Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017|2 a.m.
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Thermonuclear weapons that can damage entire cities. Intercontinental ballistic missiles efficient in reaching the United States. And all controlled by a supposedly illogical leader spouting apocalyptic threats at the helm of a country devoted to the destruction of the United States.
Sounds a lot like North Korea these days, but this description is simply as much a summary of the hazard the United States faced from the Soviet Union for more than 4 years. During the Cold War, a stable mix of deterrence, pressure and diplomacy made it possible for the United States to protect the homeland and U.S. allies till the Soviet Union disappeared.
Regardless of the headings that appear to foreshadow nuclear war today, the exact same strategy that worked with the Soviet Union can work with North Korea. In fact, this technique has actually already been working for decades by avoiding another Korean war.
The technique includes three parts.
Initially, concentrate on deterrence and assuring allies. The backbone of U.S. policy is the deterrent danger: If North Korea attacks the United States or its allies, the U.S. will destroy the North Korean regime. Kim Jong Un and the North Korean management are evil, but reasonable, and understand that an attack would eliminate exactly what they reward most– their power. America’s military posture in northeast Asia is adjusted to ensure that the United States and its allies can defend against an attack and deter justifications.
This deterrent, however, can not be taken for given. It rests on strong alliances with South Korea and Japan, and careful and constant messaging to North Korea. A rift between allies supplies an opening to North Korea to provoke, while confusing messages from the United States can raise the possibilities of mistake and an accidental dispute. The United States has much work to do daily to keep a robust deterrent.
Second, pressure North Korea. While substantial sanctions on North Korea already exist, the United States still has significant leverage to enforce further sanctions, including versus China for its blatant violations of U.N. sanctions against North Korea. The United States will not know how reliable sanctions can be until China fully institutes them– and the United States won’t know if China will institutes the sanctions up until the United States strikes China with a comprehensive range of secondary sanctions focused on banks and financial entities working with North Korea.
Third, the United States needs to stop dealing with talks like a concession to distribute, and learn ways to utilize them to its advantage. Diplomacy should not be an unclean word. No progress will be possible– on denuclearization, alleviating stress or anything– without diplomacy. Throughout the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union had plenty of interaction channels– consisting of embassies in both nations– that might lower the chances of a dispute throughout a crisis. Today, the United States and North Korea have practically no contact. As reporter Evan Osnos put it after a recent trip to North Korea, “To go between Washington and Pyongyang at this nuclear minute is to be struck, many of all, by how little the two understand each other.”
Diplomacy is no guarantee of development, but the lack of diplomacy will ensure a perpetuation of the status quo, or worse. At the least, regular diplomacy could open lines of crisis interactions to alleviate the possibilities of a miscalculation during a crisis. In time, diplomacy could yield arrangements that reduce tensions, and perhaps open a course to solutions to the huge concerns– denuclearization and a peace treaty.
For diplomacy to work, however, the United States has to understand what it desires, what it can deal with, and exactly what it is willing to give up. And the United States needs to be on the very same page about all of those questions with South Korea and Japan.
Unfortunately, President Donald Trump is weakening all three parts of this strategy. Trump has chosen an unnecessary battle with South Korea, and while doing so achieved a significant North Korean (and Chinese) objective. Trump sends extremely irregular messages to China– consisting of by suggesting that progress on trade disputes and North Korea can be traded for one another– leaving Beijing unlikely to take Trump seriously. And with weakened deterrence and confusing messages, the Trump administration is ill gotten ready for diplomacy.
The technique for confronting the North Korean danger is clear, however Trump seems intent on doing his finest to mishandle it.
Michael H. Fuchs is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and most recently was a deputy assistant secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs. He composed this for InsideSources.com.