The Right Way to Coerce North Korea

Ending the Threat Without Going to War

From Pyongyang with love: a North Korean ICBM test, July 2017 KCNA / REUTERS

When it comes to North Korea, U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies have been whiplash inducing. On February 23, he appeared to be gearing up for a conflict when he said that if sanctions against Pyongyang didn’t work, Washington would have to move to “phase two,” which could be “very, very unfortunate for the world.” But just two weeks later, Trump abruptly changed course and accepted an invitation to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un—a decision that caught even his own White House and State Department by surprise. 

Trump’s newfound enthusiasm for diplomacy has temporarily lowered the temperature on the Korean Peninsula, but it also underlines a bigger question: Does the United States have a strategy for North Korea, or are these twists and turns merely the whims of a temperamental president? In the past, rash and uninformed decisions by U.S. officials on the peninsula—such as acquiescing to Japan’s occupation of Korea in 1905 and excluding Korea from the U.S. Cold War defense perimeter in 1950—have had grave consequences. The United States cannot afford a similar outcome today.

Trump’s unpredictability has had some upsides. His self-proclaimed “madman” behavior may have played a role in bringing the North Koreans to the table, and the Trump administration’s policy of applying, in the White House’s words, “maximum pressure” has yielded some impressive results. An unprecedented summit between the U.S. and North Korean leaders could indeed bring lasting peace to Asia. But it could also go wrong: if negotiations fail, the administration might conclude that a military strike is the only way forward, greatly increasing the chance of war. 

The Trump administration must ground its summit diplomacy and overall approach to North Korea in a strategy of comprehensive coercion that clearly defines U.S. objectives, leverages Washington’s most effective diplomatic and military tools, and aligns its Korea policy with the broader U.S. strategy in Asia. Failure to do this would only

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