Solutions Galore! Heginbotham and Samuels at The National Interest



In the next several weeks, we will be reviewing some of the proposals that have been floating around on how to advise the next administration on North Korea. If the Council on Foreign Relations report reviewed yesterday took a somewhat harder edge, Eric Heginbotham and Richard Samuels, both from MIT, take a slightly softer approach in an entry at The National Interest.

We all know the windup: accelerating tests, Chinese leverage but unwillingness to use it, and the dilemma of wedges with China generated by a tougher US posture not only in Northeast Asia but in the region more generally. The two place particular emphasis on the backdrop of Chinese development and deployment of new offensive systems--land-based mobile missiles, ballistic missile submarines, and MIRVing of land-based strategic forces—the adverse effects of these moves on further nuclear arms reductions and the corresponding push to modernize the US arsenal. In more and more North Korea discussions, the larger strategic context is coming to the fore. As Heginbotham and Samuels note, the pressures to increase US-Japan-South Korea cooperation are not just threats, but the ineluctable logic of a more capable North Korea and the effects those efforts have on Chinese perceptions.  

Their proposal: put more assurances on the table to China. If Beijing is willing to undertake graduated, monitorable sanctions, then the US and its allies could:

  • Freeze deployment of ground-based interceptors
  • Agree to withdraw THAAD;
  • Pay for refugees;
  • Pledge not to station or exercise military forces north of the current DMZ if unification were (magically) to occur.

The simple question for all of these assurances is whether they are credible, and the short answer is “not exactly.” The central problem is that the graduated use of leverage may or may not have effects on North Korean behavior—although we sincerely believe it could—which means we would be left with two unpalatable choices: either paying for actions which have no effect or withdrawing offers that the Chinese thought they were owed. The benefit of this approach, however, and the reason the article deserves to be read, is that there is no way China is going to cooperate around North Korea without some recognition of their security concerns. 

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