After parsing the aftermath of Mar-a-Lago and comments by Secretaries Tillerson and Mattis and NSA McMaster, I came to the conclusion that the Trump administration was groping toward a strategy that at least had some logic to it. An earlier phase—rightly continued by President Pence in his speech on board the Reagan—was to reassure Japan and Korea after the casual treatment of the alliances during the election campaign. The current phase is the post Mar-a-Lago honeymoon, with the President praising cooperation with China and initially avoiding actions on the trade front that would undermine cooperation on the issue, such as designating China as a currency manipulator.
To be sure, there have been mixed signals with respect to the use of force—in repeated comments about “all options being on the table” and in the manifest confusion about the role of the Carl Vinson and the “armada” embarrassment. But even those could be justified on the grounds of introducing some uncertainty into the equation. Moreover, comments about taking unilateral action are to some extent simply a statement of fact: that the US has other instruments that it could turn to if progress lagged and risks became intolerable, including military options.
Buried amidst the bluster were also hints that the administration understood the reality that the endgame—if it ever came—would involve negotiations. Tillerson quite carefully said that we were not ready for negotiations now, which made some sense given that North Korea has shown no interest. On the DMZ, Vice President Pence even went further saying that the United States sought to solve the North Korean crisis “through peaceable means and negotiations,” a theme picked up quite clearly by Prime Minister Abe in the Vice President’s visit to Tokyo (Pence’s DMZ remarks here).
With Vice President Pence’s interview with Josh Rogin in the Washington Post, the administration’s policy has re-entered Fantasyland. The stunning piece of the Rogin interview, on which the Vice President appeared to double down, was that (quoting Rogin) “the Trump administration is not seeking concessions as a means to return to negotiations, as Obama did…[rather] the new administration wants North Korea to give up its programs in their entirety without direct talks of any kind.”
The only question, as always, is whether the new line from the administration should be written off to inexperience and fumbling or whether the Trump administration really believes in its quixotic quest for unilateral North Korean disarmament. The interview was not only incoherent but outright counterproductive.
Setting aside that Pence had stated pretty much exactly the opposite on the DMZ not a week before, the problems start with the misunderstanding of history. No one thinks that negotiations have been enduringly successful on the Korean peninsula. How could you? But compared to what? The Agreed Framework at least held the issue in check for eight years before being blown up jointly by North Korea and the early Bush administration in early 2002. Pence’s comments also dismiss the negotiation of the joint statement of September 2005, which remains the pivotal document of the Six Party Talks, and the progress that was made in 2007-2008 before things once again fell apart. The fact that negotiations have not worked does not mean that you can simply disarm North Korean in the absence of them. Whatever instruments we are brandishing—whether economic or military—their purpose should be clearly stated: to resume negotiations to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.
So what is the alternative to such negotiations in Pence’s view? “Not engagement with North Korea but renewed and more vigorous engagement with North Korea’s principle economic partner [China].” But to what end? Pence appears to almost completely misunderstand China’s strategy and interests in the issue, which is precisely to get the United States as well as North Korea back to talks. Moreover, the public leaning on China to “do something” only makes it harder for Xi Jinping to deliver, particularly given Pyongyang’s growing skepticism about Chinese intent (for those with access, Balazs Szolantai has a first rate piece at NKNews that is just loaded with nuance).
Two things could be going on. The Vice President could once again be trying to signal to China that the US has an outside option, precisely in order to get them to deliver North Korea to a negotiating table that the United States would join. But if the President is correct, Xi Jinping had already signaled his willingness to work with the US on the issue. Why keep flogging Beijing on the issue rather than waiting to see whether the coal ban has any material effect and whether any other Chinese signals get through to Pyongyang?
If the Vice President is taken more literally, then the Trump administration better have some nerve, because that is what it will take to solve this problem militarily. Let’s first set aside the military issues for the moment and just talk about alliance management. How far is the US willing to go in taking actions that not only put Korea and Japan at risk but might easily turn publics against the US if undertaken unilaterally? In this regard, the comments by Lindsay Graham—who prides himself as being the adult in the room, can only be called shameful: that if the US launched a pre-emptive strike there would be a war but it would be “over there” and not here.
But that is not the worst of it. If Pence’s rhetoric is to be taken seriously, what exactly do you bomb in a pre-emptive strike in which attack is not imminent? One possibility would be to simply go for the entire meal: decapitation, with the hope that decisions to launch by lower-level commanders are closely held and that in the absence of a Kim at the helm, the entire regime would collapse like a house of cards. A second possibility would be to try to signal as clearly as you can to the North Koreans that the objective of any military action is not regime change, but to take out the nuclear and missile capabilities that the US see as most threatening. But no bombing campaign is going to simultaneously take out the nuclear weapons themselves, the stockpiles of fissile material, the entire missile arsenal—which the parade shows is increasingly survivable—nor conventional military capabilities, including artillery dug in along the border. The hope then is that either a larger “shock and awe” campaign or a sharp signaling strike would have decisive political effect, leading to accelerated Chinese involvement in the issue, a suit for peace or—very much less likely—capitulation.
Why do we think that any of these things might transpire?
I strongly believe in the value of reminding both China and North Korea that the US has military options and that the convergence of nuclear and missile capabilities is a cause of serious alarm, essentially undermining the joint ROK-US war plan for dealing with a North Korean contingency. But pre-emption is not something you talk about; it is something you do when pressed to the wall (Bruce Klingner—hardly a dove—explains in detail here). As the administration wears us down with tacking, my suspicion is that the Pence interview and the tacking in his speeches was simply not that carefully considered and should be dismissed. But if I am listening, be assured that North Korea is listening too, and will assess what they need to do to defend against such an eventuality. The best thing that the administration can do in the coming months is to keep a lower rather than higher profile on North Korea and see what China is willing to do. Product differentiation aside, we are no worse off exercising a little strategic patience than we are blustering into a crisis.