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Foreign Policy

Unpacking Trump’s New Policy on North Korea

Apr 27 , 2017
  • Wu Zhenglong

    Senior Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

US President Donald Trump, shortly after taking office, announced an end to his predecessor Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea, claiming that US diplomacy and other efforts in the past 20 years for a nuclear-free Korea Peninsula failed to deliver.

It is a fact that US policy on North Korea has failed. During the terms of office of Trump’s three predecessors, North Korea’s capabilities in nuclear weapons and the research and development of rocket carriers were not contained, but instead made significant progress. To date, North Korea has conducted five nuclear weapon tests, and numerous test-launches of its short-, medium- and long-range ballistic missiles. With all major populated areas of South Korea and Japan already within the strike ranges of North Korean ballistic missiles, Pyongyang has said that it will develop and manufacture ballistic missiles that could strike the continental regions of the United States.

After a two-month review, the Trump administration announced its official policy on North Korea: Seeking to impose “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang in the hopes of forcing it to change its behavior, and then beginning to engage with it, and the goal of the new policy is denuclearization and is not aimed at “regime change”. Considering the remarks made recently by senior officials of the Trump administration, Trump’s new policy on North Korea could be understood as sending the following major messages:

First, “a peaceful solution” to end the North Korea nuclear weapon program is stressed, but “all options” are on the table. North Korea, though small and weak compared with the US, unexpectedly had a longtime strategic upper hand in the interaction and its relations with the US. The reason behind this was pretty simple: North Korea knew well that neither the US nor South Korea could bear the consequences of military attacks. If the US attacked North Korea, Pyongyang would naturally retaliate by counterattacking South Korea. And if North Korea decided to launch strikes against South Korea, it would be able to easily and instantly turn Seoul, which has one-fourth of South Korean population, into an inferno simply by using long-range artillery and cannons, even without resorting to the use of missiles or nuclear weapons. Therefore, there is no option other than dialogue in dissolving the North Korean nuclear issue.

Second, seeking to impose maximum pressure on North Korea. A review of policies toward North Korea of the past US administrations showed one thing in common: Pursuing the policy of both “pressure” and “engagement”. The difference was: Sometimes they stressed “pressure” and ignored “engagement”, sometimes they highlighted “engagement” and played down “pressure”, and some other times they attached equal importance to the two. The Trump administration again follows the old path and is trying to impose maximum pressure on Pyongyang. Within such a policy framework, the US dispatched the aircraft carrier strike group led by the USS Carl Vinson to the sea areas in the vicinity of the Korean Peninsula in a show of force, and two more carrier strike groups are said to be heading to the region soon. By sending such an “armada” to the region, the US is staging a show of force to exert pressure on North Korea and to try to bring it to the negotiation table.

Third, maximizing economic sanctions. The US will, through the United Nations Security Council, seek to impose severe sanctions against North Korea to cover more sectors, probably involving industries such as finance, transport and energy, so as to weaken or stifle North Korea’s capabilities in researching and developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

Fourth, lowering the threshold for engagement. The Obama administration insisted that North Korea had to solemnly pledge to abandon its nuclear weapons program first before the US could engage with it, but the Trump administration said that as long as North Korea “changes its behavior”, it would be ready for talks with Pyongyang. Although  “change its behavior” is very vague, it allows more room for flexibility and maneuvering. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has made it very clear: if North Korea ceases its nuclear weapon tests and missile tests, the US would consider holding talks with it.

Finally, the goal of the policy is “denuclearization”, not “regime change”. At the moment, North Korea has trust in nothing else but nuclear weapons, believing that only atomic bombs could help guarantee the safety of its government. The US clarification of its policy goal and promises could, to some extent, ease North Korea’s primary concerns.

At present, Trump’s new policy on North Korea is still a framework, and much is to be done to flesh it out. The reality is that North Korea does not buy the so-called maximum military pressure. Against a backdrop of the massive military buildup in the vicinity of the Korea Peninsula, North Korea still announced that it has prepared and is ready to carry out the sixth nuclear test; Pyongyang still staged the large-scale military parade on the “Day of the Sun” to display and showcase several new types of its missiles and weapons. It also launched a missile on the day after the military parade. Although the launch failed again, a series of recent North Korean actions highlighted its “tit for tat” stance toward the US, and North Korea has shown no signs of returning to the negotiation table.

The “dual-track approach” put forward by China to resolve the Korean Peninsula issue and the “suspension-for-suspension proposal” as a first step to kick-start dialogues, are well-balanced and are in the interests of all parties concerned. Amid a highly complicated, sensitive and risky situation on the Korea Peninsula at the moment, China’s “suspension-for-suspension proposal” can work effectively to ease tension on the peninsula and create favorable conditions to bring all relevant parties back to the negotiation table.

Furthermore, the “dual-track approach” directly targets the concerns of all parties and the primary worry for security of the North Korean regime. The approach not only promises security for the North Korean government, but also makes arrangements for guaranteeing its security, and this will eliminate North Korea’s need to rely on and pursue own nuclear weapons. Only then could the US reverse the strategic disadvantage it’s faced ever since North Korea’s first nuclear test, and could it be possible for achieving breakthroughs in solving the North Korean nuclear issue.




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