COMMENTARY: Considering more North Korean options

In my guest column on these pages on April 22, I closed with a question: What can President Trump and his administration do to achieve the complete, verifiable, and irreversible disarmament (CVID) of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program?

The road to CVID will be very hard to achieve, if not impossible. Nevertheless, CVID can start with a few minor concessions from both sides. President Trump will need to utilize "The Art of the Deal" in working with the Kim Jong-un regime, which will require a great deal of delicate diplomacy. In particular, the president often stakes out his negotiating positions by making strong — sometimes outlandish — statements designed to test where his negotiating partner will fall. This line of negotiation has potential negatives, because the Kim regime might react quixotically to threats, both real and perceived.

As a first overture to North Korea, President Trump could withdraw the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group from all stops in the Yellow Sea, and the Sea of Japan, in exchange for a short-term moratorium on medium-range ballistic missile tests and nuclear weapons tests. If Kim Jong-un abides by the deal, further steps can be implemented. If Kim Jong-un negates the deal, it is relatively easy to send ships back to the waters surrounding the Korean peninsula.

Trump can also use a mix of carrots and sticks to walk North Korea back from a perilous road. First, he can continue to pressure China to sanction the Kim regime. China has recently blocked the export of North Korean coal into its territory — a vital resource in Pyongyang’s economy. China has also limited its export of oil into North Korea.

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As the North Korean economy is increasingly crippled due to these sanctions, the Kim regime should be granted certain diplomatic avenues to save face; otherwise, the young dictator could lash out in unpredictable ways to save his narcissistic stranglehold on power. If the situation significantly worsens on the Korean peninsula, Trump also has a range of carrots available. None of these options are good, but can be used if he finds himself on the brink of nuclear war. For example, President Trump could promise to reinitiate the Six Party talks alongside China, Russia, Japan and South Korea along with North Korea. The Trump administration could also offer an aid package akin to President Clinton’s in 1994.

Second, Trump can reassure American allies like South Korea and Japan with a commitment to a troop presence into the future. Engaging in regular, predictable military exercises will help to maintain readiness in the event of a surprise attack by North Korea. These exercises can be moved to another location, though, if Kim Jong-un agrees to uphold his side of CVID to not conduct further tests. If North Korea flaunts a moratorium on missile tests, further military exercises will display the force facing his regime if he continues to ignore international agreements against testing nuclear weapons.

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Third, the Trump administration should continue to focus on cyber-defense capabilities. Although no explicit information is available, the April 16 ballistic missile test failure may have been caused by a U.S.-led cyberattack to disrupt the launch.

Finally, President Trump can draw specific red lines. Given his recent military action on the Shayrat air base in Syria, other governments will take seriously where he draws a line in the sand. The administration should be careful where red lines are drawn with North Korea, but clear positions can dissuade Pyongyang from intolerable actions like testing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland or firing active weapons over South Korea or Japan.

Slow, methodical steps will be the key.

Glen Duerr is an assistant professor of international studies at Cedarville University.

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