Partnering for Peace: The U.S. Will Need Help with North Korea
South Korea and the United States’ recent standoff over military cost-sharing has the possibility to bleed into U.S. President Donald Trump’s efforts to contain or eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Whether the president accepts this or not, South Korea is vital to any North Korea foreign policy and the current spat could make them less likely to cooperate. While the U.S. foreign policy on North Korea is currently on hold and likely to remain so unless the President Trump secures a second term in office in November, his insistence on directly confronting and even bullying both allies and partners will make that second term all the more difficult. Unless he can effectively compartmentalize or set aside those conflicts, those relationships will stand to be his biggest obstacle to success with North Korea.
In the runup to President Trump’s Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, he had successfully secured key sanctions cooperation from China and South Korea. It’s arguable whether the sanctions regime directly led to summits between U.S. President Trump and N.K. leader Kim Jong Un, but the Trump administration is so confident in their efficacy it’s attempting more. China and South Korea are unlikely to go along yet again, already skirting the current sanctions currently in place in a bid to lower tensions with Pyongyang.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in was elected partly on his promise to lower tensions on the peninsula as North Korea and the United States escalated a war of words over North Korean Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) tests into the Pacific. He’s been mostly dovish, cancelling joint and solo military exercises, restoring some military communication lines with North Korea, giving a speech to the North Korean public, and coordinating a FIFA World Cup qualifying match between the two countries in North Korea.
President Moon did support the previous round of sanctions and could support further ones, but his policy of avoiding aggression and U.S. President Trump’s wildly unpopular bid to extort greater cost sharing contributions from South Korea will make it impossible for Moon to support more sanctions. If cost sharing talks continue into President Trump’s second term, expect Trump to coerce South Korea into sanctions support in exchange for a softer hand in cost sharing negotiations. President Moon may then relent, but not without shortcutting the sanctions effectively muting their effect.
China won’t be any easier for Washington to convince. While China initially supported putting economic pressure on North Korea, it has since relaxed those efforts. Sanctions, fully enforced, can take years to have their desired effect, and if neither China nor South Korea are willing to fully commit then the Trump administration shouldn’t count on sanctions to force North Korea’s hand. There’s little to suggest that China would be willing to commit to more in the future anyways. Trump’s initial sanctions victory hasn’t produced any tangible reduction in North Korea’s nuclear weapons or ballistic missile programs, and Trump’s trade war with China has been costly for both countries making engagement on shared issues that much harder. Seeing as China’s been giving North Korea a way out of sanctions, it should be taken as a sign that they both don’t believe sanctions will work and value rapprochement with North Korea over punishment.
There’s still a way forward, however, as both Seoul and Beijing have an obvious interest in reducing and someday shutting down North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. South Korea’s interest is, of course, existential in not wanting to disappear off the face of the earth as a casualty of a U.S.-N.K. war or being the target of North Korea itself. China too sees long term stability as key and nuclear weapons are not part of that equation. Pyongyang’s development and testing of nuclear weapons created a rift between itself and Beijing, one that led to reduced economic ties and aid, and a willingness of Beijing to support President Trump’s sanctions plan.
The motive is there, but President Trump will, in a second term need to deploy some patience and resist tying support for his plan to a softer touch on trade and military basing talks. North Korea is also clear that it is completely unwilling to give up its nuclear weapons, so charting a realistic roadmap which recognizes this could persuade China and South Korea that a more serious effort is underway and worth supporting. President Trump’s biggest flaw in negotiating with North Korea was refusing to accept North Korea’s claims about what it was willing and unwilling to accept. Continuing in that vein won’t win him the support he needs.
One more thing to consider: reducing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program probably shouldn’t be a unilateral mission of the United States. A multilateral approach including parties who share the same goal has a better chance at winning those parties’ sincere participation. Without full participation from China and South Korea, President Trump won’t find resolution with North Korea.