North Korea’s latest missile test, its 20th of the year, suggests that President Trump’s threatening rhetoric, as well as increased sanctions, have yet to deter the Kim regime from pushing along its nuclear weapons program. All that is left for Pyongyang to demonstrate that it can directly threaten the United States with nuclear weapons is to master reentry technology for its intercontinental ballistic missiles, which experts believe North Korean engineers can achieve by as early as next year. But this doesn’t mean we should throw in the towel for coercive diplomacy just yet. Instead, it’s time to make both our threats and assurances, the two key components of any coercive diplomatic strategy, more explicit and more credible.
While President Trump’s threats to “totally destroy” North Korea and to meet it with “fire and fury” if it threatens the United States or its allies have been no short on drama, they have also been too vague and too sweeping to be credible. Pyongyang, as well as others, understand that while the United States may have the capability to destroy North Korea, it certainly has no appetite for war given the high human and material costs any such conflict would entail. President Trump’s fiery rhetoric has only unnerved U.S. allies instead, while failing to rein in the intended target of his words.
The benefits of communicating an intent to meet North Korean actions with specific responses are threefold. First, the threats become more credible, because they commit the United States to limited and feasible actions, as opposed to an all-out war that most leaders and citizens have no desire to engage in. Second, they communicate the controlled nature of any U.S. response, by signaling in advance to Pyongyang (and to Beijing) that any retaliatory action is not a prelude to a larger attack on North Korea, thus lowering the risk of sparking a regional war.
And third, they focus on countering Pyongyang’s cumulative steps to expand its nuclear program. Rather than ambiguous and big red lines like President Trump’s tweet that the North Korean ability to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon “won’t happen,” smaller red lines that the Trump administration fully intends to enforce communicates to North Korea that it cannot progressively test its way to a nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile capability without facing concrete consequences.
Raising the credibility of U.S. threats also has the added benefit of increasing the urgency Beijing feels to use its own coercive leverage vis-à-vis Pyongyang. The Trump administration should use this situation to convince Chinese leaders to temporarily cut off their oil exports to North Korea. In fact, a suspension of Chinese oil in the spring of 2003 played a critical role in bringing Pyongyang to the negotiating table at the start of the Six Party Talks.
Finally, it’s just as important to make our diplomatic assurances more credible and explicit, as it is our threats, because threats alone will not resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis. While President Trump and his top officials have all stressed they prefer a diplomatic solution to end the crisis, they have yet to outline specific conditions that North Korea must meet for negotiations to proceed, or to offer an alternative to the freeze-for-freeze proposal that has been pushed by the Chinese and Russians.
Any alternative proposal will need to give the North Korean regime some face-saving incentive to come to the negotiating table. What is the United States willing to offer, if not a suspension of its military exercises with South Korea, in exchange for North Korea’s commitment to freeze its missile and nuclear tests? What actions can North Korea expect from the United States and its counterparts if it freezes its nuclear weapons program? What are the sequential steps that can ultimately lead to a peace agreement on the Korean Peninsula?
While veteran negotiators may protest that various incentive packages have been offered to North Korea to no avail in the past, it would be valuable for the current U.S. president to explicitly communicate a negotiated path forward to Kim Jong Un. Doing so would at the least send a clear picture to Kim of the diplomatic offramp that is available to him, more so than broad statements that the United States seeks a diplomatic solution.
In conclusion, it’s not yet time to declare coercive diplomacy dead, which would leave us with the extreme choices of war or accommodation. More can be done to sharpen both our threats and assurances to North Korea, and the United States, China and the other stakeholders of the region should cooperate urgently to do so, before North Korea crosses the finish line to a nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile capability.
Patricia M. Kim is the Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, where she focuses on China and North Korea.