January 23, 2017 | Nikkei Asian Review

Trump must turn attention to North Korea

Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s Day threat to test an intercontinental ballistic missile has rekindled an age-old debate among North Korea experts in the U.S. on the best policy towards the country. The suggested options include negotiating for a suspension of nuclear and missile tests or for restrictions on the development programs, imposing tougher sanctions or intercepting the test ICBM.

Under the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” policy, Washington rarely paid attention to threats from the regime in Pyongyang. Indeed, it only seemed to focus on North Korea when there was a nuclear or missile test. U.S. officials even seemed to minimize those moments, insisting that they were just the work of “crazy Kim” again.

A week after Kim’s Jan. 1 speech, a North Korean foreign ministry spokesman said that an ICBM could be launched “anytime and anywhere.” This would follow a particularly active year for North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, including tests of two nuclear devices, the new Musudan intermediate range ballistic missile, a submarine-launched ballistic missile and components that probably will be used in a road-mobile ICBM.

As recently as last March, Kim threatened to strike the U.S. with a nuclear weapon. Some experts estimate that North Korea could deploy an ICBM with limited operational capacity by 2020. This is disturbing considering that North Korea in 2013 published photos that showed a printed “U.S. mainland strike plan” for attacks against several U.S. cities. Kim has made developing an ICBM that can reach the U.S. with a nuclear weapon a priority to ensure the survival of his regime.

Renewed focus

None of the last three U.S. presidents, whether Republican or Democrat, were able to develop a strategy to prevent North Korea from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Part of the problem has been the unwillingness of North Korea and the three generations of the Kim dynasty to seriously engage in negotiations. Another problem is the U.S. has consistently pursued a North Korea policy that has not worked. It is time for a change.

While still president-elect, Donald Trump tweeted about Kim’s New Year’s day message, demonstrating that his administration may take Kim’s threats more seriously. North Korea presents a unique foreign policy challenge that probably will require attention early in Trump’s presidency.

His administration can return to a balanced North Korea policy with four core policy elements.

First, the U.S. should be willing to talk to North Korea anytime and anywhere. Of course we know that Kim has no interest in giving up his nuclear weapons. And we know he would see renewed negotiations with the West over his arsenal as an opportunity to extract new concessions.

It is not worth engaging in negotiations that yield concessions without verifiable changes in behavior from Pyongyang. But it is useful to talk to North Korea directly or in a multilateral format to explain U.S. policy. Pyongyang needs to know what to expect in response to its continued aggression.

Second, it is time to get tough with China. A ground-breaking study by security analysis group C4ADS and Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies documented how China is turning a blind eye to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. China must be treated as part of the problem until it shows it can be part of the solution. The new Trump administration has already vowed to get tough with Beijing. This is an important place to start.

Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama tried similar approaches to North Korea. Both Bush and Obama sought to work through China to pressure Pyongyang to negotiations. Each of these efforts produced agreements of limited value. In the Clinton and Bush instances, the post-deal implementation efforts focused more on preserving the deal rather than holding China or North Korea accountable. Obama’s focus on deals with Iran and Cuba clouded his focus on North Korea and produced the failed policy of strategic patience.

China sanctions

Washington should take China to task for aiding North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missile programs. Recently, the U.S. Justice Department alleged that Chinese individuals enabled North Korea to conduct prohibited dollar-based financial transactions through the Chinese and U.S. banking systems. These transactions lasted six years, up to September 2015, making it hard to believe that China was not aware of the problem. Washington must now consider sanctions against Chinese enablers, and possibly even secondary sanctions against Chinese financial institutions. Such actions may prompt new thinking by China’s leaders.

Third, the U.S. must support key allies in the region. This of course includes South Korea and Japan, but also Australia and other Southeast Asia allies who can help contain the threat from North Korea. Washington should work with these partners to use the Proliferation Security Initiative, a coalition of 105 nations dedicated to interdicting materials used in weapons of mass destruction, or other mechanisms to stymie North Korea’s proliferation activities.

The U.S. should further conduct additional high-profile military exercises with its allies as a deterrent to North Korea. It must work with South Korea to address China’s efforts to intimidate Seoul into canceling the deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system in its territory.

Finally, it is time to introduce new sanctions on North Korea and strengthen existing ones. U.S. Senator Cory Gardner on Jan. 2 noted the importance of secondary sanctions and measures to address the country’s cyber activities to ensure there are consequences for North Korea and those that help it. In particular, the Trump administration should use the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016 to block access to the U.S. financial system to those who assist Pyongyang in its strategic programs and illicit activities.

There are ample ways to weaken the repressive regime in North Korea. If new tools are needed, the new administration will find Congress eager to help develop them.

It is time to take the North Korean threat seriously. Kim reminded us of this fact with his New Year’s Day speech. The Trump administration, and a Congress that has long had a bipartisan agreement on the gravity of this threat, should not wait too long to respond.

Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 

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Issues:

North Korea