America Is Back—but for How Long?
Political Polarization and the End of U.S. Credibility
When it comes to cultivating unpredictability, U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un seem eager to outdo each other. Those following the unfolding drama over the anticipated summit between the two leaders are growing accustomed to motion sickness.
The first about-face came in March, when Trump made an on-the-spot decision to meet with Kim after several months of trading insults and threats. Some positive developments followed: North Korea froze nuclear and ballistic missile tests, closed a nuclear test site, and released three American detainees. In April, Kim committed to “complete denuclearization” at a meeting in Panmunjom with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, prompting questions about what North Korea meant by “denuclearization” and what it might ask for in return. Despite this uncertainty, Trump greeted the news of the inter-Korean summit with enthusiasm and later raised expectations for his own meeting with Kim, declaring that “the United States has never been closer to potentially having something happen with respect to the Korean Peninsula that can get rid of the nuclear weapons.”
Then, in mid-May, Pyongyang pivoted back to insult- and threat-laced rhetoric, throwing the summit itself into question. Trump responded with another surprise move on May 24, writing in a letter to Kim that, at this point, a summit would be “inappropriate.” Just a few hours later, however, North Korea conveyed that it was still willing to meet with the United States. Trump then tweeted: “We are having very productive talks with North Korea about reinstating the Summit.” For now, preparations are under way for the meeting to take place, either on June 12, as scheduled, or at a later date. Still, observers should expect more sudden turns in the days and weeks ahead.
These recent developments underscore the importance of embedding the U.S. approach to North Korea within a broader strategy that advances long-term U.S. interests in the region, including, but not limited to, North Korea’s complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization. To chart a steady course through the choppy waters ahead, Washington should adopt the comprehensive coercion strategy that we outlined in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs. This would enable the United States to maintain its center of gravity in the region, whether or not this process leads to a summit, and whether or not the summit achieves its intended goals.
THE ANTIDOTE TO MOTION SICKNESS
The strategy we recommend involves five components: continuing to strengthen the maximum pressure global sanctions regime; buttressing sanctions with a nonproliferation statement; upgrading alliances with Japan and South Korea; establishing a counterproliferation coalition; and continuing to prepare both military and diplomatic plans for North Korea.
The Trump administration deserves credit for its unwavering commitment to upholding the maximum pressure sanctions campaign until Pyongyang takes “credible steps” to denuclearize. But rallying international support for these sanctions may become more difficult in the wake of North Korea’s diplomatic charm offensive this spring. China and South Korea in particular have less of an appetite for increasing the economic pressure on North Korea given their own meetings with Kim over the past two months. Holding the international coalition together will be critical to maintaining economic leverage over Pyongyang and preserving the significant gains that Washington made during 2017. To keep up the pressure, the Trump administration could suggest a grand bargain: abandoning a potential trade war in exchange for a Chinese pledge to wholeheartedly back the U.S. campaign to denuclearize North Korea.
The Trump administration has also made the right moves in developing both military and diplomatic plans for North Korea. This has enabled it to uphold deterrence, while also providing a credible off-ramp for Pyongyang. At a Pentagon briefing last week, Joint Staff director Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., stated, “from a military point of view, we've been on a very consistent direction that hasn't changed at all.… We didn't ramp up or down as word of this summit began to rise and, now, has ended. We're being very steady, very straight in terms of our preparations.” Meanwhile, on the diplomatic front, Trump’s letter made clear that he was still willing to speak with North Korea, which may have played a role in Pyongyang’s decision to keep its own door open to diplomacy.
But the Trump administration has devoted little to no effort in other important areas. The maximum pressure campaign still lacks a nonproliferation statement or a regional counterproliferation coalition, initiatives that U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton is well equipped to advance given that he helped establish the Proliferation Security Initiative, which coordinates international operations to prevent trade in weapons of mass destruction and related materials. These steps would make it harder for North Korea to evade sanctions and impress upon Kim that the United States will not tolerate the transfer of nuclear material and will punish anyone found to be complicit in such activity.
