the prior administration is one of the opposing party. Sometimes a change of course is good policy, but sometimes as President Obama found with aspects of President George W. Bush’s terrorism policy the process of governing means embracing some of your predecessor’s legacy. President-elect Trump has already demonstrated on healthcare policy that he is willing to keep some of the Obama policy in place, even on an issue that is unpopular with his party, so there is no reason to believe that a Trump administration would simply abandon the policy of the Obama administration.

What are the key characteristics of that policy? First, maintain tight policy coordination with U.S. allies. Second, increase the alliance’s defensive capabilities. Third, increase pressure on North Korea through sanctions and other measures? Fourth, work to discourage those who support the North Korean regime from doing so. Lastly, be open to negotiations with North Korea if those talks are designed to address the nuclear issue. If this is a sound approach, rebranding may be all that is needed. If it is not working, what steps might be more successful?

Is the Iran Example a Useful Model?

President-elect Trump has described the Iran nuclear deal as one of the worst deals he has ever seen. However, during the election, Secretary Hillary Clinton’s team had made clear that they saw it as a model for dealing with North Korea. While more nuanced than this, the Iran model is the idea of imposing crippling economic sanctions to force North Korea into negotiations over its nuclear program.

In the case of Iran, it was allowed to maintain parts of its nuclear program and the agreement was only for ten years. North Korea has stated that they will not negotiate an Iran style deal, but the final details of the agreement point to issues that the Trump administration will need to consider in any negotiation. Will the administration keep to the standard of complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of North Korea’s nuclear program? Or, should Pyongyang be allowed to maintain parts of its nuclear program as was the case with Tehran. This was part of the Agreed Framework, but North Korea ultimately cheated on that deal. Alternatively, is there already a mismatch in terms of the value of North Korea’s nuclear program? Pyongyang likely believes it should get a better deal for actual nuclear weapons and the administration likely believes that North Korea should receive more stringent conditions for having developed them. Also, the administration will need to thoroughly consider in what ways North Korea differs from Iran, to see how useful any lessons from that experience may be. If the two situations are different enough, there may be few useful lessons. Alternatively, if the Iran model is not a good one, what would a different approach look like? These are the types of questions the Trump administration will need to ask as it decides whether or not to utilize the Iran precedent.

How Stable is North Korea?

Since the end of the Cold War there have been predictions that North Korea was near collapse. While many other Cold War regimes have collapsed, or undertaken significant economic reforms such as China and Vietnam, North Korea has taken only minimal steps towards reform.

Historically stability mattered because the sense was that, if the regime was on the verge of collapse, there was little reason to negotiate with it or make a substantial offer for the nuclear program. However, the Trump administration should consider the regime’s stability for two reasons. If the regime is stable, pushing it in the hopes of collapse may not yield the desired result, but a stable regime could be in the position to reach a deal, even if it is not an optimal one for the United States and its allies. If the regime is unstable, negotiations will have little effect as a weak regime would be unable to make the political choices needed to give up or significantly reduce the nuclear program and survive. Depending on the perception of the stability of the regime, it impact whether engagement or pressure is likely to be a more useful tool, while the wrong assumption could lead the administration to develop a flawed policy.

How Susceptible is North Korea to Sanctions?

North Korea is less connected to the global economy than most other nations and survived a famine in the 1990s in which over a million North Koreans may have starved to death. Iran’s economy was much more open to the global economy and therefore more susceptible to sanctions than North Korea, and it still took three years after sanctions were placed on Iran’s oil to negotiate an agreement on its nuclear program.

If North Korea is less susceptible, the Trump administration will need to consider what that means in regards to timelines for action on North Korea. The administration will also need to give consideration to what areas North Korea may be most susceptible to sanctions and what types of sanctions would be most likely to be effective in that area. While the focus has been on coal as in recent years as that has been North Korea’s primary export, there may be other areas or types of sanctions the administration should consider. For example, imposing more sanctions on financial institutions that have dealings with North Korea. At the same time, it will need to consider the costs that the regime is willing to bear to complete its nuclear program before the sanctions force it to do otherwise. A nation is willing to let a significant portion of its population starve to death is likely willing to bear a significant cost.

