By Barbara Slavin
While the Trump administration has focused on perceived threats from Muslim and Latin American immigrants, a more serious challenge for United States policymakers is North Korea’s advancing missile and nuclear programs.
On February 12, the North Koreans fired what experts said was an intermediate-range ballistic missile known as the Musudan. It flew about 300 miles before falling into the Sea of Japan.
The test, which occurred while President Trump was hosting the prime minister of Japan in Florida, elicited only a pro forma reaffirmation from Trump “that the United States of America stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent.”
A strategy is urgently needed to stop or slow the program before North Korea develops intercontinental ballistic missiles that can hit the western United States and masters the technology to marry the missiles to nuclear warheads.
This should be the first priority of Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the new national security adviser chosen to replace Michael Flynn on Monday. Flynn was forced to resign last week ostensibly for deceiving the vice president about the content of phone calls with the Russian ambassador to Washington prior to the inauguration. There is no evidence that Flynn focused on North Korea during his brief time in office.
Four previous administrations have struggled to come up with effective strategies to halt and roll back North Korea’s nuclear program. Only the Bill Clinton administration, which negotiated a 1994 accord called the Agreed Framework, managed to freeze a plutonium-based bomb effort for a decade. Before it left office in 2001, the Clinton administration also made progress on an agreement to limit North Korean missile development.
However, the George W. Bush administration, upset at reports that North Korea was pursuing a clandestine program to enrich uranium, confronted the North Koreans about this in 2002 and stopped providing heavy fuel oil promised under the Agreed Framework. North Korea responded by kicking out international arms inspectors and withdrawing from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the only member country to do so. It then resumed its program to build nuclear weapons using plutonium.
The Bush administration, rejecting the bilateral approach used by the Clinton administration, eventually resumed talking to Pyongyang in the company of other major powers. However, agreements reached in so-called “Six Party Talks” fell apart and a variety of sanctions measures also did not work.
The Barack Obama administration refused to talk to North Korea unless it would agree in advance to the goal of denuclearization – a policy called “strategic patience” that also failed.
North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests – in 2006, 2009, 2013, and twice in 2016 – and continued to develop ballistic missiles. It is estimated to have enough plutonium for as many as 21 nuclear weapons.
An isolated nation of about 20 million people ruled by a brutal, hereditary dictatorship, North Korea has proven largely impervious to sanctions imposed by the United States and the United Nations. According to foreigners who have visited the country recently, the government has improved its chances of survival by allowing considerable private enterprise including agricultural reforms that permit farmers to keep most of what they grow. However, there are limits to what North Korea can achieve without foreign investment.
Judging from the successful negotiations that led to the Iran nuclear agreement of 2015, a policy of both sanctions and incentives is required to have any chance of getting North Korea to curb its nuclear program. China is a key actor as North Korea’s only significant trading partner. Beijing’s announcement on February 18 that it would stop importing coal from North Korea for the rest of this year is important given that coal accounts for more than a third of North Korean exports.
The Chinese were reacting to the recent missile test and to the murder of Kim Jong Nam, the elder half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at an airport in Malaysia on Feb. 13. The elder Kim had been given sanctuary in the Chinese-controlled enclave of Macau and was seen as more friendly to Beijing than his brother. Kim Jong Un has purged hundreds of officials since taking power in 2011 and is believed responsible for more than 300 deaths including that of his half-brother and his uncle.
Since China will be crucial to reaching any agreement, it is a good thing that President Trump, in a telephone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Feb. 9, reaffirmed the “one-China” policy that regards Taiwan as a part of China.
Trump has also suggested at various times that he would be willing to meet Kim – conveying a sense of legitimacy and face that North Korean leaders have traditionally craved.
At this point, it is unrealistic to demand that North Korea agree to give up its nuclear weapons as the price for admission to new negotiations. A freeze is probably the best that can be obtained in the short run and in return, there will have to be incentives that include some calibrated sanctions relief.
A key sign of whether the Trump administration is amenable to negotiations will be whether it grants visas to several North Korean officials to come to New York for talks with U.S. experts who previously served in government – so-called Track 1.5 conversations. The Washington Post reported Monday that such talks were in the preparatory stage.
During the campaign, Trump said that China could handle North Korea but also that he would be willing to directly engage with Kim.
“Who the hell cares? I’ll speak to anybody,” Trump said last June. “There’s a 10 percent or 20 percent chance I could talk him out of having his damn nukes, because who the hell wants him to have nukes?”