North Korea’s nuclear weapons program was high on the agenda when US President Donald Trump met leaders in Japan, South Korea, and China last week. Two months on from the UN Security Council’s latest round of sanctions against North Korea, Trump is seeking to ratchet up the pressure. In Beijing, Trump asked President Xi Jinping to halt oil exports to North Korea. In Seoul, he announced that weight limits on South Korean ballistic missile warheads would be removed. For the first time in a decade, naval drills held near Japan featured three US aircraft carriers, a show of strength explicitly targeted at North Korea.
And yet Trump left the region with greater confusion about his strategy for dealing with North Korea than it had before he arrived. Last month, Trump tweeted that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was ‘wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man’, as he calls Kim Jong Un. But speaking in Seoul last Tuesday, Trump invited Pyongyang ‘to come to the table and to make a deal’.
Does Trump now see negotiation with North Korea as the way out of the current impasse?
North Korea hasn’t conducted any nuclear or missile tests since it fired an intermediate-range ballistic missile on 15 September. Pyongyang’s threats to fire a missile near Guam or to conduct an atmospheric nuclear test in the Pacific Ocean now look like only that (touch wood). It’s too soon to say whether this is a signal from Pyongyang that it wants to start talks. Nonproliferation expert Jeffrey Lewis points out that the lull in activity is consistent with previous seasonal patterns reflecting both poor weather and focus on the harvest.
Nonetheless, the absence of tests has provided some breathing room. Joseph Yun, the US special representative for North Korea policy, said last month that a period of at least 60 days without nuclear and missile testing would be required before Washington would resume talks with Pyongyang. However, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has not confirmed that the 60-day threshold is White House policy, and other sources say the clock can only start when North Korea tells the United States it is freezing testing.
On the North Korean side, there are some signs of willingness to enter dialogue with the United States. With the successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile this year, North Koreans feel they are close to achieving a reliable deterrent against the United States, and will soon—perhaps sometime in 2018—turn toward emphasising economic growth, according to people participating in track two diplomacy with North Korea. North Korean officials have also hinted they would accept denuclearisation as a long-term objective of diplomacy—though not as an immediate goal of negotiations.
It seems less likely that the US administration is serious about engaging Pyongyang. Trump is yet to nominate an assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs or an ambassador to South Korea. And Tillerson’s attention is focused on slashing the number of US diplomats rather than advancing US interests abroad. Ralph Cossa, President of the Pacific Forum CSIS, which is involved in track two dialogue with North Korea, warns that Trump’s inconsistent messages and the State Department’s troubles are making it more difficult to communicate clearly with Pyongyang.
Moreover, the White House hasn’t demonstrated any intention to compromise on its demand for the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation of North Korea. Trump’s National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said in September that there were no preconditions for talks, but that a mere freeze in North Korea’s nuclear program would be unacceptable. More recently, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said, ‘I cannot imagine a condition under which the United States would accept North Korea as a nuclear power’. There is no chance that North Korea will agree to denuclearisation, so this rigidity renders negotiations a non-starter.
Concerningly, the White House is still entertaining the notion of a military solution to the North Korean crisis. As recently as 28 October, Mattis repeated his claim that the US has military options against North Korea that would avoid heavy casualties in South Korea. This is dangerous nonsense. This month, the Pentagon informed Congress that confidently destroying all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program would require a ground invasion, and a North Korean defector has said that any attack, no matter how limited, would trigger a massive response. South Korea is moreover absolutely opposed to preventive military action against the North, so a US attack on the North would risk wrecking the alliance.
Hopefully this is all bluster designed to coerce North Korea. Most likely, the US will fall by default into a rebadged version of the ‘strategic patience’ exercised by President Obama, applying sanctions pressure to North Korea while its nuclear program continues. Without a willingness to compromise, negotiations will never come to fruition. If Trump could refrain from calling Kim Jong Un ‘short and fat’ in the meantime, that’d be great.
Cameron Steer is the United States Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.