“We've kicked the can down the road long enough. There is no more road left.” These words, delivered to the United Nations Security Council earlier this month by U.S. ambassador Nikki Haley, reflect a harsh truth about the crisis currently unfolding on the Korean peninsula.
The past three administrations have collectively failed to curb the growth of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, opting for limited action that simply deferred the issue to future administrations. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both
pursued diplomatic means, relying primarily on promises to lift sanctions and normalize relations in exchange for denuclearization. Neither effort proved to be a lasting solution.
In 1994, the Clinton administration and North Korea signed the Agreed Framework, which proposed swapping North Korea’s nuclear reactors with light water reactors and slowly normalizing trade and diplomatic relations. The agreement collapsed within a decade, as both sides accused one another of failing to uphold its
terms. Picking up after the Agreed Framework’s demise, the Bush administration began the Six Party Talks in Beijing with China, Russia, Japan, and both Koreas. Five rounds of negotiations were carried out between 2003 and 2007, but late glimmers of progress were shattered after North Korea’s second nuclear test and subsequent withdrawal from the talks in 2009.
But both failed attempts at diplomacy did little to convince policymakers in Washington that stronger measures were necessary. The Obama administration instead opted for even greater inaction than its predecessors, pursuing a wait-and-see policy dubbed “strategic patience.” Far from actively seeking out a long term solution, Washington opted to let North Korea take the next steps towards future discussions - effectively turning responsibility for negotiations over to the regime.
Now the Trump administration, seated in the shadow of more than two decades of buck passing, is confronted with the imminence of a North Korea capable of striking the U.S. mainland with a nuclear weapon. The North Korean problem has reached a tipping point where it can no longer be pushed to the side for the next president to deal with. The United States finds itself in desperate need of a new approach, and with few options left.
Washington must come to the realization that Kim-Jong Un is not going to negotiate away his nuclear weapons. He has seen what happens to nations that abandon their nuclear programs, only to find themselves at odds with a future U.S. president: Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011. Kim-Jong Un is determined not to become the next Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi, and views a nuclear deterrent as his regime’s best insurance policy. Negotiations with North Korea have already failed twice, and they certainly will not work now.
Instead, the Trump administration should make the best of its few remaining options with a multifaceted approach, combining both deterrence and economic pressure to demonstrate that continued nuclear weapons development will not produce a more favorable outcome for North Korea. Kim-Jong Un may not be willing to negotiate away his nuclear weapons, but firm and properly applied pressure is the best chance at deterring further provocations.
The most effective way for the United States to reposition its own deterrent is to deploy tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea. Such a deployment is not unprecedented - the United States only removed tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991, as part of an early failed attempt to denuclearize the peninsula. Far from slowing North Korea’s nuclear development, the withdrawal of these weapons has left a one-sided power balance in the Koreas. While North Korea continues its nuclear weapons development and hyper militarization, the United States retains only a token military presence in South Korea to defend its east Asian sphere of influence. North Korea cannot be given free reign to threaten the United States and its allies with nuclear weapons without facing a credible military deterrent.
Nevertheless, strong economic pressure must also continue given the importance of Chinese trade to the North Korean economy. North Korea conducts 90% of its trade with China, making effective sanctions impossible without restraining Chinese companies. In this regard, the Trump administration has already taken meaningful action. Last week, an executive order authorized the U.S. Treasury to introduce sanctions against entities doing business with North Korea. These measures are encouraging, but should be exercised vigorously against Chinese corporations if they are to achieve results.
With a credible deterrent and stronger sanctions, the United States can avoid another major military conflict on the Korean peninsula. Such a war would not only be disastrous for the Koreas, resulting in catastrophic damage and millions of casualties on both sides, but negatively impact the global economy for years to come. Decisive action is needed now more than ever, and the Trump administration must pull out all the stops. As Ambassador Haley stated, the problem can no longer be simply kicked down the road.
Matthew Rush is a second year student at Rhodes College, in Memphis, Tennessee, and a featured staff writer for The Campus Conservative.
An abbreviated version of this article was originally published in the Sou'Wester, which you can find here.