The most significant unforced errors so far have been in alliance management. Rather than bolstering U.S. alliances, the Trump administration has done the bare minimum to keep its partners in Seoul and Tokyo in the loop. Before cancelling the summit on May 24, Trump did not even offer Moon, who had just come through Washington, or Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the courtesy of a heads up. Images of Moon with a furrowed brow calling a midnight emergency meeting of his National Security Council standing committee to respond to Trump’s latest move only play into North Korea’s hands by providing potential openings to create fissures in the U.S.–South Korean alliance. (It is usually Kim’s missile tests, not U.S. actions, that prompt such meetings.) The United States has also done little to advance military cooperation among the three states. Collaboration would increase pressure on North Korea by demonstrating that its nuclear weapons program will only prompt its adversaries to become militarily stronger. But working together is always a sensitive issue for South Korea and Japan, and it will not happen without U.S. nudging and initiative. The need to turn a three-nation air drill into only a U.S.-Japanese exercise in mid-May, due, in part, to tensions between Tokyo and Seoul over unresolved historical grievances, demonstrates how far off such cooperation still is.
Most concerning, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s recent claims that U.S. interactions with North Korea could follow “the Libya model” and Trump’s reference to the United States’ “massive and powerful” nuclear capabilities in his otherwise cordial May 24 letter suggest that the Trump administration still sees little room for dealing with North Korea between the extremes of engagement and military action. This is a problem because even a limited military strike carries a high risk of escalating to a wider war that would threaten the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans, not to mention millions of South Korean and Japanese citizens.
The approach we have outlined would allow Trump to be tougher than previous U.S. presidents have been with North Korea, particularly in the areas of sanctions, counterproliferation, and collective defense, without risking war via a preventive military attack. If the summit is back on, this strategy will also help the Trump administration deal with the short-term challenge of closing the gap between U.S. and North Korean definitions of denuclearization by tethering the U.S. position to a broader framework. Before the bumps of the past week, Trump was creating unrealistic expectations for swift and comprehensive North Korean denuclearization by touting potentially historic achievements and suggesting that there might be a “great celebration to be had on the site” if the negotiations succeed. The North Koreans, meanwhile, were pushing for “phased and simultaneous” steps toward denuclearization, which means that they wanted to front-load concessions from the United States and stretch out negotiations over a long period. A middle ground between these positions might involve North Korea offering a significant and tangible deliverable up front, such as surrendering or disabling some aspect of its nuclear or missile programs, in exchange for a U.S. agreement to offer concessions over a timeline that is slightly longer, but still more condensed than previous rounds of negotiation. Demands for immediacy are not feasible given the advanced nature of North Korea’s nuclear program.
The Trump administration will also need to clarify what it is willing to offer at different stages of the denuclearization process. In considering these concessions, the United States should keep in mind their degree of permanence and their impact on the U.S. strategic position in the region. Concessions that score high on both fronts, for example, reducing U.S. troop levels in Korea, which would be hard to reverse and would have an immediate strategic impact, should only be considered at the tail end of North Korea’s complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization process. Other allowances, such as decreasing sanctions or extending energy or humanitarian assistance, could be offered earlier. To differentiate this process from previous attempts, the United States should not offer any concessions without concrete progress. It must demand actions, not promises.
The events of the past week have been messy, but they may have averted a train wreck on the global stage.
HOT AND COLD
This advice may not align with Trump’s fondness for winging it, but the past few days seem to have had somewhat of a sobering effect on the administration. These stomach-churning developments may even have positive implications if they lead both sides to acquire a more realistic view of each other’s intentions and expectations, and if they result in a more normal pre-summit process, in which lower-level U.S. officials meet with the North Koreans to ensure that both sides have a clear picture of what they will be walking into. The events of the past week have been messy, but they may have averted a train wreck on the global stage.
The past few days have also clarified how quickly relations between the United States and North Korea under the current leaders can run from hot to cold and back again. Another round of threats that goes in the other direction, or an additional missile test by North Korea—perhaps one with a trajectory that stretches over the Western Pacific instead of straight up into the sky—could put the United States back on the dangerous path toward military escalation. For all of the reasons we cited in our earlier essay, this outcome should be avoided at all costs. The United States needs a broader strategic safety net of coercive options, which are tougher than those employed in the past but less risky than military strikes, to ramp up pressure on North Korea if diplomacy once again falters.