North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has instructed his military to be ready to strike the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam, but postponed the decision to actually fire, the state’s media reports. This decision may well be an outgrowth of the American threats of severe American responses, including military ones, along with Chinese restraining efforts.
The current American policy may eventually reduce the flames over Guam, but is not expected to be sufficient to produce a settlement which could divert Washington and Pyongyang from the collision course they are on. To this end, China will have to continue its pressure on Kim, while offering him what he needs — assurances for the regime‘s survival — without directly threatening the continental U.S.
The Kim regime perceives its nuclear and missile programs mainly as an insurance against international intervention, namely an American military campaign to topple the regime. To secure its survival, the North Korean leader strives to establish nuclear deterrence against Washington in addition to the already existing nuclear threat against U.S. allies in the region: South Korea and Japan.
Due to the importance Kim attributes to its nuclear arsenal, he is not likely to concede on North Korea’s nuclear program. He can yield, however, his aspiration to establish a direct balance of nuclear terror with the United States if he can ensure his survival using other alternatives.
There is a short time before the U.S. administration is required to choose between a direct North Korean nuclear threat to American cities and preemption to eliminate that capability, which could trigger a war between the two nuclear countries. To use this time wisely, Washington should keep raising the stakes for provocative policies from Kim, but simultaneously offer him replacements for nuclear deterrence to achieve his goal.
To this end, five alternatives are available for Washington:
First, the administration can publicly declare there is no intention to overthrow the Kim regime. This corresponds with U.S. Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by AT&T - Supreme Court lets Texas abortion law stand Trump-era ban on travel to North Korea extended Want to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump MORE’s recent “We are not your enemy” statement, but it is dubious if this will satisfy Kim’s misgivings.
Second, President Trump can add a formal letter to the U.N. Security Council pledging not to act against the regime as long as it freezes its missile program. Though this act signals a deeper American commitment, it might not be enough for North Korea, mainly since a new president could renege from this pledge.
Third, the U.S. could add a partial relief of sanctions in exchange for Pyongyang freezing its missile program, and later a broader relief in the event of Korean denuclearization. Economic incentives would alleviate the domestic pressure on the regime, and improve the image and international position of North Korea in the international arena.
This will legitimize the regime as well as its nuclear program. This formula failed twice in the past after Pyongyang defected from the Agreed Framework it signed with the Clinton administration and from its pledges to the Bush administration in 2005. Those who support this alternative should explain why they think this time the outcome will be different.
However, even if such a sign is shown, it is worth noting that legitimizing the regime and its nuclear program following two decades of violations of international norms and defiance against Washington will be a dangerous message to other rogue countries who seek to acquire nuclear weapons, such as Iran. Sanction relief, therefore, can doubtfully stop Kim, but will likely engender a new nuclear crisis.
Fourth, Washington could coordinate with China, in a public pledge to protect North Korea in the event of an American invasion using China’s nuclear deterrence. One can claim that pushing China next to its ally does not serve the American interest, as it increases the price of an already very dire escalation scenario.
However, the Chinese have doubled down on their commitment by warning against any American preemptive campaign against Pyongyang. A formal Chinese nuclear umbrella will indeed strengthen the Chinese commitment but could serve as a strong alternative to a North Korean independent nuclear deterrence against the United States.
China is the U.S.’s rival, but it has good communication channels with Washington and is known for its pragmatic and cautious policies. These elements are lacking in the American-North Korean dynamics. By introducing China and providing it with a significant leverage on Pyongyang, the administration could minimize the risk of miscalculations and miscommunication and subsequently stabilize the relationship with North Korea.
Lastly, Washington can suggest a freeze in military cooperation with South Korea in exchange for a freeze on the North Korean missile program. Though this proposal makes bargaining sense, it is a very risky alternative. A missile program can be reactivated immediately after a political decision is made. Establishing a strong alliance and well-coordinated military cooperation, however, takes much longer.
Acceding to this formula will give Kim what he wishes — an opportunity to shake the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Without a credible American threat, North Korea will be attracted to unifying the peninsula under its rule. Accepting this demand will also signal to the North Korean leader that his blackmailing strategy works and enhance his desire to use it to maximize gains. This is a sure path to other collisions between the administration and Kim. Therefore, the administration should avoid any such trade-off, even if all other alternatives fail.
Threatening the most valuable asset for the regime — its survival — is not enough. A new approach that seeks to merge threats against the missile program with assurances for the regime is necessary. There is no guarantee that this approach would stop the North Korean trajectory, but it is quite clear that adhering to the current approach will bring the world to the edge of nuclear brinkmanship.
If the American administration is truly doomed to face this dire reality, it should at least know it did everything possible to avoid it.
Avner Golov, Ph.D., is the director of research programs and research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.