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Talk to Kim, But Carry a Big Stick

| Feb. 12, 2018

Diplomacy won’t work without a military option — and vice versa.

North Korea’s latest launch — a missile that could have reached Washington — starkly confirms a possible nuclear attack by Pyongyang as the most urgent and consequential security threat we face. Having worked on the North Korean nuclear issue under three Presidents, beginning with George H.W. Bush, I have never witnessed a more dangerous moment.

On a matter of this character, our Nation must be unified, as must the international community. In the face of an implacable, nuclear-armed adversary, divisions within our ranks — or inconsistency in policy and approach — could fatally undermine our ability to respond effectively.

Unanimity cannot be achieved without clarity of purpose. We must identify our most important goals and stay focused and disciplined about achieving them. We should avoid overloading the current agenda with goals — however laudable — that are not directly tied to urgent, existential threats.

Two goals meet the test. First, the Korean peninsula must be free of nuclear weapons. Second, the Korean peninsula must be secure.

Those two goals unify the United States and the entire international community.

Kim Jong Un says he will never give up his weapons under any circumstances. Many accept this claim at face value, but Kim Jong Un probably values one thing more than nuclear weapons: himself.

The sad fact is that the international community has never mounted sufficient pressure upon North Korea to force Kim Jong Un to choose between his nuclear arsenal and the survival of his regime. He will have his cake and eat it too, as long as we keep letting him.

Kim probably views the fate of Muammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein as a cautionary tale. If they had not lost their nuclear weapons programs, would they still be alive and in power?

We need to change the calculus. The minute Kim Jong Un concludes that his arsenal threatens more than protects his safety, privileges, and regime, he may choose a different course. Yes, Kim is ruthless. Yes, he is a risk-taker — although the risks he has taken so far have been small, given the inability of the international community to rally to a single position and stick to it. But the evidence suggests that he is cunning, not crazy.

Our strategy should be to persuade Kim Jong Un that his continued nuclear weapons and missile programs jeopardize his ability to stay in power. To accomplish that, we must do three things.

First, persuade China to use more leverage to move the North Korean regime. While China wants North Korea to denuclearize, so far it has been unwilling to press the case too strongly for fear of destabilizing the peninsula.

We should explain to Beijing that Kim Jong Un’s threats to launch a nuclear attack against the United States give us no choice but to significantly strengthen our posture on the peninsula. The deployment of the THAAD missile defense system was a good first step. We should supplement it with boost-phase intercept capabilities and continue the more robust joint military exercise strategy with our South Korean allies demonstrated by last month’s Vigilant Ace combined US-South Korean exercise, which involved 12,000 military personnel and 230 aircraft. Another possibility is to consider relocating U.S. military forces from our base in Okinawa to South Korea.

China clearly does not want a U.S. military buildup on the peninsula. If Beijing wishes to avoid that outcome, then China will need to do much more. If they won’t act, we will.

Second, we must develop a credible military option. Military action seems unthinkable to many. It is a horrifying fact that North Korean artillery could kill vast numbers in South Korea in a matter of hours. But an unconstrained North Korean nuclear arsenal could wreak exponentially greater horror, and relying on Kim Jong Un’s self-restraint seems a poor substitute for strategy. In short, if the United States has any “red line,” we must have a credible military option to back it up.

Third, having put ourselves in a position of strength, we should be willing to launch negotiations with Pyongyang. The goal would be to initially freeze North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons program and ultimately dismantle it.

If China takes stronger action to constrain fuel shipments to North Korea, and to crack down on North Korean exports, the pressure on Kim may well reach the point where he is willing to limit his nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program.

Negotiations will either lead to a diplomatic solution, or lay the groundwork for international support for military action if diplomatic efforts fail and leave no peaceful alternative.

While it is vital for Washington to coordinate its diplomacy with our regional allies in Seoul and Tokyo, as well as with Beijing and Moscow, the United States should be prepared to negotiate directly with Pyongyang. After all, we have vital national interests directly at stake. We ought to give diplomacy every chance to succeed.

The credibility of our military strategy and our diplomatic strategy go hand in hand. Absent a credible military threat, Kim will not negotiate seriously. On the other hand, absent a dedicated and sustained attempt at diplomacy by the United States, our allies will not support military action against North Korea.

If the U.S. offers negotiations but Kim demurs, China and the rest of the international community will have a stronger basis to ratchet up the pressure. In the meantime, we would continue positioning allied forces to act forcefully to preserve our two prime objectives: a secure and non-nuclear peninsula.

That way, we both maximize the chance for a diplomatic solution, and prepare for the possibility of military action.

The best way to prevent a war in Korea is to demonstrate clearly that we are prepared to win one.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Poneman, Daniel.“Talk to Kim, But Carry a Big Stick.” Medium, February 12, 2018.

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