NEW YORK – The recent successful test of what Pyongyang claimed to be an intercontinental ballistic missile could well be a game changer for U.S. President Donald Trump in his dealing with Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, as it put a few hard facts under Washington’s nose.
First, North Korea has improved its ballistic missile technologies much faster than expected. Although the latest test-firing did not immediately mean that North Korea had cleared all the technical hurdles to make a fully functional ICBM, many experts stated that Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons development program had progressed at a much faster pace than previously thought and that Pyongyang could possess ICBMs equipped with nuclear warheads capable of striking the U.S. mainland within a few years.
Second, the latest missile test, conducted as the United States celebrated Independence Day on July 4, showed that Kim would never give up his nuclear- and missile-development programs until and unless the security of his regime is guaranteed. The North Korean dictator is reportedly so fearful of a possible U.S. attack that he believes that the development of nuclear weapons and ICBMs are the only way to safeguard the survival of his regime.
Third, the ad hoc Sino-U.S. coalition that Trump hastily forged with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, at his Mar-a-Lago estate in April to rein in North Korea has failed. China simply did not, and would not, do enough to pressure North Korea to stop its nuclear and missile development program. Following the Trump-Xi summit, China did accelerate its pressure against North Korea, but only to the extent that it would not destabilize the Kim regime.
China supports denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and condemns Pyongyang for pursuing its nuclear missile program. As Pyongyang’s historical ally, however, Beijing cannot afford to see North Korea collapse altogether, a situation that would shift the balance of power on the Korean Peninsula strongly in favor of the U.S. Xi, who needs to consolidate his power base within the Chinese leadership, is less keen to take any drastic measures ahead of the Communist Party Congress this fall. Cognizant of China’s constraints, Kim conducted a missile test in May when Xi was hosting world leaders for the “One Belt, One Road” summit in Beijing, a sign of contempt for the increasing pressure that Beijing had mounted since the Xi-Trump summit in April.
Faced with an ever-defiant Kim and China’s incompetence to rein in the regime, Trump has fewer options to deal with the increasing threat from North Korea. The tightening of the existing United Nations sanctions regime against North Korea is a non-starter. At an emergency meeting of the Security Council convened on the heels of the July 4 missile test, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley called for a resolution that would cut North Korea’s access to foreign currency and restrict oil exports to the reclusive state. Her proposal, however, received only less than enthusiastic responses from China and Russia, two veto-wielding permanent members that call for a solution through dialogue. The U.S., and its allies, could enhance their bilateral sanctions against North Korea, but the effects would be limited unless China, Pyongyang’s largest trade partner, is fully engaged.
The Trump administration has indicated that the U.S. would use military force if necessary. However, a “surgical strike” aimed at neutralizing North Korean missile capabilities remains a less likely option for Trump to take, at least for now, because of the potential for massive casualties involved. Such a strike would inevitably invite retaliation from North Korea against Seoul, as well as U.S. military bases in South Korea and Japan, which would result in a war that Defense Secretary James Mattis has said the U.S. would win but only with “a great cost.”
Such a unilateral use of force by Washington will be less sustainable domestically, at a time when American society is deeply divided over “Russiagate” and other controversies surrounding the Trump administration. Nor would the preemptive use of force by the U.S. likely be justified or supported internationally without hard evidence that North Korea constitutes a clear and present, not just a potential, danger to its national security.
The election in May of new South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who advocates detente with Pyongyang, has also constrained Washington’s hands. While criticizing North Korea’s ballistic missile testing, Moon suspended in June further deployment of U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in his country, saying that the problem with North Korea should be resolved peacefully through dialogue. It is highly unlikely that the Moon government would agree to any unilateral move by the U.S. involving the use of force.
Under the circumstances, the so-called suspension-for-suspension package, which calls for suspending North Korea’s nuclear and missile development program, reciprocated by the suspension of a large-scale military drill by the U.S. and South Korea, appears to be the most realistic option available. Of course, such a package can only be discussed and agreed on a strict condition that an independent and credible inspection mechanism be put in place by the U.N. Security Council. The council can and should also provide a road map for the peninsula’s denuclearization in its resolutions, while spelling out the measures that will be taken in case Pyongyang fails to suspend its nuclear and missile programs. If agreed, the package, originally proposed by China and supported by Russia, would put the onus of reining in North Korea more squarely on the Security Council as a whole, and its permanent members in particular.
The Trump administration has previously indicated that Washington was not seeking regime change as long as North Korea remains a non-nuclear state. The costly annual drill with South Korea will become less meaningful for the U.S. to sustain if Seoul is committed to pursuing dialogue with Pyongyang. Now is the time for Washington to give serious consideration to constructive engagement with North Korea and push the suspension-for-suspension deal, equipped with an independent and credible inspection mechanism, to help de-escalate the tension on the peninsula and to lay a foundation for a negotiated settlement of the ongoing crisis.
A former United Nations official, Hitoki Den is a commentator based in New York. He is the author of “Kokuren wo Yomu: Watashino Seimukan Noto Kara” (“A Story of the U.N.: From the Notes of a Political Affairs Officer”) and many articles on U.N. and Asian issues.