World Politics & Affairs

North Korea has the World Backed into a Corner

The US and other world leaders have few choices when it comes to managing North Korea.  Even fewer choices remain when an impulsive American president like Donald Trump calls the shots. Underneath the bellicose rhetoric, incessant name-calling and hostile threats, therefore, lies an incoherent and fragmented foreign policy.

Political Amnesia

The United Nations Security Council first sanctioned North Korea’s nuclear program after their first weapons test in 2006. As their arsenal proliferated, so did the sanctions. Over a decade later, Kim Jong Un’s dictatorship continues to grow stronger and his threats more potent. It is worth noting that the regime has achieved remarkable success in its preeminent goal of survival despite being the most isolated nation in the world.

In over a decade of nuclear testing on the peninsula, the international community has acquired a sense of political amnesia. While the sanctions seem to be increasingly tougher, the Korean peninsula strays farther from denuclearization every day. It is safe to conclude, therefore, that the strategy of simply imposing economic pressure on the regime isn’t really a strategy after all. Rather, the current sanctions serve as a reprieve, guising the absence of a thorough and effective policy.

Buying Insurance

Trump’s understanding of North Korea proved to be far too acute for devising a functional strategy. Only a few months into his presidency, he is realizing that threats of “fire and fury” are as hollow coming from the United States as they are from North Korea. Moreover, “stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea” is a rogue suggestion. Cutting off trade with China alone, for example, would cost the US a million American jobs. The move also threatens isolation from other economies such as that of Russia, India, France, and Germany. As the BBC accurately notes, “It’s hard to see how the president would be able to sell a policy with such questionable effectiveness, and one that would damage the US economically more than it would limit North Korea’s nuclear options.”


In March, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson came out with a startling statement, “Let me be very clear”, he said, “the policy of strategic patience has ended.” Donald Trump reiterated the same remarks recently in Japan a few days ago. Nevertheless,  such rhetoric has failed to translate to concrete actions. As a result, despite the initial pomp and circumstance, the Trump administration has continued the Obama-era approach of “strategic patience.” Or, as Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations says, “It is a coordinated pressure campaign that started in the last year of the Obama Administration and is continuing, and is now bearing more public fruit,” However, much to the dismay of the United States, “strategic patience” grossly underestimates North Korean resolve.

Staunch Resilience

North Korea’s resilience in the face of international pressure offers unique insight into the regime’s doctrine for survival. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, North Korea’s economy foundered. As a result, in the 1990s it was confronted with a deadly famine that killed up to 10% of its population. Yet, despite the disarray, the authoritarian grip on the nation remained all-encompassing and the regime persisted. Max Fisher of the New York Times writes, “Overriding its calculus, then, would require imposing costs greater than destruction or famine but short of war, which would risk a nuclear exchange. That may be a Venn diagram with no overlap.” Or to put it in the more eloquent words of Vladimir Putin, who said, “They’d rather eat grass than give up their nuclear program.”

Contrary to popular belief, the Kim dynasty hasn’t developed a nuclear arsenal to obliterate the West, instead, it has done so to buy insurance. The Kims have witnessed the fall of Saddam Hussein who didn’t have nuclear weapons and that of Gaddafi who gave up his arsenal. In fact, the state-run news outlet in North Korea, referred to the same this January, “The Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and the [Muammar] Gaddafi regime in Libya could not escape the fate of destruction after being deprived of their foundations for nuclear development and giving up nuclear programs of their own accord.

As North Korea sees it, nuclear weapons are their primary tool for ensuring survival. Confronted with an increasingly frustrated China, an unpredictable geopolitical landscape and a hostile American counterpart, Kim Jong-Un’s yearning for his nuclear arsenal is further reinforced.

Moreover, the US and its regional allies can’t possibly risk a war in the Korean theater. The casualties and destruction that would come with it vastly outweigh the current threat. As US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis points out, “It will be a war more serious in terms of human suffering than anything we’ve seen since 1953.”

Fareed Zakaria, a political analyst for the Washington Post writes, “North Korea has accurately calculated that China and South Korea are more terrified of the chaos that would follow its collapse than of its nuclear arsenal.” He adds, “More pressure only strengthens its resolve to buy even more insurance.”

Xi’s Stronghold

Meanwhile, there is a growing belief that Chinese intervention may be the only way out of the political impasse. After all, China, being the regime’s largest trade partner and only significant ally carries serious leverage on the dictatorship. Harnessing this influence has been every American president’s objective in the last decade. None have been successful. Reasonably, China has its own concerns. From its perspective, the repercussions of a North Korean collapse are likely to be adverse for China. A defeated North Korean dictatorship would make China’s borders vulnerable to an exodus of millions of refugees. Moreover, an American-led coalition that is in the cards threatens China’s acute political hegemony in Southeast Asia.

Sultan Tuanku Alhaj Abdul Halim Mu'Adzam Shah of Malaysia Visits China
BEIJING, CHINA – SEPTEMBER 04 (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

Any option without Mr.Xi’s backing, therefore, remains feeble. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once wrote for the Wall Street Journal, “An understanding between Washington and Beijing is the essential prerequisite for the denuclearization of Korea.” This includes the vast host of sanctions that have already been imposed. In the past, while China supported United Nations resolutions to sanction North Korea, it has been caught evading implementation frequently.

