The biggest change that U.S. President Donald Trump has brought to North Korea policy is rhetorical—but the strategic implications may be huge. In terms of actual policy, the Trump administration’s “strategic accountability” owes more to the Barack Obama administration’s “strategic patience” than either its architects or its critics might like to admit. The central thrust of the policy is to cajole Beijing into putting greater pressure on Pyongyang, as was attempted in the latest round of UN Security Council sanctions and in numerous presidential tweets. Indeed, rather than breaking with the past, Trump seems to have inherited a misconception that China is the key to solving the North Korea problem.
Despite the underlying policy continuity, however, there has been a major shift in the way this administration talks about North Korea. The president coyly alludes to pre-emptive strikes, and his senior advisors explicitly bring up “preventive war.” These ideas have featured frequently in the media and have become normalized in public discussion. The so-called military option, a fringe position a year ago, is now part of the mainstream debate.
Trump seems to have inherited a misconception that China is the key to solving the North Korea problem.
This is something new, and it’s worth a quick review of the North Korea conundrum since the end of the Cold War to see why. The only other time there has been war talk of this kind was in the spring of 1994. Back then, with Pyongyang on the brink of a nuclear breakout, U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry was ready to present President Bill Clinton with a strike plan to destroy the Yongbyon nuclear site. The crisis, which bubbled over for a year, was deflated by a fit of diplomacy that led to the U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework, which froze North Korea’s plutonium program and later enabled a moratorium on missile tests. Talk of strikes disappeared.
The Agreed Framework unraveled during the Bush administration, however, advocating a strike on the missile as it sat on the launch pad. But the Perry-Carter proposal was an outlier, the exception that proved the rule of zero interest in military options on the Korean Peninsula. Iraq was bad enough. Bush let the launch happen and later in the year redoubled efforts at multilateral diplomacy via the Six Party Talks.
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