Trump has the right idea on North Korea, but needs to change strategy

Trump has the right idea on North Korea, but needs to change strategy
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpPelosi eyes end of April to bring a fourth coronavirus relief bill to the floor NBA to contribute 1 million surgical masks to NY essential workers Private equity firm with ties to Kushner asks Trump administration to relax rules on loan program: report MORE is right to take his predecessors to task on how they dealt with North Korea. Conventional thinking in the form of strategic patience has paid very few dividends. Presidents from Clinton to Obama enjoyed little success as Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnTired of worrying about the pandemic? There's always Pyongyang Overnight Defense: Pentagon orders bases to stop reporting coronavirus numbers | Hospital ship arrives in NY | Marines pause sending new recruits to boot camp | Defense bill work delayed North Korea: 'Reckless remarks' by Pompeo show US doesn't want nuclear talks MORE and his father before him steadily worked away on developing a nuclear program and occasionally throwing the international community into paroxysms with provocations. The United States and its allies inevitably would head to the United Nations to dump more sanctions on the pariah regime, which inevitably would return to its bad behavior. 

Einstein once said something about continuing what you are doing and expecting a different outcome. When President Trump talked about engaging Kim, as a longtime Pyongyang watcher, I thought, “This is new.” But, Trump has maintained the strategy of his predecessors, now packaged as “maximum pressure.” And guess what? The results are the same — missile tests, no progress on denuclearization, and Pyongyang flinging invective with abandon. 

What is to be done? The answer is simple — something completely different.


The United States and South Korea have made some concessions, but they have had little impact on North Korea. That is because we are making the wrong concessions. If we want this cycle of behavior to stop, we need economic, not security, concessions. Promises of humanitarian aid will not work. Sanctions relief is what Kim seeks. He wants money going into the regime’s coffers, plain and simple. 

North Korea’s complaints about joint exercises and F35 sales are a smokescreen to set up justification for its tests. Pyongyang couldn’t care less about U.S. and Republic of Korea (ROK) security measures. Kim knows we have him outgunned. That is not what this is about. This is nothing more than a strategic conversation between Kim and Trump. If Washington puts something on the table that Pyongyang wants, the tests will stop. Negotiations will begin in earnest.

Wouldn’t that be heresy? Reward bad behavior? Walk back 30 years of U.S. policy? Make us look weak in Pyongyang’s eyes? Yes, it would. So what? Sometimes we need to do things we do not want in service of the bigger picture. 

Conventional thinkers around Washington need to come to terms with the fact that maximum pressure has been a failure. Never worked and never will. There are just too many holes in the international economic system. We cannot hermetically seal North Korea off from the world. China and Russia are making that abundantly clear. How many limos must come over the border until we learn this fact? You can starve the North Korean people. You cannot pressure Kim into changing his calculus. 

We need to shift our North Korea strategy from one of a zero-sum game on the Korean Peninsula (full verifiable and irreversible denuclearization, or FVID) to one of a larger, regional strategy aimed at dealing with the rise of China. Some say such a strategy cannot work because of geography. Oh, but it can.Why? Because the Kim family hates China. However, until now, they have had no other option but to accept Beijing’s meager aid package in return for acting as a proxy and buffer to China’s strategic interest. 


Trump can offer Kim that option. After all, Kim talks with Trump. China’s Xi Jinping lectures Kim. From Kim’s perspective, wouldn’t it be nice to have a non-regional benefactor to counterbalance his troublesome neighbor to the north who just uses him as a pawn in the great power competition and keeps North Korea on life support? “Lips and teeth” is a description of the Sino-North Korea relationship that no longer applies. 

Under such a strategy, we need to drive a wedge between Pyongyang and Beijing by giving Kim what he wants, a way off Beijing’s largesse. That means significant economic concessions and a recognition that the Kim family is not going anywhere. This is 180 degrees out from U.S. traditional strategy. If we can be allies with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, we can put up with Kim Jong Un. 

It is unfortunate, but Kim is the only thing standing between stability and real danger on the peninsula (and the unraveling of the U.S. position in Asia). We may not like him, but we need him. Kim sitting on the throne in Pyongyang is in the U.S. national interest — at least for now. If it’s a choice between one central decision-maker and some amorphous collective leadership with dodgy command and control, give me the devil I know. The Israelis make the same argument behind closed doors about Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Not too palatable to say aloud, but realpolitik is not always pretty. 

We cannot forget, North Korea probably will cheat on any agreement we make. Again, so what? It should be expected. Kim needs to maintain legitimacy inside the Hermit Kingdom. Besides, international law will not force any country to do what is not in its national interest.

Instead of running to the United Nations with our grievances, we need to figure out what we can live with. We have to come to terms with where our own red lines lie and make them clear. Bottom line: No testing, no provocations and no proliferation. Maybe we can dismantle some of the program, but with little to no verification. Unless we occupy North Korea, complete verification is impossible anyway. 

Like it or not, we will have to live with a nuclear North Korea, but as long as the program remains in a box, that will have to be acceptable for now. Besides, we can use the program’s continued existence to justify U.S. troops remaining on the peninsula well into the future. That’s something certain to upset China’s plans for spreading its regional influence. 

If we all believe that Kim is not going to part with his nukes — that is what the experts and the intelligence community keep saying — then that is the only logical conclusion. To say otherwise,  as we keep doing by insisting on more pressure, is to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time. We have to deal with the reality we have, not the reality we wish we had. 

Otherwise, we are facing more tests and a more rapidly evolving nuclear program, and there is nothing we can do about it. We know Trump does not want a war. He cannot saber-rattle like he did in 2017 (unless he wants to wag the dog, which he would prefer to do with Iran rather than North Korea). He has an election coming up. North Korea can be a foreign policy victory to tout on the campaign trail or a thorn in the president’s side.

For the sake of U.S. national interest, it is time for President Trump to adopt a strategy that will achieve the objective he espouses. We need to wake up, get real and get creative before it gets too late and we face a North Korea with a mature nuclear program and a delivery system that can actually threaten the United States. Then all bets are off.

Ken E. Gause directs the Adversary Analytics Program at CNA, a defense think tank located in northern Virginia. He is  the author of “North Korean House of Cards” and the Jamestown Foundation’s white paper, “Assessing North Korea’s Nuclear Doctrine and the Prospects for Denuclearization: Diplomacy in the Land of No Good Options.” Follow CNA on Twitter @CNA_org.