America Is Not Ready for a War With China
How to Get the Pentagon to Focus on the Real Threats
Incoming U.S. presidents enjoy a good deal of discretion, but they have no choice when it comes to the problems they inherit. You cannot pick your in-box, only what to do about it.
It was inevitable that the 45th president of the United States was going to face a North Korea that had accumulated a small arsenal of nuclear weapons, along with ballistic missiles able to carry them long distances. In the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, Pyongyang made this reality abundantly clear by carrying out its sixth (and most powerful) nuclear test and a number of ballistic-missile launches. Trump reacted by criticizing his predecessors for allowing this perceived threat to develop; aiming tough (and at times insulting) talk at North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, while also expressing a willingness to meet with him directly; and organizing a successful push for United Nations–backed sanctions designed to bring North Korea either to the negotiating table or to its knees.
For a while, this effort appeared to be working. After a series of unprecedented diplomatic contacts involving the United States, North Korea, South Korea, and China, the White House announced that a summit between Trump and Kim was scheduled for June 12 in Singapore. North Korea instituted a freeze on nuclear and ballistic-missile tests, shut down a nuclear testing site, and released three American prisoners.
It all came to an abrupt halt on May 24, when Trump called off the summit. Although he attributed his decision to the “tremendous anger and open hostility” in North Korean official statements, the more likely explanation for the about-face was that it had become increasingly apparent that the summit would fail, given that North Korea would not agree to completely dismantle its nuclear arsenal and capabilities.
For all the drama of the past months, little has changed. The United States still needs to do something to reduce or eliminate the threat posed by North Korea’s growing ability to put nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles that could reach the continental United States. Dealing with that threat through war is still distinctly unattractive. And diplomacy, made possible by threats, inducements, and sanctions, remains the preferred course.
But not all diplomacy is created equal. With the June 12 Singapore summit off for now, the Trump administration needs to rethink its desire for a quick, sweeping deal that solves the problem posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and instead opt for something more gradual and modest that would, at best, manage it.
It’s no mystery what South Korea’s goals are with respect to North Korea: to reduce the threat of war and normalize relations on the Korean Peninsula. China, for its part, has no love for Kim’s regime but will provide enough support to keep it afloat and thus avoid the prospect of a united Korea allied to the United States. Beijing will follow this path even though it understands the strategic costs of doing so, both in terms of South Korea’s missile-defense upgrades and Japan’s rethinking of its aversion to nuclear weapons. When it comes to North Korea, China prefers nothing so much as a version of the status quo.
It is much harder to divine North Korea’s thinking. One school of thought attributes the country’s apparent flexibility to the economic cost of the sanctions and fears of a U.S. military attack—both of which could threaten the existence of the North Korean state. According to this view, Pyongyang can be pressured into giving up all of its nuclear weapons, and more, in order to assure its survival and improve its economic status.
An alternative analysis sees North Korea’s behavior as more proactive than reactive. Those who hold this view believe that Kim embarked on a diplomatic initiative less in response to coercion than out of confidence. Kim, the argument runs, judged that his nuclear and missile programs had made enough progress to obviate the need for additional tests; for the time being, he could enter into negotiations with the United States from a position of relative strength. This analysis supports the conclusion that North Korea has little or no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons, seeing them as central to both its security and any negotiations.
This debate is anything but academic, since each viewpoint leads to a very different conclusion about how much diplomacy can accomplish. Negotiations are best understood as a tool of diplomacy. The most important question is, What aims should this tool be used for? North Korea’s tradition of self-reliance and obsession with security strongly suggests that diplomacy should seek to stabilize the status quo rather than transform it.
GETTING TO YES
In advance of any negotiations with North Korea, U.S. policymakers will need to answer an important set of questions, the first of which concerns breadth: What is to be covered? In principle, diplomacy toward North Korea could target only its nuclear-related capabilities and materials. Or it could go beyond that, seeking to gain concessions on long-range ballistic missiles, conventional military forces, and even human rights. The advantage of broader talks is that if they succeeded, they would yield a grand bargain that would address most, if not, all of the United States’ concerns. A broad approach also offers a tactical benefit, in that it sets up more areas for potential tradeoffs.
The disadvantage is that it introduces more areas of disagreement that could derail negotiations. Because breadth can get in the way of addressing the most prominent concerns, various U.S. administrations during the Cold War opted for narrowness when it came to arms-control talks with the Soviet Union. For the same reason, the Obama administration took a nuclear-only approach to the negotiations that led to the nuclear deal with Iran. In the case of North Korea, a broader agenda could also introduce more areas over which the United States and South Korea could clash.
The second consideration is depth: How much will be sought, and what might be offered in return? The upside of greater ambition, of course, is that more can be accomplished if an agreement is reached. The downside is equally clear: the more significant the compromises sought, the more likely there will be no agreement. Asking for more is also likely to require a willingness to offer up more in return.
Another consideration is one of structure: how will the agreement be paced and sequenced? Most deals require a great deal of mutual action, with both parties undertaking paired or simultaneous steps. The critical questions involve what is required by each party and when. This is where structure intersects with breadth and depth. There is a fundamental difference between a wide-ranging and ambitious deal—the proverbial grand bargain or final-status agreement—that is implemented in steps and a more limited agreement, in which final status issues are reserved for subsequent and separate negotiations.
