America’s successful approach toward North Korea
This was evident last Friday when US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley successfully persuaded the Security Council to unanimously adopt its third — and most stringent — UNSC resolution against Pyongyang since Trump took office in January. The US diplomatic victory at the UN came only days after Washington had found itself marginalized at the world body over its controversial decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The sum of the three UNSC resolutions has cut off roughly 90 percent of North Korea’s export revenue, much of which is used to fund illegal weapons development, according to US estimates.
North Korea swiftly condemned the UNSC resolution as “an act of war.”
While US strategy has always included retaliatory and preemptive attack options, “Trump has added a new scenario of preventive attack in which Washington would attack North Korea even absent any indications of imminent attack,” said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA deputy division chief for Korea who is currently with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.
“Such a military strike would be done to prevent Pyongyang from completing its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program. This unprecedented new US threat has sowed confusion over Trump’s policy and unnerved Washington’s allies in Asia,” explained Klingner.
Trump’s revised strategy was announced after North Korea’s latest ICBM test, which took place on Nov. 28. The launch of the Hwasong-15 ICBM theoretically puts all major US cities within its range.
In parallel with Trump’s revised strategy, coupled with the latest UNSC-resolution — which bans a wide array of North Korean exports such as coal, iron, seafood and textiles — Washington added two North Korean officials to its sanctions list: Kim Jong-sik and Ri Pyong-chol. Kim is reportedly a key figure in Pyongyang’s efforts to switch its missile program from liquid to solid fuel, while Ri is allegedly a key official in its ICBM development, Reuters reported.
While much has already been said about Trump referring to the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, as “Little Rocket Man,” it is clear that his rhetoric and Washington’s decision to deploy additional US strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula, including B-52 bombers, have had the desired impact on the UNSC as it has since adopted additional sanctions against Pyongyang.
These developments underscore that despite the US media’s constant ridicule of Trump’s foreign policy style and politically motivated criticism by former Obama-administration officials, the president’s approach to North Korea seems to be working.
Donald Trump’s rhetoric coupled with Washington’s decision to deploy additional US strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula have had the desired impact on the UNSC.
That Washington is confident about its strategy toward Pyongyang is evident from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s op-ed in The New York Times on Thursday.
“When… Trump took office, he identified North Korea as the United States’ greatest security threat. He abandoned the failed policy of strategic patience. In its place we carried out a policy of pressure through diplomatic and economic sanctions,” Tillerson said. He also articulated that Washington’s strategic objective remains a full denuclearization, which underscores that the Trump administration won’t accept North Korea as a nuclear state.”
Commenting on the Trump administration’s rhetoric toward Pyongyang, Klingner, the former CIA deputy division chief for Korea, explained that, like its predecessors, it “has struggled to constrain North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Trump has stepped up pressure on North Korea but, like President Obama, his rhetoric has not been fully matched by his actions. The Trump administration continues to pull its punches on fully enforcing US laws, most notably not implementing secondary sanctions against Chinese violators.”
Within this context, it is unclear whether Trump’s tweet on Thursday in which he expressed “disappointment” with China’s alleged failure to cut off Pyongyang’s oil supply, is a step toward implementing secondary sanctions against Beijing.
The chances of formally resuming the Six Party Talks — which in the past have brought together Japan, South Korea, Russia, China, North Korea and the US — are low, given Trump’s directive to Tillerson to “stop wasting his time” trying to initiate diplomatic dialogue, said Klingner.
“But, a distinction should be made between formal negotiations and standard diplomat-to-diplomat meetings. The latter is more possible, though Pyongyang has rejected repeated US attempts at resuming dialogue. Given the number of failed agreements with North Korea, it is hard to imagine that yet more negotiations would be successful,” Klingner explained.
The latest round of UNSC sanctions against Pyongyang suggests that Washington is confident in its ability to force the regime to the negotiating table, but the prospect of a bilateral agreement remains elusive as North Korea considers its nuclear and ICBM programs its ultimate security guarantee for regime survival. Within this context, if a bilateral peace agreement is ultimately agreed upon, it would likely be conditional on US security guarantees for Pyongyang, which would formally bring the Korean War to an end.
However, in light of Trump’s outright rejection of his predecessors’ Iran agreement, it seems highly unlikely that Pyongyang would entrust its survival to Washington given its record of whiplash diplomacy over the past decade. Instead, Pyongyang is attempting to drag out any prospective bilateral talks with the goal of waiting Trump out –– hoping that a future US administration will return to the policy of strategic patience.
It remains unclear, however, whether North Korea can stall a diplomatic process for the next three years of Trump’s presidency. Moreover, a waiting game in itself is a risky gamble for Pyongyang, especially should Trump be re-elected, but North Korea does not have any better options.
• Sigurd Neubauer is a Middle East analyst and columnist based in Washington.
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