North Korea presents the Trump administration with an opportunity to enact real policy change that unlike previous policy will serve US national interests.
The recent launch of North Korea’s ballistic missiles reinforces the message that a new approach to U.S./North Korean relations is needed now. Last June, North Korean media called on the American people to reject “dull Hillary” and vote for chatty Trump, the presidential candidate who supported “open dialogue” with leader Kim Jong-un over a hamburger. Dubbed “burger diplomacy,” Trump’s comments suggested a new approach to U.S. relations with North Korea, while the North Korean editorial displayed a similar willingness on the part of North Korea to engage. When Trump won the election, this opened up the intriguing possibility of a major shift in U.S.-North Korea policy. Despite the 2016 campaign rhetoric, all indications in the first two months of Trump’s presidency, are that his policy is largely in keeping with that of Barack Obama.
Trump was voted into office on the promise of shaking things up in Washington, in terms of both domestic and foreign policy. But, in reality, a president has limited ability to make sweeping changes in U.S. foreign policy. This may be a good thing in that there are some time-tested pillars of the post-Cold War world order whose toppling would unleash uncertainty and instability, proven precursors to increased conflict and even war. With this knowledge, Trump’s foreign policy team swiftly arranged for reassurance tours by Secretary of Defense James Mattis (to Japan and South Korea) and by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (to Europe) during Trump’s first month in office. This was necessary in the aftermath of Trump’s rhetoric that frightened allies and emboldened challengers to the current world order.
However, North Korea is one area where a divergence from Obama administration policy holds promise and few possess a vested interest in the continuation of the failed policy to date. The center of this new policy needs to be dialogue. While Obama refused to negotiate with North Korea in the absence of a commitment to a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, candidate Trump’s seeming receptiveness to a broader base for negotiations opened up new possible avenues for engagement. And, although negotiations under both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations were unsuccessful in stopping North Korea’s nuclear program, Obama’s policy of refusal to negotiate has not had a perceptible impact on lessening the threat from a leader who has been intent on developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) since coming to power five years ago. Those active in the Clinton and Bush negotiations, including Victor Cha and Robert Gallucci, respectively, have indicated that the circumstances have changed over the past eight years. A North Korean nuclear warhead reaching the continental U.S. has become a question of ‘when’ not ‘if’, making a new approach needed now.
Occurrences over the past week or so, including the Trump administration cancellation of informal U.S./North Korea talks, led by the non-governmental National Committee on American Foreign Policy, have led some to believe that the new administration prefers a military response over a diplomatic one, despite the 2016 rhetoric of burger diplomacy. Trump will learn from his foreign policy team that military options are unlikely to yield positive results and will lead to new conflicts, particularly with China. And that cyber attacks, popular during the Obama administration, have had mixed results, at best, when it comes to North Korea. Returning to negotiation is the best bet to safeguard national security.
Negotiation will not be easy or sure to yield positive results. It requires White House cooperation with the State Department and experts who may have criticized Trump during the campaign. A successful negotiation policy needs to take into account the experiences of past administrations (particularly the negotiation failures under the Clinton and Bush administrations), as well as new intel on North Korean capabilities and expert analysis of their shifting goals, and to have an open mind to new diplomatic options on the basis of those considerations. They need to hear from the best and most experienced minds on North Korea, regardless of party affiliation, political ideology, or personal relationship with the president. And the timing needs to be carefully considered, as North Korea seems bent on repeated provocations during this early period of the Trump presidency.
For the Trump administration, North Korea is a challenge, but it is also an opportunity to enact real policy change that serves U.S. national interests in ways that previous policy has failed to do.