What Trump Wants From North Korea
U.S. President Donald Trump’s no-nonsense approach to North Korea -- and to its enabler and protector, China -- has caught the attention of the two anxious Communist allies. While the hardest part lies ahead, the president may have moved the world a bit closer to the ultimate goal: peaceful elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
During the campaign, after his election, and as president, Trump has been consistent on the basics:
(1) What was tried for almost three decades by administrations of both parties has not worked;
(2) He would pursue new options, including both personal diplomacy and credible threats of force to protect American and allied security interests;
(3) China must use its unique leverage to compel North Korea’s denuclearization or itself pay a significant political, economic, and diplomatic price.
The burgeoning confrontation with North Korea has evoked memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. President John F. Kennedy, after months of ignoring warnings that the Soviet Union was building offensive missile capabilities in Cuba, finally confronted Moscow with a blockade of the island -- a so-called quarantine.
The crisis ended when Kennedy agreed to pull U.S. missiles out of Turkey and Italy in exchange for a withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba, and assured Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro that Washington would no longer pursue regime change in Havana.
Pyongyang and Beijing want a similar deal now for North Korea. But Washington already unilaterally pulled its tactical nuclear weapons out of South Korea two decades ago in the cause of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. So the Communist powers are now demanding an end to the U.S.-ROK alliance, or at least of all joint exercises once U.S.-North Korea negotiations are done.
As for the security guarantees Pyongyang demands, Rex Tillerson, while he was secretary of state, addressed those with his Six Nots: “We do not seek a regime change. We do not seek the collapse of the regime. We do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula. We do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th parallel. We are not your enemy. We are not your threat.”
The president publicly criticized Tillerson for “wasting his time” trying to negotiate with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. But clearly Trump was not objecting to negotiations per se. It is more plausible that he did not like the quid the Secretary was offering for Pyongyang’s quo -- a guarantee of regime security in exchange for denuclearization.
It seems the president has something much larger in mind -- that is, that the regime must change its behavior not only toward the outside world but also toward its own people. That conclusion is supported by his intensified attention to the deplorable human rights situation in North Korea.
He first suggested that thinking in seemingly off-hand comments and tweets. Last September he said the North Korean leader “doesn't mind starving or killing his people.” The issue soon graduated from the realm of informal comments on social media to the level of official, carefully prepared administration policy.
North Korea’s human rights atrocities were the focus of the president’s address to the United Nations; his speech before South Korea's National Assembly; his State of the Union Address; and at a special, extended public meeting with North Korean escapees in the Oval Office. Vice President Mike Pence reinforced the message in his remarks at the Winter Olympics.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo, now named to replace Tillerson, has carried the argument to its logical conclusion by questioning the continued existence of the Kim regime. He said last July, “I am hopeful we will find a way to separate that regime from this system…The North Korean people, I'm sure, are lovely people and would love to see him go.”
The following month, the director stated: “[F]or a rogue leader like Kim Jong Un to have the capacity of a ballistic missile with a warhead . . . to hold America and the world at risk. . .[the President] finds . . . unacceptable, and he is simply not going to permit it to happen.”
But the question arises: When the nuclear missile threat is gone, will the “rogue leader” be allowed to stay? Or will he confront the same fate as Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi? Pyongyang, Beijing, and Moscow argue that regime change is what the nuclear program is designed to deter -- this even though North Korea’s nuclear program was underway years before the events in Iraq and Libya.
As Tillerson saw it, the administration’s choice came down to regime change and the likelihood of nuclear war, or regime security and denuclearization. Tillerson was willing to resolve the strategic and moral dilemma by opting for the latter and leaving the fate of the North Korean people to the indeterminate future.
With a new secretary who is in sync with the president’s high-profile emphasis on North Korea’s human rights abuses, it will be difficult for the administration simply to back off and adopt Tillerson’s live-and-let-live approach. A denuclearized but still cruelly despotic regime in Pyongyang will continue to rankle.
It seems highly likely that the president and his new foreign policy advisor will demand more from Pyongyang. What that will mean can be discerned from the words of a North Korean escapee the President quoted in his speech to the South Korean National Assembly. The woman said: “When I think about it now, I was not a human being. I was more like an animal. Only after leaving North Korea did I realize what life was supposed to be.”
The treatment of the North Korean people by three generations of the Kim regime can be fully expressed in one word: dehumanization. Beyond denuclearization, then, the Trump administration will demand, if not regime change, at least changed regime behavior. The rehumanization of the North Korean people will require a minimal level of decent treatment and respect for their basic human rights, even if it initially falls short of the standards set down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Pyongyang regime, as well as its Chinese and Russian supporters, will recognize the risk in such a reform move: they will see a slippery slope with ever-expanding demands for political participation which, if granted, could spell the eventual end of the Kim family dynasty.
The Trump administration is likely to offer cooperation with China to ease the long-term transition to a semblance of governing normalcy. Whether Xi Jinping will go along with such a liberalizing process remains to be seen. U.S. officials used to say they could live with a North Korea that is more like China. Unfortunately, Xi’s expanding power and his control over communications, and even thought, is paving the way to make China look more like North Korea.