The U.S.’s Approaches to North Korea

By Daisy Ni (PO ’21)

Tensions between the United States’ and North Korea have been escalating throughout the past year. 2018, however, seems to be bringing forth a new era of diplomacy. Kim Jong Un has extended an invitation to President Trump to meet, an invitation that Trump has accepted. Although Trump appears confident, he has simultaneously articulated the U.S.’s ability and willingness to resort to military options, as well. Given recent developments, it is necessary to examine the accuracy of his claim, and the possible approaches and solutions available to the U.S. on the “North Korea problem.”

The Agreed Framework of 1994 and Six-Party Talks of 2003 represent two instances in which diplomatic agreements were almost completed, both of which ultimately collapsed. The latest talks being planned for May, however, would represent the first time a sitting American president and a North Korean leader have met. Past U.S. administrations have avoided leader-to-leader communications under the concern that it would offer the Kim regime validation and recognition on an international level. Negotiation attempts between the U.S. and North Korea have also been difficult due to the inflexibility on both sides. The U.S. had traditionally required that North Korea agree to end their nuclear program as a precondition of talks; North Korea, however, has long resisted such provisions. This instance thus lacks firm preconditions—South Korea states that North Korea has demonstrated willingness to denuclearize, but North Korean statements belie such a belief, and have in fact refused to talk should preconditions be erected.

Trump will need to take heed from the failures of the past. The Six-Party reached formal agreements, but they were abandoned when North Korea delegates walked after the U.S. imposed additional sanctions on the country. The U.S. and North Korea will need to bridge the expectations gap on rules of engagement, and strive for comprehensive agreement on areas beyond North Korea’s nuclear program in order to prevent confusion and disillusionment. Miscommunication is a particular concern due to language barriers. Even the desired outcome of denuclearization, for example, holds separate meanings for the U.S. and North Korea. To Kim, denuclearization consists of more than the downsizing or elimination of the nuclear arsenal; it also contains assurances that the U.S. will not replace the nuclear weapons it pulled out of South Korea, and could extend to the termination of U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula and insulation against the U.S.’s nuclear umbrella defending the region. Washington will need to account for the causes of past failures in preparing for the upcoming talks, as well as the distinct end goals of both parties and the significance of these different understandings.

Regarding military approaches, on the other hand, Trump’s rhetoric vastly simplifies the situation at hand, underestimating the complexity and ramifications of military action. There are two types of pre-attack strikes available, should the U.S. seek to initiate measures first. Preemptive strikes are taken in the face of an attack by another party that is either already underway, or is very credibly imminent. In short, they function essentially as a reactionary response after the decision for war has been taken by the opposition. Preemptive strikes are generally supported by international law under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, as it is consistent with a nation’s right to self-defense. Preventive strikes, on the other hand, serve to destroy the potential threat of the targeted party, when an attack is neither imminent nor known to be planned. They are resultantly more controversial, shifting away from the traditional policy of using force only as a last resort—it symbolizes a war of choice rather than necessity, violating the prerequisites of necessity and proportionality that are usually associated with pre-attack actions.

Without evidence of North Korea’s intentions to strike first, the U.S. would lack the legal authority to launch a preventive strike. Additionally, there is no method to predict North Korea’s response. Kim, who may interpret the attack as the beginning of a full-blown war, could possibly retaliate and disproportionately escalate the scope of warfare. Experts now increasingly believe that Kim may utilize a nuclear-first strike. As a weaker state, North Korea faces a “use it or lose it” scenario in which Kim would need to decide between deploying his weapons to maximum effect or risking their being compromised in later stages.

As such, the U.S., in considering preventive strikes, would have to grapple with questions of morality. South Korea, China, and Japan, in the near vicinity of North Korea, would likely bear the brunt of any immediate retaliation from Kim and thus oppose the U.S.’s initiative. The U.S. Department of Defense assesses that a second Korean War could produce 200,000 to 300,000 South Korean and U.S. military casualties within the first 90 days. North Korea, in fact, has an estimated 15,000 canons and rocket launchers aimed at Seoul. The U.S., acting unilaterally, would shred our east-Asian alliances with no guarantee of international support—there is a small, yet distinct possibility that China will ultimately aid North Korea in case of war.

As Trump himself expressed in a Tweet, “the World is watching and waiting” for the negotiations to play out. The U.S.’s possible military approaches to North Korea, however, are more limited than he claims, making deterrence and the upcoming talks even more crucial. Successful diplomacy could lead to a more stable Korean Peninsula, representing a breakthrough in global relations. Mistakes and accidental provocation, on the other hand, could produce costs not only deadly and too high but not only our own to bear.

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