Asia Pacific | ANALYSIS

Nuclear-armed North Korea presents hard choices for Obama's successor

by Alastair Wanklyn

Staff Writer

As North Korea clears hurdle after hurdle in its race to obtain nuclear weapons, a foreign policy adviser to U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump has called for the U.S. to review its objectives.

Former Rep. Pete Hoekstra, who once headed the House Intelligence Committee, told a forum in Washington on Tuesday that the dual-track strategy of sanctions and patience have not worked.

“You now have a North Korea with nuclear capabilities,” he told a discussion organized by the Korea Economic Institute of America. “None of us wanted that. None of us expected that to happen, but it has and that’s the new reality.”

He said Washington should reassess what it can realistically expect from North Korea and how to achieve that.

The view contrasted with that of fellow forum participant Kurt Campbell, an adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Campbell said he believes tighter sanctions could have the effect Washington seeks.

“I believe at the center of this is a different kind of conversation with China,” he said, noting that Beijing handles nearly all of Pyongyang’s foreign trade and finance.

But some experts say China has reached the limits of its influence in North Korea. They say it lost the North’s trust when it failed to moderate U.S. military and economic pressure.

Beijing has repeatedly urged Washington to lower tensions but has seen little change in U.S. actions.

A new approach might be to get North Korea to cap and then gradually eliminate its nuclear weapons in return for economic assistance and the normalization of relations with the U.S., regional affairs analyst Niv Farago of South Korea’s Sogang University wrote in a report last month.

He said Washington might have to resign itself to allowing the North to retain a nuclear fuel cycle, but this could be placed under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Authority.

Such a move could lead to South Korea insisting on its own nuclear fuel cycle, but Farago said this would bring a balance to the region.

“In terms of peninsula stability, resigning itself to each of the two Koreas having an independent nuclear fuel cycle under IAEA monitoring would be a more favorable alternative than allowing North Korea to continue accumulating nuclear weapons and advancing its research on weaponization,” he said.

However, some experts say North Korea has little regard for the IAEA because of the U.N. watchdog’s repeated denunciations of Pyongyang’s atomic program.

“The IAEA has lost much credibility with the DPRK over the past six years, given the agency’s unnecessary condemnations of the DPRK’s nuclear program,” said Tariq Rauf, who heads the arms control program at Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Rauf, a former IAEA official, said it would have been advisable for the watchdog to keep out of the picture until a political agreement gave its inspectors a clear verification role.

For now, the U.S. State Department has been urging patience for the current trade and financial embargo to achieve results.

“Sanctions take time,” spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday. “We believe it’s important to continue to work through the U.N. and with the international community because pressure applied from everybody, we still believe, is going to be more effective.”

Meanwhile, Trump adviser Hoekstra quashed speculation that the Democratic hopeful would try to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who is not known to have sat down any with foreign leader since taking office in late 2011.

In May, Trump said he was willing to try to talk Kim out of his nuclear program.

Hoekstra said he cannot imagine a Trump-Kim summit taking place in the near- or midterm future.