Advice Column: David Straub for the Korea Economic Institute

February 1, 2017 7:00 AM

Today we continue our new feature entitled Advice Column. David Straub’s entry is called quite simply North Korea Policy: Recommendations for the Trump Administration. It can and should be read in the context of Straub's defense of strategic patience against more pro-engagement critics.

In contrast to an earlier report we reviewed by Victor Cha and Robert Gallucci, Straub defines the North Korea problem in traditional security terms: defending our South Korean ally, avoiding war, and preventing North Korea from getting nuclear weapons. What is refreshing if depressing about Straub’s approach, though, is its grounding in a clear-eyed assessment of North Korean objectives. Some of these seem far-fetched to me, such as the idea that Kim Jong Un still believes he might reunite the peninsula. But not far-fetched is the endless effort to drive wedges between the US and South Korea—including through the pursuit of its weapons programs—and above all the desire to achieve de facto if not de jure nuclear status. Against those seeing North Korean weakness and vulnerability, Straub argues power has been consolidated and China has effectively offset the worst effects of sanctions. Although Straub argues that the regime is brittle—things may look fine until they aren’t—it would be wrong to count on such fragility.

In a section called “elements and tools” Straub walks through a series of issues, with contrarian commentary on a number of them:

  • Military options. Although noting they are not attractive, Straub raises the conundrum of a North Korea capable of striking the US homeland, a possibility that generates potential stresses between Seoul and Washington;
  • Regime change. Don't count on it.
  • Unification. Straub shares my puzzlement on why this has become such a South Korean priority given it is—frankly—unlikely.
  • Sanctions. Straub gives a brief but nuanced account: that sanctions have not “worked” in the sense of getting North Korea to the table, but also have had material effect and should be continued.
  • Straub comes down particularly hard on the concept of a freeze, which he believes will be more costly than typically anticipated, or trading military exercises for such a pause. The concern: that American credibility will be damaged, including with the South. He extends his criticism of the freeze idea in a particularly useful contribution at The Hill.

Straub’s policy—as virtually all other policies toward North Korea—ultimately comes down to a quest for the Goldilocks mix between an adequate amount of pressure to be credible while holding open the door to negotiations, including those that would address legitimate security needs. Of course, defining this mix is the rub. Straub’s twists come largely in his aversion to a freeze, interim solutions or even negotiations that do not promise a meaningful final settlement: talk bilaterally through channels such as New York, but do not convene talks that would constitute a trap. He is also more cautious than Cha and Gallucci on pushing a human rights agenda. 

The main question raised by Straub’s approach is his own clear-eyed view of the limits of North Korean interest in any negotiated settlement. Straub’s piece raises—but does not fully confront—the possibility that we are in a world in which North Korea will be a de facto nuclear power for some time into the future. Saying we “won’t accept” that fact is certainly a diplomatic necessity, but what does it really mean? 

Advice Column Posts

These posts provide short guides to published policy reports by prominent organizations or individuals on North Korea.

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Stephan Haggard Senior Research Staff

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