It’s crunch time on North Korea

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Before the Trump administration invests more of America’s national dignity, and its own self-respect, in a futile and counterproductive pursuit of progress with North Korea (and China), it must review what got it to the brink of apparent success just weeks ago, and what quickly moved it backward from that hopeful point.

The initial exchange of personal insults and nuclear threats between President Trump and Kim Jong Un raised the international temperature, particularly when backed by credible administration leaks of “bloody nose” surgical strikes that could escalate and end the North Korean dictatorship.

{mosads}Countering support for some form of military action were concerns about the cost in human lives of even a limited conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Yet, the alternative contingency was proclaimed unacceptable by every U.S. administration for the past 30 years: an erratic and unpredictable North Korean state threatening constant nuclear blackmail or an even more catastrophic war down the road.


Amid the deepening anxiety over the real possibility of military conflict, President Trump deftly played another powerful card, one that could also lead to the end of the Kim government but without the ghastly death and destruction consequences: regime change from within, with a little help from the outside.

Over a period of months, the president provided the rationale and laid the groundwork for a new government in Pyongyang. In speeches at the United Nations and the South Korean National Assembly and in his State of the Union, he described humanitarian outrages that make Kim morally unfit to lead his country, or to possess nuclear weapons. In the Oval Office, defectors told their heart-wrenching stories to the president.

With the demise of its North Korean ally becoming conceivable, China finally began to stop blocking meaningful international sanctions against Pyongyang. Its grudging cooperation was further incentivized by Washington’s belated imposition of sanctions directly on Chinese entities doing business with North Korea.

The combination of those pressures and possible loss of power led Kim to revive his request for high-level denuclearization discussions with the United States. It is also possible that Kim believed he could ultimately deceive and befuddle this president as he, his father and grandfather had done to so many before him.

Encouraged by warming relations between North and South Korea, President Trump readily seized the opportunity to do something none of his predecessors could. The Singapore summit was the result, but not before an urgent last-minute intervention by China’s Xi Jinping who summoned Kim for two meetings in Beijing. China’s Communist leaders feared Kim might be a little too willing to make a deal with the Americans.

Now, despite President Trump’s ecstatic pronouncements on what he thought he achieved in Singapore, North Korea’s negotiators have refused to deal with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in their follow-up meeting in Pyongyang. The administration is back where it started. Although Kim has held back on further nuclear and missile tests (easily reversible at his whim) he has not advanced the denuclearization agenda by destroying facilities as promised, nor the diplomatic/humanitarian agenda by returning the remains of U.S. Korean War dead, also as promised.

What is the Trump administration to do?  It will be difficult to pump air back into the deflated credibility balloon after the threat of military action has dissipated, the sanctions bite has eroded, largely thanks to China and Russia, and the U.S. pledge of permanent regime security has diminished the human rights leverage the president had created.

One course of action is simply to press on with the same mix of pleas and inducements earlier administrations employed. That would mean admitting that, when all is said and done, this administration was no more capable of resolving the problem, even as the historic Singapore meeting gave the Kim regime priceless domestic and international legitimacy.

That would seem to be an unacceptable outcome for this proud and ambitious president. Instead, he needs first to cease indulging China with flattery and forgiveness while it weakens the sanctions pressure. The administration should also threaten an immediate, proportionate military response if nuclear or missile tests resume.

Next, Washington should make clear to the international community that it expects vigorous, expanded sanctions enforcement as the only way to avoid renewed preparations for broader military action.

Finally, the administration should declare that, since Kim has not taken the immediate, tangible denuclearization measures required by the president’s promise of regime security, that commitment is off the table and regime change is very much back on it. That means the administration will commence a whole-of-government approach using strategic communications and overt and covert means to assist the North Korean people in ridding themselves of this odious government.

An important part of that campaign will be a concerted effort in the United Nations General Assembly to implement the Responsibility to Protect doctrine (R2P) it adopted at the 2005 World Summit to address crimes against humanity perpetrated by governments against their own people. The U.N. Commission of Inquiry into North Korea’s human rights violations has already found that Pyongyang meets that test on the basis of its brutal gulags alone. It’s unlikely the United Nations would approve action to remove the Kim regime, but the effort will reinforce the campaign to help the North Korean people do it.

It is time to deploy the human rights weapon President Trump brandished as either a basis for, or an alternative to, military action against North Korea.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the Secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010.  He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies, and has held nonresident appointments in the Asia-Pacific program at the Atlantic Council and the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Tags Donald Trump Kim Jong-un Mike Pompeo North Korea–United States relations North Korea–United States summit

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