Logic, Patience—and a Powerful Military—are the Keys to Success with North Korea

By Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, USA, ret

Last Friday, citing “insufficient progress” towards denuclearization, Trump abruptly canceled Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s planned trip to Pyongyang. Many experts are warning that Trump’s failure to obtain concrete agreements from North Korea could cause relations to collapse and a return to the threat of war. That is an unfounded fear, and in fact, the U.S. remains in a stronger position than commonly acknowledged.

Anyone expecting “concrete results” just two months after the beginning of talks, understands little about international diplomacy. Most critically, however, whether the talks result in complete disarmament or not, Trump can keep America safe indefinitely.

Some pundits have argued that Trump’s cancelation of the Pompeo meeting “left the diplomatic process on a precipice and took the President closer to a looming decision point on whether to crank up political and military pressure on Kim or to offer concessions to pick the deadlock.” But it is a mistake to believe those are the only options open to the president. To the contrary, ramping up military pressure on North Korea is not merely unnecessary, it is also counterproductive to U.S. interests.

Many believe that the objective of the United States should be the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization (CVID) of North Korea. Setting CVID as the required outcome, however, sets the U.S. up for almost certain diplomatic failure and possibly resulting in a bloody, unnecessary, and possibly catastrophic war. 

Instead, Washington should set CVID as a long-term goal, but ensure the accomplishment of three non-negotiable outcomes: 1) the security of the United States and our vital national interests, 2) the maintenance and expansion of favorable trade relations throughout Asia, and 3) the establishment of peace on the peninsula. Trying to coerce Kim Jong-un to fully give up his nuclear arsenal within a short time frame is to almost guarantee failure, while the pursuit of the alternative three objectives are vital to America and are likely to succeed. Here’s why.

Even a cursory examination of past U.S.-North Korean diplomacy reveals they are long, frustrating, and filled with dramatic shifts.  The negotiations that resulted in the 1953 armistice that ended active hostilities of the Korean War took more than two years of talks, covering 158 meetings. Expecting the sides to agree to a concrete plan and Pyongyang to begin actively disarming after only two months covering a handful of meetings is unrealistic in the extreme.

Entering negotiations, it is a certainty that both sides will seek to obtain the maximum benefit while giving up the least in return. We should have expected, from the beginning, that the early phase of discussions would be characterized by demands, counter-demands, accusations, and behind the scenes posturing while each side probes the other to see how far they can go. No one—not Kim and certainly not Trump—is going to be eager to give anything unnecessarily. 

Moreover, Kim has been hell-bent on developing nuclear weapons and then making them operational since his ascension to power in 2011. The idea that he’s going to give them up after one meeting with Trump without receiving anything of substance in return is laughable. 

Continuing this diplomatic engagement is unquestionably in America’s interest and we should absolutely continue working towards the goal of CVID. The good news for Americans, however, is that even if it takes many years to find an ultimate agreement, the president can accomplish the first and second of the three must-have objectives immediately, and with patience, accomplish the third over time.

This fact is crucial to understand: the only way the U.S. loses in its interaction with North Korea is if we lose patience and resort to the use of force. Our nuclear and conventional military deterrent are so much stronger than North Korea’s that we can deter them, indefinitely.

There is no rational evidence to suggest that Kim would throw away everything he and his forefathers have worked to build in North Korea by using nuclear weapons against the US or our allies, and can therefore be deterred just as effectively as they have been for the past 70 years. To the contrary, every action Kim has taken since 2011 shows that he craves regime survival above all.

In recent years—and especially in recent months—Kim has invested considerable effort and money in trying to modernize and expand his country’s economic development. He has tried to show the world he is a statesman by breaking with the traditions of his father and grandfather and is actively meeting with foreign heads of state.

All this shows that he desires development of his country. It is irrational to argue Kim would throw it all away by using a nuclear weapon that he knows would result in his utter annihilation of himself and his state. Thus, it would be the height of folly to even consider sparking a war of choice against North Korea that need never be fought to safeguard American interests.

Therefore the most logical, rational course of action the U.S. could pursue regarding North Korea—and the one that gives us the best chance to accomplish our primary objectives—is to engage in relentless diplomacy backed firmly by unblinking military deterrence.

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army.  He retired in 2015 after 21 years and four combat deployments, including serving as an advisor for the Second Republic of Korea Army. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.

This piece was originally published by The American Conservative on September 5, 2018. Read more HERE