Are we facing war with North Korea?

Are we facing war with North Korea?
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The war of words between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is causing more anxiety than reassurance around the world. But is the president really making us less safe? Having planned for war and negotiated for peace with the North Koreans in the past, here is how I would rate the administration’s performance thus far.

There is near universal condemnation of the president’s ad hominem attacks on the North Korean leader from both conservative and liberal experts on North Korea. For one thing, North Koreans are masters of smack talk and will only use presidential tweets for propaganda effect within their country. More importantly, North Korea will use the president’s escalating rhetoric to isolate the United States internationally. Pyongyang knew that there would be sanctions and international pressure after their nuclear and missile tests.

Their goal now is to frighten China, South Korea and others into pressing the United States to back away from pressuring the regime. The growing list of governments calling for calm and offering to mediate between Washington and Pyongyang only demonstrates how the president’s rhetoric is playing into that North Korean strategy. Quite apart from rhetoric aimed at North Korea, the president’s criticism of South Korean president Moon Jae In and threats to abandon the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, only further the risk of U.S. isolation from our closest ally on the front lines.

If the administration is blowing it in terms of rhetoric, they deserve enormous credit for putting in place the first truly serious sanctions policy against North Korea in a generation. The executive order issued by the White House last week allows the Treasury Department to sanction any North Korean individual or entity in addition to any foreign individual or entity guilty of violating United Nations Security Council sanctions on North Korea. Pyongyang was able to get around past sanctions with dummy companies and assistance from Chinese or other foreign collaborators. That will now become much harder.

This may not be enough to convince North Korea to give up nuclear weapons in the near term, but it will constrict its access to money and technology and the regime’s ability to proliferate outward (as they did by helping Syria build a nuclear power plant until the Israeli Air Force destroyed it in 2007). Over time, the new sanctions could set the conditions for a different calculation by North Korea. The sanctions will have to be backed by improved intelligence collection and international collaboration, but the financial tools announced by the White House are impressive.

There have been repeated calls by international experts for a negotiated resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis, but these are generally not coming from veterans of past negotiations with Pyongyang. North Korea has cheated on every agreement it ever made regarding nuclear weapons and changed its constitution in 2012 to establish itself as a permanent nuclear weapons state. To the extent that the international community has been able to engage in dialogue with North Koreans, the answer has been consistently the same: The nuclear program is not on the table.

One cannot therefore fault the administration for somehow losing a diplomatic opportunity for disarmament. There is no such opportunity. On the other hand, this is a dangerous moment with North Korea. For that reason, there is merit in conducting a quiet but authoritative dialogue with the Kim regime to ensure they understand U.S. intentions clearly amidst the cacophony of public propaganda by both sides. Perhaps that is happening beyond our view, though I doubt it. The U.S. deployment of B-1 bombers off the North Korean coast and the president’s threat to destroy the regime if it uses force against the United States or our allies will have some observers alarmed.

But this is precisely the time to demonstrate that the United States will not be cowed by North Korean threats. This is important for three reasons. First, North Korea and our allies must all understand that even with a North Korean missile threat to the American homeland, there will no diminishment in the American preparedness to retaliate with massive force against North Korea should it use nuclear weapons. Second, North Korea must understand that nuclear weapons will not deter us from responding forcefully to lower level North Korean attacks in cyberspace or against conventional American or South Korean forces. Finally, North Korea will have to assume from recent deployments that the United States is prepared to use massive force to preempt any attempt to use nuclear weapons.

In addition to these three reasons, the administration has suggested that it is prepared to use military force in “preventive war” to stop North Korea before it fully develops a nuclear weapon that could be loaded on an intercontinental ballistic missile and survive re-entry into the atmosphere above the United States or our allies. This threat of preventive war is much less credible, since the risk to South Korea and Japan from a North Korean nuclear and missile backlash would outweigh the benefits of possibly arresting parts of North Korea’s weapons development.

However, the other three purposes of signaling a readiness to use force are critical, particularly since Kim Jong Un may use his newest weapons for blackmail and intimidation to force the United States to make concessions (specifically, to end international sanctions, provide economic payments, remove U.S. protection of Japan and Korea and legitimize the regime, all demands made by Pyongyang in the past). Credible readiness to use force removes any leverage North Korea might hope to get from threatening to use its growing arsenal.

The reality is that there are no good choices with North Korea. Neither diplomacy nor preventive war will make this problem go away. The administration has taken some important steps from sanctions to military deployments that could position us to contain and eventually roll back the North Korean threat. The president’s rhetoric is the biggest problem. As Theodore Roosevelt might have said, “Time to speak softly and carry that big stick.”

Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an associate professor at Georgetown University. He served as special assistant to the president and senior director for Asia on the National Security Council staff during the George W. Bush administration.