Send a message to North Korea: America will not tolerate missiles
© KCNA via Getty Images

Prognosticators asserted that on the 69th anniversary as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on Saturday, North Korea would test an intercontinental ballistic missile. This launch would have followed weeks of global tension and condemnation for the recent successful test of the regime’s largest yield nuclear device to date.

In response to the Sept. 3 explosion, Defense Secretary Mattis stated what Pyongyang and the world already knew: The United States is ready to obliterate any enemy which attempts to attack us. American use of force was further underscored throughout the week by Ambassador Nikki HaleyNikki HaleyBiden sparks confusion, cleanup on Russia-Ukraine remarks The 10 Republicans most likely to run for president Will — or should — Kamala Harris become the Spiro Agnew of 2022? MORE at the United Nations Security Council. And now the council is considering a U.S. sponsored resolution that imposes the most aggressive economic embargo since that imposed against Iraq in 1990.

In this escalating crisis, both Pyongyang and Washington have pursued the standard hard-nosed international relations logic that each North Korea test and sanctions violation be met with more U.S. threats, shows of military force and additional sanctions in response. Thus far this tit-for-tat does not appear to be leading to the end-game most desirable to the United States: Without Washington needing to fire a shot, Kim Jong Un no longer poses a nuclear threat to any nation, especially not to the United States.


Leaving aside for a moment how attainable, by any means, a complete denuclearization of Pyongyang might be, this moment when an anticipated North Korea escalation has not happened presents the United States with a unique and fading opportunity. The Trump administration should put Kim Jong Un on the diplomatic defensive by the focused leadership that East Asia and the world needs to move this situation toward de-escalation and alternatives to war for dealing with Pyongyang. Such leadership will require intense efforts in four areas.

First, as prior presidents have done in other unprecedented crises, the administration should convene behind closed doors a team of wise old hands with decades of East Asian and North Korean expertise. The national interest now requires that the available plethora of loyal Republicans with considerable policy experience be tapped to generate new and workable strategies for de-escalating this confrontation as a way to attain U.S. goals. In addition, the administration must move immediately to nominate an ambassador to South Korea, assistant secretary of State for East Asian and the Pacific, and assistant secretary of Defense for Asia.

Secondly, after forging this week’s new U.N. Security Council sanctions, the Trump administration needs to call South Korea, Japan, China and Russia to a summit meeting to develop bold, shared approaches to direct dialogue and negotiation with North Korea. In the past sanctions that have worked do so because they not only enrage the target but provide a path in which to engage that target. This summit must sketch that path.

As important as presidential phone calls to the leaders of Japan and South Korea may be, the combination of these varied conversations, along with presidential tweeting, and scattered statements from other members of the administration creates the lack of unity among allies in which Kim Jong Un delights. This summit will formulate proposals that will speak as one voice to Pyongyang and invite North Korea to sustained dialogue aimed toward a plan that takes their security goals seriously.

Thirdly, in order to maximize the chances for summit success, the administration — and the president in particular — needs to prioritize resolving the security dilemma we and our allies face in dealing with North Korea. This demands letting existing U.S. agreements with these nations stand and end Trump’s counterproductive barrage of charges against Chinese trade advantages and threats to end the U.S. free trade agreement with South Korea.

In addition, the president should follow the advice of his secretaries of State and Defense and recertify Iran’s adherence to the nuclear agreement that Trump has threatened to end. U.S. abrogation of the most significant multilateral arms agreement of the past quarter century, whatever its flaws, will be interpreted by Kim Jong Un that talks, treaties or nuclear agreements with the United States are worthless. And reneging on the Iran accord will leave our allies in disarray.

Finally, the administration must prepare for Trump’s forthcoming address to the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 19 to be the most significant means for the United States to influence the outcome of this confrontation. Building from the unified support the United States has had in the U.N. Security Council in dealing with North Korea, and the momentum created by the multinational summit, the president must use this global pulpit to project the United States as neither bully nor victim. Rather, the president must present a vision for and steps to attain U.S. support for global nuclear security through hard-nosed diplomacy and without resort to regime change or war.

These new methods, underscored by a powerful presidential message at the United Nations, will present Kim Jong Un with a unified diplomatic push to sit at the table to deal with differences he thus far has responded to only with bombast and more tests. This now becomes the most effective U.S. response to the ongoing North Korean threat.

George A. Lopez is the Hesburgh Professor Emeritus at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He is a former member of the United Nations Security Council panel of experts for sanctions on North Korea and a former vice president at the United States Institute of Peace.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.