North Korea may have refrained from detonating a nuclear device and botched another missile test this weekend, easing tensions in Asia. But it is unclear whether President Donald Trump has found a way around the limited options against North Korea that constrained his predecessors and put it on the path to becoming a nuclear power.
Trump essentially has three choices: a military strike that could ignite a full-blown war; pressure on China to impose tougher sanctions to persuade the North to change course, an approach that failed for his predecessors; or a deal that could require significant concessions, with no guarantee that North Korea would fulfill its promises.
Thus far, Trump has tried to signal both resolve and ambiguity, suggesting at various times that he is open to all three options. The question is whether his apparent willingness to consider both war and a deal may be enough carrot and stick to persuade China to change its approach and apply enough pressure to bring the North to the table.
Pence calls for ‘peaceable means, through negotiations’
Vice President Mike Pence, during a visit to South Korea, raised the possibility Monday that the Trump administration could pursue talks. No one should mistake the U.S. resolve, he said, also noting that Washington was seeking security “through peaceable means, through negotiations.” The phrasing was unusual for a senior U.S. official discussing the Korean Peninsula with U.S. troops in the background.
Talks have long been China’s preference, and now that Trump seems to be relying on Beijing to an unprecedented degree, Pence may have been signaling that the United States was open to negotiations. China’s chief objective is to get talks — of any kind — started to avoid conflict so close to home.
War on the peninsula is a nightmare for China that could lead to at least 1 million casualties, according to some estimates, ravage North and South Korea and set back Beijing’s climb to global pre-eminence.
In his most flexible language yet, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, appealed again Friday for negotiations.
“As long as it is a talk, China is willing to support it: either it is formal or informal, one-track or dual-track, bilateral, trilateral or quadrilateral,” Wang said in Beijing. “We are also willing to stay open-minded and accept the good advice from others.”
North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, already has enough fissile material for 20 to 25 nuclear weapons and may be able to produce sufficient fissile materials — plutonium and highly enriched uranium — for six to seven new weapons a year, according to Siegfried S. Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Concerns about a ‘nuclear catastrophe’
Should the North conduct its sixth nuclear test, it would move closer to having a hydrogen bomb, or a two-stage thermonuclear weapon, Hecker said, with up to 1,000 times more power than the Hiroshima-style weapons that Kim has detonated so far.
With that level of firepower, Hecker said he worried about a “nuclear catastrophe” on the peninsula resulting from either “escalation of military activities” or poor security around the North’s nuclear arsenal. Talks are needed immediately, he said, just to deal with the immediate threat to Japan and South Korea, both U.S. allies.
The logic for diplomacy should be compelling to the Trump administration, Chinese experts say, even as Washington stakes out a policy of “maximum pressure” and has deployed a naval flotilla led by the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson to the coast of the Korean Peninsula.
China’s peace proposal
In a formal proposal last month, China said that talks should be framed on the basis of North Korea suspending its nuclear testing, and the United States and South Korea suspending their military exercises off the peninsula.
Such suggestions were a non-starter for the Obama administration, which insisted that Pyongyang had to give up its weapons first, and the conditions, as proposed by Wang last month, were immediately rejected by senior Trump administration officials.
Washington needs to understand North Korea’s point of view, argues China, which fought on the North’s side against the United States during the Korean War, losing an estimated 300,000 soldiers.
30,000 U.S. troops in S. Korea
As nearly 30,000 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea and frequent U.S. military exercises occur on land and at sea, North Korea has complained that it is threatened by a “ring of American fire.” The United States is still technically at war with the North because a peace treaty was never signed at the end of the Korean War in 1953.
A major purpose of any new diplomacy would be to halt the North’s nuclear program. The longer the country is allowed to test its weapons, the more lethal they become. Capping the arsenal at its current stage is one of the more palatable among several unpalatable options, U.S. and Chinese experts say.
The North’s freedom to conduct underground tests gives it the chance to significantly improve its weapons by using less fissile material per weapon and producing greater explosive yields, said David Albright, a physicist who oversees the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington.
Clear and present danger
For Trump — and China and its neighbors — this means a much graver threat than the Obama or Bush administrations faced, Hecker wrote in The New York Times in January.
“Pyongyang can most likely already reach all of South Korea, Japan and possibly even some United States targets in the Pacific” with its nuclear weapons, he wrote.
“Today the most important point is to avoid the use or detonation of a nuclear device on the Korean Peninsula,” he said this weekend as the world waited to see whether the North would detonate a weapon. “Any use of nuclear devices of any sort on the Korean Peninsula is what I call nuclear catastrophe.”
Tillerson says it’s time to act
During a visit to South Korea last month, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson rejected China’s push for talks as a way of buying time to halt North Korea’s testing program. Negotiations could begin only after the North gave up its weapons, Tillerson said, a condition that Pence did not mention Monday.
Chinese experts say they detect an opening for negotiations.
“Mr. Trump said something interesting during his campaign — that if necessary he could meet with Kim Jong Un and have a sandwich with him,” said Yang Xiyu, a former diplomat from China who led his country’s delegation to the so-called six-party talks on North Korea in the mid-2000s. “We can see that as a shortcut to solve the issue in a peaceful manner.”
The idea of a Trump-Kim summit
The idea of a meeting between Trump and Kim, who has been treated with obvious disdain by Xi Jinping, China’s president, is not so far-fetched, Yang said.
Before Kim came to power in 2011, North Korea participated in the six-party talks with China and the United States, but the North always sent an official who lacked the power to decide on substantive issues.
Now was the time to remove that obstacle and go to Kim directly, Yang said.
“There is only one person who has the authority to make a fundamental decision — yes or no — and that’s Kim,” Yang said. “China can facilitate a three-way dialogue among the top leaders of China, North Korea and the United States so we can at least try the shortcut.”
Can Kim really be persuaded?
Kim would have to be persuaded that the United States would not attack the North if he gave up his weapons, Yang said. The fate of the Libyan leader, Col. Moammar Gadhafi, who was driven from power and then killed after he gave up the components of his nuclear weapons program, was foremost in Kim’s mind, Yang said.
Robert Carlin, a U.S. expert who served in the Clinton administration and favors talks as a way to control the North’s weapons development, contends that negotiations based on the premise of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula are possible.
In 2016, North Korea’s official spokesman, one of the “highest on the North’s ladder of authority,” spoke of denuclearization as “the steadfast will of our party, army and people,” Carlin wrote in suggesting that the opening should be seized.