Since Donald Trump took office in January this year, there has been little sustained diplomacy with North Korea. He has discouraged reasonable efforts by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to engage in negotiations and has failed to formulate a functioning strategy himself. The president should realize that rhetoric about inflicting “fire and fury” on “rocket-man” does not count as constructive dialogue.


Perhaps the international community should accept that North Korea is a nuclear power and one capable of wreaking havoc. Essentially shifting the focus from denuclearization to deterrence should pivot international focus on a more pragmatic and achievable objective. A delicate balance-of-power encompasses the Korean peninsula and efforts to alter it risk catastrophe. Implementing a measured and calculated response, therefore, remains of paramount importance.

When confronting the Soviet Union’s challenge in the post-war years, American diplomat George Kennan highlighted a case for containment and deterrence. While the backdrop against which North Korea and the former Soviet Union operated differs vastly, stark parallels can be drawn in the challenges they have posed. As was in the Cold War, the objective still remains to tackle a nuclear power without direct confrontation or risking millions of lives. As such, the Soviet Union was defeated over four long decades of economic pressure and assertive diplomacy, outlining that a strategy of containment and deterrence had worked. 

Jeffrey Bader of the Brookings Institution elucidates what such a policy entails in his article titled, “Why deterring and containing North Korea is our least bad option.” In it, he writes, “Containment and deterrence are not appealing options, just as many condemned those approaches as passive, immoral, and defeatist during the Cold War. In fact, they were none of those then, and would be none of those now.”


Furthermore, deterrence and containment work in line with and are collateral to America’s vision of “strategic patience.” A crucial element of this entails the international community imposing harsh trade and investment embargoes on the regime. Economic pressure, however, is just one of the many measures that need to be taken. Other critical elements include amplifying anti-ballistic missile defense capabilities and continuing joint military exercises in the peninsula.

For all its efforts, Washington should also recognize that this North Korean strategy doesn’t function in isolation. It is part of a complicated geopolitical landscape.  Consequently, consolidating the support of other nations that play a decisive role on the peninsula is a significant precursor to any assertive policy. Reassuring South Korea, Japan, and China of America’s commitment to security is necessary for their support to deter and contain Pyongyang. Bader emphasizes another aspect of diplomacy when he writes, “A three-way dialogue among the United States, South Korea, and China about how we would react to various contingencies in North Korea, such as instability or breakdown.”

This requires America to muster serious diplomatic resources and political capital to engage in a sustainable approach. It also happens to be the arena where the Trump administration lacks most.  The president has chosen to leave the position of Ambassador to South Korea and other key Asian diplomatic representatives vacant, which is “something it could fix quickly if it so chose” according to Zach Beauchamp of Vox.

Mr. Bader also argues that “ before accept[ing] the necessity of such an approach,” the North Koreans should be given “one last chance for them to turn away from the disastrous course they are on.” He suggests that the US should propose a deal which trades complete North Korean denuclearization for an end to sanctions, a peace treaty and establishment of diplomatic relations. While the odds that Pyongyang would accept such a deal are slim, the proposal presents several advantages. It would demonstrate to the South Korean “President Moon Jae-in, that Washington is prepared to put an attractive offer on the table since Moon is seeking avenues for reconciliation with the North.” He adds, “Moreover, it would give the United States the moral high ground, making more likely Chinese and Russian support for the tough containment strategy that probably will be necessary.”

The Trump administration is right about one thing- a strategy of deterrence and containment is vulnerable to miscalculation. Threats of preventive strikes exacerbate the risk that North Korea strikes first and Trump’s bellicose rhetoric on Twitter only worsens the situation. The same risk stood in the Cold War, however, at the time the American and Soviet leaders had a direct line of communication called the Moscow–Washington hotline to reassure their counterparts that an offensive was not going to be launched. Recently, Tillerson mentioned, “We have a couple, three channels open to Pyongyang.” He went on to confirm that those channels are “direct” and not through Beijing. Tillerson’s efforts towards advancing diplomatic means of communication are a crucial part of the deterrence and containment strategy.

In spite of being the only viable option, National Security Advisor H.R McMaster has already dismissed such a strategy, suggesting that the nuclear deterrence policy that the United States adopted toward the former Soviet Union would not work with North Korea due to its “brutality.” To this, James M. Acton of The Diplomat correctly argues, “Exactly the same criticisms were justly leveled against the Soviet Union. Indeed, the recent assassination of Kim’s brother with the nerve agent VX in Kuala Lumpur – which McMaster cited as evidence for the regime’s brutality – was distinctly similar to the 1978 murder of the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov.”

It is safe to say that the strategy of deterrence and containment is not an ideal one. Nevertheless, all other options either raise the risk of confrontation dramatically or do too little to prevent war. “The right question is not whether North Korea can be deterred, but rather how the risks of trying to do so compare to the risks of the alternative – a preventative war,” Acton writes. “When these risks are weighed up, deterrence turns out to be the less dangerous option.”

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