Will North Korea Give Up Its Nuclear Weapons?

Negotiating a solution to the North Korean nuclear issue is only possible if North Korea is willing to engage in talks on the dismantlement of its nuclear and missile program. For much of the Obama administration the belief was that North Korea was not. Discerning North Korea’s intentions helps to shape whether the Trump administration should seek to engage or pressure Pyongyang.

If the Trump administration reaches the same conclusion as the Obama administration, seeking talks with Pyongyang would be of minimal utility. Instead the administration would need to develop a program designed to create conditions which might change the regime’s perspective, similar to the case of Iran, or take steps to enhance U.S. and allied defense so as to deter North Korea from using its nuclear weapons. Both of these options could also be taken simultaneously.

However, if the regime believes that North Korea would be open to a deal, talks should be the primary course of action. The key for any negotiations would be finding a way to ensure that they were not a play for time by North Korea to finish its nuclear program while reducing pressure on the regime.

Why Does North Korea Want Nuclear Weapons?

The North Korean regime has suggested that it has developed its nuclear weapons program to protect itself from U.S. hostility, but the reunification of the Korean peninsula on North Korean terms still remains a goal of the regime. Determining whether the regime views the nuclear weapons as the key to its survival or a tool to achieve political ends could have a significant influence on how a policy is shaped. If nuclear weapons are synonymous with regime survival in Pyongyang, it may be impossible to provide the assurances needed to convince them to give up their weapons. However, if the nuclear weapons are for a political end, demonstrating through pressure that even with nuclear weapons that goal is not achievable without threatening the regimes survival might create room for negotiations. It is a difference that could shape the policy the administration chooses.

Are Human Rights Part of the Equation?

In the last year the United States has placed sanctions on Kim Jong-un and his sister for the regime’s violation of human rights. It is unclear how the Trump administration will approach the issue of human rights, but in the case of North Korea they will have to decide if the issue of human rights and sanctions related to North Korea’s human rights violations should be linked to North Korea’s nuclear program. If the administration does wish to link the issues, it will need to consider whether human rights sanctions encourage or discourage North Korea from engaging on the nuclear program. At the same time, it will have to determine if it would be willing to remove the sanctions to make progress on the nuclear issue in the absence of progress on human rights in North Korea.

If You Break North Korea, Are You Willing to Fix It?

In the run up to the Iraq War, Colin Powell famously cautioned President George W. Bush that if “you break it, you own it.” A similar consideration should apply to any aggressive sanctions policy or kinetic action that the Trump administration decides to take in regards to North Korea. In the case of North Korea, regime stability will always likely be a question. How much pressure can it stand before collapse does ensue? So far, China has pushed back on any sanctions that it thought might truly endanger the regime. Nevertheless, China could miscalculate the pressure the regime can withstand, or preemptive military action could precipitate a conflict that leads to collapse. If there is good reason to believe North Korea is about to strike either the United States or its allies, action will need to be taken. However, if the administration decides to pursue significant pressure, it also need to consider what actions it would take if the pressure proves to be too much. Would it be willing to contribute to rebuilding the North under a unified Korea, and would it be willing to actively support South Korean claims to sovereignty over the North in the face of strong Chinese resistance. If so, then more aggressive measures may be advisable, but if not a more gradual approach may be called for with North Korea.

While this is not necessarily an exhaustive list, it is designed to show how complex the North Korean nuclear crisis is and how different understandings of issues can influence how policy would develop. To see this, we look at how different outcomes would occur given variations on two issues: North Korea’s willingness to negotiate and China’s willingness to pressure North Korea.

If the Trump administration believes that North Korea will not negotiate on its weapons program and that China will not truly pressure the regime, than that would argue for a policy of increased deterrence. However, if the administration believes that China would pressure North Korea further but North Korea will not negotiate, that impacts policy more generally towards China to ensure that Beijing remains onboard in pressuring North Korea. The caveat, of course, is where then North Korea fits in regards to the administration’s priorities. If North Korea is the priority, that then affects how the Trump administration approaches China on trade, Taiwan, the South China Sea or other issues. Ultimately, solving the North Korean nuclear issue is more complex than simply a question of whether to sanction the regime more or engage in negotiations.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Uri Tours photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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