Then there is the question of how each party will make sure that the other is complying with an agreement. Monitoring and verification are essential to any approach. As a rule of thumb, the demands for both are closely tied to breadth and depth. Agreements that cover more activities and that ask for greater concessions tend to involve more intrusive monitoring in order to verify compliance.
The last question concerns form: will the agreement be enshrined in a treaty, or something less formal? This is both a political and a legal consideration. Treaties have the greatest standing and durability, but they also tend to be the most difficult to gain domestic political approval for, especially in democracies. North Korea might prefer that any deal take the form of a treaty, since these are harder to undo—as it no doubt noticed when the Trump administration rejected the Iran deal, which was never ratified by the Senate.
How do all these factors come into play? Consider the question of “denuclearization,” a term that is more used than defined but which is central to any possible U.S.–North Korean pact. In principle, denuclearization could be defined ambiguously and reached only after some follow-up negotiation, if then. In the meantime, the two parties could agree to other specific but limited measures. Alternatively, denuclearization could be defined in the most explicit and demanding way, requiring the complete destruction of North Korea’s nuclear warheads, materials, production facilities, and delivery vehicles. Denuclearization could also be required early on in any negotiations (for example, before the United States agreed to sanctions relief or diplomatic recognition) and involve highly intrusive monitoring preceded by a full accounting of North Korea’s nuclear program.
The Trump administration has preferred the latter course—that is, a narrow and ambitious approach, which may well explain why the June 12 summit was called off. Had it gone ahead, it would likely have resulted in catastrophic failure. North Korea, having digested the lessons of Ukraine, Iraq, and Libya—namely, that giving up nuclear weapons invites military intervention—would have rejected the demand for complete and early denuclearization and intrusive inspections. The United States would have declared that anything less was unacceptable and bolted. Many observers would have judged diplomacy to have been tried and come up short, leading to calls for a military solution.
DOABLE, NOT JUST DESIRABLE
Going forward, it is unrealistic to think that sanctions and threats will lead North Korea to rethink its commitment to nuclear weapons or its opposition to intrusive inspections. North Korea is a closed, resilient country that has maintained political stability, developed nuclear weapons, and kept a large standing army despite its economic weakness. It can also count on a degree of help from China and Russia. As a result, the United States and North Korea simply will not agree on and implement an ambitious approach; the most they can be expected to sign and bring about for the foreseeable future is something relatively limited. As a first step, for example, North Korea could lock in a freeze on nuclear-warhead and ballistic-missile testing and agree not to transfer nuclear technology to others, while the United States could agree to lift some sanctions and grant diplomatic recognition.
It is unrealistic to think that sanctions and threats will lead North Korea to rethink its commitment to nuclear weapons or its opposition to intrusive inspections.
If a rescheduled summit comes relatively soon, then its goal should be to set an agenda—not to finalize a deal. Ideally, Pyongyang and Washington would agree on a course for negotiations, possibly one composed of a limited first phase followed by broader and more ambitious phases. Consistent with this, a near-term summit could lead to the establishment of two different U.S.–North Korean working groups, one to explore a grand bargain, the other to hammer out something more modest. Rather than taking an all-or-nothing approach, the United States would be taking two approaches: a more-for-more one, and a less-for-less one. Alternatively, a summit could be postponed until negotiations at the staff and ministerial levels had produced an actual first-stage agreement and an agenda for follow-on talks. Either outcome would be far preferable to what nearly happened in Singapore in June: a top-level meeting that sought to exact substantial concessions with little agreed to in advance.
Just as dangerous as asking for more than is attainable is offering too much. It would be easy to reach an agreement if Washington gave away a lot for a little—an outcome that might be termed a “catastrophic success.” The United States might, for example, lift a host of sanctions up front, expecting that its demands concerning nuclear weapons and missiles will be met down the road. With North Korea, there is more than a little historical precedent suggesting that such hopes do not end well.
An even bigger danger would be to broaden the talks and offer up a major reduction in the U.S. military presence on the peninsula in exchange for progress in the nuclear realm. Trump has tasked the Pentagon to explore just such a drawdown, and the move would be consistent with his stated view that the United States pays too much for alliances. The reality, however, is that South Korea offsets a large share of the costs of the U.S. troops stationed there. What’s more, any deal limited to nuclear issues would do nothing to reduce the conventional military threat that North Korea poses to South Korea. As a result, the U.S. alliance with South Korea could be jeopardized, a development that would raise additional questions in Japan and elsewhere about the United States’ staying power in the Asia-Pacific—something that is already an issue, given its abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, its confrontational trade tactics, and its spotty record of keeping allies and partners informed.
All of which leads back not to Singapore but to Washington, D.C. The central question is whether the Trump administration is prepared to rethink U.S. policy toward North Korea and pursue strategies that could stabilize the situation rather than solve it. That outcome is less than ideal, but good policies are not just desirable; they must also be doable.