The North Korea Problem
Advances in the DPRK’s missile and nuclear capabilities mean that the North Korean challenge is now, as former undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman stated at GMF's Brussels Forum, “the most serious and the most difficult we will face.” But the greater urgency with which the problem is being addressed has not made the policy options any easier.
The Obama administration’s approach of “strategic patience” was less a strategy and more an unhappy byproduct of the badness of all the other choices. The Trump administration is now facing the same set of choices but with a ticking clock, given the prospect that North Korea will acquire the means to strike the continental United States in the coming years.
At GMF's Brussels Forum, Sherman argued that while “We’ve already tried everything, we haven’t tried everything at the same time.” Sherman suggested a coordinated effort including sanctions, covert operations, deterrence, missile defense, dialogue, and addressing China’s worries in order to get them on board in maintaining an effective sanctions regime. The latter element has become a central part of the Trump administration’s approach, and the new president has already demonstrated a striking willingness to subordinate virtually all other elements of the U.S.-China relationship – trade, Taiwan, and the South China Sea among them – to securing Beijing’s cooperation.
For China, while this is certainly a form of pressure, it is also an opportunity: in theory, there is only a limited window in which such carte blanche will be afforded, and the U.S. government is already prepared to move forward with secondary sanctions on Chinese companies that trade with Pyongyang if Washington believes that Beijing is not doing enough. However, the concern among many China hands is that this window may end up being constantly extended, as Beijing takes measures sufficient to demonstrate a good faith effort but insufficient to change North Korea’s calculations. The converse is also possible though –if the Trump administration no longer sees the China route as making progress, then the broader relationship could end up being hijacked by North Korea, despite the fact that Beijing and Washington share the goal of a denuclearized peninsula.
Either way, it is clear that the DPRK nuclear issue is not only going to be a security issue for north-east Asia but a critical factor conditioning geopolitics and even global trade for the remainder of the Trump administration’s term.