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It has now been a year since President Donald Trump left the negotiating table at the Hanoi summit and U.S.-North Korea talks effectively stalled. His “maximum pressure and engagement” policy has failed: North Korea remains a direct and growing nuclear threat. Yet there seems to be less agreement than ever among America’s political leadership on what went wrong and what to do now.
Trump himself gives no sign of having a plan B and visibly intends to ignore North Korea until the U.S. presidential elections in November. Meanwhile, a New York Times survey revealed deep rifts on the issue among his Democratic challengers. Opinions run the gamut from doubling down on pressure to insisting on peace as the key to denuclearization.
Frustrated with America’s inaction, countries in the region take matters in their own hands.
China and Russia campaigned at the United Nations to relieve sanctions on North Korea after holding trilateral meetings with the country. China also appears to be sending “hundreds of thousands of tons” of humanitarian aid.
There has been a systematic overestimation of U.S. bargaining power, with disastrous consequences for regional security
The failure of “maximum pressure and engagement” shows the limits of the traditional U.S. policy discourse on North Korea.
In that discourse, hawks reason in terms of sanctions, diplomatic pressure, and military intimidation to force North Korea into a choice between surrender or collapse.
Meanwhile, doves talk sanctions relief, diplomatic liaison offices, and military confidence-building measures to coax North Korea into a denuclearization agreement.
Trump seems to have tried it all. He played out the hawkish logic by threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea and by imposing “maximum pressure” sanctions and diplomatic isolation.
He also invested a considerable amount of political capital in diplomatic engagement, holding summits, pushing for the adjustment of U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises, and agreeing to “new U.S.-DPRK relations” based on “peace and prosperity” and a “lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.”
On the Democratic side, there seems to be much confusion and discord. Many of Trump’s challengers struggled in the NYT questionnaire to even muster a coherent position on sanctions relief, a question that was central to success or failure in Hanoi.
Four out of ten first declared that they would relieve sanctions in return for a freeze of fissile material development, but then insisted that there would be no relief without substantial disarmament – a much higher bar. Both can’t logically be true at the same time.
Among the rest, there is a clear rift. On one end of the spectrum, Joe Biden tries to outdo Trump’s hawkishness by calling for a further tightening of sanctions.
Michael Bloomberg avoids calling for more economic coercion, but otherwise advocates a similarly hard line to Trump and Biden in insisting on substantial disarmament before sanctions relief.
On the other end, Bernie Sanders calls for “peaceful relations between the Koreas and the United States” and insisting that “peace and nuclear disarmament must proceed in parallel.”
Many of Trump’s challengers struggle… to even muster a coherent position on sanctions relief
Elizabeth Warren mentions peace too, albeit less vocally, but establishes herself as the strongest opponent of the use of force on the Korean peninsula.
What should be clear here is that calling anybody a dove in this context makes only relative sense. America’s policies and traditional discourse on North Korea are extremely hardline, especially considering that this is a David versus Goliath situation.
America has systematically rebuffed North Korean peace offers, always refused to conclude a proper ratified and binding treaty, pressured governments all over the world to break relations with it, and led the imposition of one of the harshest sanction regimes in history.
Trump, Sanders, and Warren may appear dovish when they mention peace, but against such a hardline background it is not (yet) clear to what extent they distinguish themselves from hawks pressing for surrender or collapse.
They all still appear to condition peace on North Korea’s denuclearization. Demanding that a country lay down arms as a condition for peace appears little different from demanding that it capitulate.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made quite clear in his New Year’s speech that surrender was out of the question. He vowed “never to barter [away] the security and dignity of [the] state,” called to “foil the enemies’ sanctions and blockade by dint of self-reliance,” and warned that North Korea “will steadily develop indispensable and prerequisite strategic weapons for national security until the U.S. rolls back its hostile policy and a lasting and durable peace mechanism is in place.”
In any case, the United States has arrived at the end of the hawk’s road. There is little that can still be realistically sanctioned beyond the “maximum pressure” embargo. Meanwhile, South Korea staunchly opposes military strikes because of its direct exposure to conflict escalation.
America’s leadership in the region will continue drifting as long as the discussion on North Korea remains stuck on tactics, when what needs to happen is a reevaluation of the overall strategic objective.
There are many good reasons to pursue the complete denuclearization of North Korea, but after a quarter-century of failure one has to stop letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made quite clear in his New Year’s speech that surrender was out of the question
There has been a systematic overestimation of U.S. bargaining power, with disastrous consequences for regional security.
America can much better ensure its security and that of its allies by making peace unconditionally than by maintaining an artificial war that raises the risk of nuclear escalation and that fuels North Korea’s fears and nuclear ambitions.
Proliferation concerns can be addressed subsequently by negotiating sanctions relief for an arms control agreement, though there should first be an urgent review of the legality of the current sanctions with regard to international human rights and humanitarian law.
Failing American action, countries in the region will continue moving on their own as soon as the coronavirus crisis is overcome. Needless to say, we are likely to then see a new North Korean missile light the sky.
Edited by James Fretwell