Making a Deal with the Devil: Donald Trump, North Korea, and Nukes

When what started as a totally unrelated press conference somehow became the most direct—and accidental—threat to North Korea in a long time, we shook our heads and thought we knew what was going on. By threatening Kim Jong Un with “fire and fury,” President Trump disregarded international norms in favor of brusqueness, just because he could. We’d seen this dozens of times. But unlike in most policy arenas, the U.S.’s approach to North Korea has not been well-established, and neither Democrats nor Republicans have articulated a clear goal in its implementation. Both Obama and Bush tried a hodgepodge combination of sanctions and diplomacy. Both approaches were disorganized and ineffective. The nonproliferation treaty signed under the Bush administration in 2007 was broken by North Korea in 2009, and Obama’s rhetoric clearly did not dissuade Kim Jong Un from levels of nuclear development that surprised even most experts.

Yet, despite consistent policy failure, Republicans and Democrats both remain vague and uncertain in their approach. The DNC party platform says only that “North Korea is perhaps the most repressive regime on the planet, run by a sadistic dictator… Democrats will protect America and our allies, press China to restrain North Korea, and sharpen the choices for Pyongyang to compel it to abandon its illegal nuclear and missile programs.” The Republican platform says roughly the same: “We urge the government of China to recognize the inevitability of change in the Kim family’s slave state… The U.S. will continue to demand the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program with full accounting of its proliferation activities.” Such bipartisanship would be impressive if it were forged over something other than the piecemeal strategy that led to the country’s nuclear development in the first place. North Korean policy has never been functional. Donald Trump: it is time to make a deal.

North Korea is painted in the public eye as a “rogue state” impossible to predict, understand, or reason with. But experts argue that the nation is highly rational, motivated by the single goal of regime survival. Nuclear weapons are, to these analysts, Kim Jong Un’s insurance policy. He will deploy them only to maintain his own power, and given that full-fledged war with the United States would be suicidal, it is unlikely that North Korea would ever provoke the U.S. by nuking Los Angeles or New York. The recent nuclear tests show not that an attack is immediate, but that North Korea now views the violation of international law as a surer method of keeping itself alive than any international agreement—which may be less scary, but no less problematic. Preemptive war is not an option—not unless the U.S. wishes to risk its alliances with South Korea and Japan, rupture any stability in the region, and sacrifice thousands of lives. While it is important to pressure China to be firmer in opposing North Korea, expecting the country to solve the crisis alone is to do nothing more than U.S. policy has done the past 16 years.

We need a deal: we need to open a line of communication with North Korea and offer something that is legitimately attractive in exchange for denuclearization. The success of the late Clinton administration in negotiating an agreement—in person, with real economic benefit and security assurances to North Korea—shows that the nation can and will operate diplomatically when they believe it to be beneficial. The challenge to the U.S.: make it beneficial, but not too dangerous. Convince China to sign onto the deal. Denote a specific and multilateral punishment for its violation.

The Brookings Institution, a Washinton-based think tank, recommends that such an agreement include the “establishment of full diplomatic relations; end of the economic embargo and sanctions, economic assistance and investment; and a peace treaty to replace the 64-year-old armistice agreement.” William Perry, secretary of defense under Clinton, emphasizes the importance of security assurances from the United States. Perry also advocates a negotiated freeze on nuclear weapon and long-range missile testing, whereas the Brookings Institute suggests only total denuclearization.

There are countless forms an agreement could take and many very intelligent people championing them. If Trump can actually channel his energy into listening to them, there’s no reason he can’t execute something both Bush and Obama failed to do. If he succeeds, he can tell his supporters and his opponents that he did something the establishment could not. If North Korea refuses, then the pressure for the international community to ramp up sanctions will increase, as it becomes clear  that North Korea’s nuclear program is more than just leverage in getting what it says it wants. Either way, a full, fair, and prompt attempt at diplomacy is imperative, both to an administration struggling to pass any legislation at all and to a nation seeking to be the powerful, humane, and rational international leader it perceives itself to be. President Trump, I’m not expecting you to do this. Prove me wrong.

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