How America Can Shore Up Asian Order
A Strategy for Restoring Balance and Legitimacy
Upon returning from the Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June, U.S. President Donald Trump declared the North Korea problem “solved.” Many experts did not share his optimism. Pyongyang, they argued, had done nothing to indicate that it was committed to “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization.” And nothing since then—up to and including the recent meeting between U.S. and North Korean officials on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York—has indicated otherwise. Trump, in other words, was fleeced.
The president’s North Korea critics are right: Pyongyang has taken no steps to denuclearize in the last three months, and there’s no reason to think that it will anytime soon. Such critics are wrong, however, to assume that this is necessarily bad news. In fact, Kim’s nuclear arsenal may be more opportunity than threat. It makes a new balance of power possible in Northeast Asia—one that could make the region more stable and reduce the risk of war. Ironically, such a settlement can succeed only if the Trump administration’s North Korea policy keeps failing.
With its nuclear arsenal in place, the survival of the North Korean regime is virtually assured. The regime in Pyongyang no longer has to rely on saber-rattling and warmongering to intimidate its neighbors and keep their superior conventional militaries in check. Just as important, Kim’s arsenal forces the United States, China, and other regional players to find ways to accommodate North Korea. Washington may continue to call for denuclearization, and Kim may continue to issue vague halfpromises to keep this useful fiction alive. But the real driver of lasting regional stability may turn out to be North Korea’s bomb. Trump’s failure thus may sow the seeds for a new and better Northeast Asian power equilibrium.
Since the end of the Cold War, North Korea has threatened stability in Northeast Asia on a number of fronts. The regime is a military threat to several of its neighbors and, increasingly, to the United States. This raises fears among regional players that they could be drawn into a war: a conflict between North and South Korea could drag in the United States (and perhaps Japan), while a conflict between North Korea and the United States could pull China into the ring. And were the regime in Pyongyang to collapse through domestic implosion or outside invasion, Beijing and Washington would confront differences that could easily ignite a war between the two. Put together, these factors have created a regional status quo that is extremely fragile and prone to crisis.
All of this may be changing thanks to the Trump administration’s actions. After Trump took office last year, his forceful threats against Pyongyang appeared to drive his administration into a corner: Washington had signaled that it would not live with a nuclear North Korea but was reluctant to bear the costs of war. But North Korea’s ambiguous pledge, in Singapore, to denuclearize “the Korean Peninsula” offered a face-saving way out: U.S. leaders now had a fig leaf to cover the failure of their nonproliferation agenda, allowing them to declare success and ratchet down the threat of war. Not for nothing did Trump declare that North Korea was “no longer a nuclear threat” after the June summit. His administration has stuck to its narrative even as it has become clear that North Korea hasn’t budged.
Trump’s failure may sow the seeds for a new and better Northeast Asian power equilibrium.
Accordingly, the United States has largely abandoned the idea of regime change through military intervention. North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and growing capacity to target the mainland United States had already made a U.S. attack on the regime much less plausible in recent years, but the Singapore summit made this change explicit. In the run-up to the meeting, the United States stopped openly threatening military action against Pyongyang. At the summit, Trump pledged to provide “security guarantees” in exchange for denuclearization and later put deeds behind these words by suspending U.S.-South Korean war games that the North claimed were “provocative.”
Diplomatic momentum has picked up since the summit. Not only have U.S.-North Korean discussions proceeded apace—there is even talk of a second Trump-Kim summit—but so too have negotiations between North Korea, South Korea, and Japan. No one knows where these talks will go, but the process itself reduces the risk of miscalculation and normalizes the North’s relationship with its neighbors. North Korea’s time as an international pariah is over—a good sign, because any change to its nuclear program will require time, dialogue, and recognition of the country’s desire for economic and security concessions.
Finally, the recent round of diplomacy has clarified China’s continuing role as North Korea’s reluctant guardian. Leaders in Beijing initially worried that Trump might pull North Korea out of China’s orbit. But just the opposite has occurred: recognizing China’s status as a kingmaker, U.S. officials have sought to cajole and pressure it into supporting their North Korea agenda. That China has not been fully cooperative is beside the point; the U.S. effort itself implicitly acknowledges that North Korea will remain a Chinese protectorate.
Who can benefit from a new power equilibrium on the Korean Peninsula? The upsides for the United States and its allies are already evident: they can point to a notional promise of denuclearization to justify easing military pressure on Pyongyang. Even if the current diplomatic thaw remains incomplete, talks can reduce tensions, and—above all—help avoid miscalculations. And with regime change off the table, the United States can focus on how to deter any threats that a nuclear-armed North Korea might pose and determine how to keep Kim from crossing any redlines.
China has much to gain as well. Because a U.S.-led military campaign against North Korea is now far less likely, China has a more stable northeastern flank and greater leverage to set the terms of diplomatic developments in the region. It can also turn its attention toward ensuring Pyongyang’s safety from internal pressures. In short, the emerging regional settlement all but officially recognizes North Korea as part of a Chinese sphere of influence and gives China incentive to manage the area judiciously.
The North Korean regime is in the best strategic position it has enjoyed in a generation.
For the North Korean regime—with its nuclear arsenal intact, expanding diplomatic ties with its neighbors, and de-escalatory signals from the United States—the result is the best strategic position it has enjoyed in a generation. The only costs to Pyongyang are a formal commitment to the myth of denuclearization, a tacit agreement not to flaunt its nuclear capability, and a willingness to bow to greater Chinese influence. In effect, the nascent settlement offers North Korea security from external threats in exchange for accepting its status as a client state.
Paradoxically, the success of such a regional settlement depends on the very thing that makes it seem implausible: North Korea’s ability to target the United States and U.S. allies with nuclear weapons. Before Pyongyang developed this ability, a deal was near impossible: the United States did not see the Kim dynasty as anything but a regime change waiting to happen and did not accept the prospect of a nuclear-armed North Korea. Combined with Pyongyang’s belligerent posture and China’s fears of being drawn into a regional conflict, the American position made for a toxic mix. Today, by contrast, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal clarifies the distribution of power and interests in Northeast Asia: the survival of Kim’s regime is virtually assured. The United States has effectively reached the extent of its power in the region, given what it is willing to risk. China no longer needs to fear being drawn into a regional conflict or losing its ally to the same degree as in the recent past, but must find new ways of managing its client. Inadvertent and unexpected though it might be, this security structure may be the least of several evils for the parties involved.
There is no guarantee that such a new regional equilibrium will come to fruition. Given the Trump administration’s ad hoc approach to foreign policy—and mounting evidence that North Korea is not actually moving toward denuclearization—the United States may not remain wedded to the denuclearization fantasy. Nor will it be easy to sustain the new power balance if it does come into being: foreign policy hawks in Washington will need winning over, skittish allies will need reassuring, potential North Korean provocations will need addressing. These are not easy tasks.
Still, as analysts warn that North Korean denuclearization remains a pipe dream, they need to place this assessment into a broader strategic context. Precisely because the United States has been unable to reach a real denuclearization deal, a potential Northeast Asian settlement allowing the Koreas, China, the United States, and Japan to live with the status quo is on the horizon. Of course, such settlements are not always immediately apparent or formally ratified. Sometimes, they emerge only after periods of tension, posturing, disappointment, and retreat. Nevertheless, the United States’ failure to denuclearize North Korea may turn out to be an inadvertent success.