On December 7, North Korea stated that denuclearization was off the table of negotiations with the United States, a couple weeks after it warned that “if the U.S. truly wants to keep on dialogue with the DPRK, it had better make a bold decision to drop its hostile policy towards the DPRK.” We could be facing a return to the “fire and fury” military escalation of 2017. Pyongyang has repeatedly suggested it could resume nuclear and long-range missile testing if there was no breakthrough before the end of this year, while President Trump has recently floated that he could use the U.S. military against North Korea if he had to. We need an urgent reality check. It’s simply not worth starting what Trump himself called “World War Three” to avoid making peace with North Korea.
The stakes of a military option are as unacceptably high as they were in 2017. Back then, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said war with North Korea would be “catastrophic” and “the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.” A Congressional Research Service report estimated that “an escalation of military conflict on the peninsula could affect upwards of 25 million people on either side of border,” with up to “300,000 dead in the first days” even if North Korea used only conventional rather than nuclear weapons. U.S. military action against North Korea risks forcing a showdown with China, which by the terms of their alliance treaty is obliged to “immediately render military and other assistance by all means at its disposal” if North Korea came under armed attack.
In any case, the sacrifice in blood and treasure that open conflict would require is grossly disproportionate with the threat that North Korea poses. The country undoubtedly poses a serious challenge to U.S. national security, as it has demonstrated it has nuclear bombs ten times the strength of those dropped on Hiroshima and missiles with the range to strike anywhere on the U.S. mainland. What blunts the threat, however, is that North Korea has repeatedly asked America for a formal end the Korean War, or at least the sort of normalization that happened with China in the 1970s.
Trump originally seemed to understand that North Korea would not lower its guns without an assurance that it won’t be harmed. At a first summit in Singapore in June 2018, he agreed with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to “new U.S.-DPRK relations” and a “peace regime,” while they exchanged commitments to “security guarantees” and the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
When it came to walk the walk, however, Pyongyang was less than impressed. While Trump promised in Singapore that he “will be stopping the war games” that the United States holds with South Korea, Pyongyang soon vocally complained that he just scaled them down and changed their name. And when Trump seemingly floated a non-binding political declaration on the end of the Korean War, Pyongyang described it as something that should be a given and that had little intrinsic value as it could be reduced to a “dead document” at any time.
Much of what happened after Singapore is classified, but it appears that Trump overestimated his leverage, thinking he could get Kim to disarm without really burying the war hatchet. When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went to Pyongyang a month after Singapore, North Korea denounced him for bringing a “unilateral and gangster-like demand on denuclearization”. What North Korea is expecting is a peace agreement prior to any denuclearization – consistent with its position in the Obama era. Trump presumably refused that, and at the Hanoi summit of February 2019 also refused a North Korean compromise that offered a freeze of the nuclear program in exchange for partial sanctions relief. The proposal didn’t include actual disarmament, colliding with Trump’s consistent demand for complete denuclearization.
Trump may have mistakenly convinced himself that his “maximum pressure” put time on his side. Pyongyang has shown time and again that it considers misery a small price to pay for the security of nuclear weapons, and has taken the destruction of Iraq and Libya as confirmations of this calculation. The sanctions do inflict major suffering on the population. They just don’t do it on a scale that would force off course an authoritarian State that overcame a 1990s famine that killed hundreds of thousands. Any uncertainty in Pyongyang about how to deal with Trump likely ended with Kim’s April 12 speech setting an end-of-year deadline, or at the latest with the failure of the Stockholm working-level talks in November.
Trump may have also concluded that a peace agreement with North Korea required too much political capital. After all, he’s had the Damocles sword of impeachment hanging over his head basically since he set foot in office. The idea of peace with Pyongyang also tends to trigger fears about the consequences it might have for the U.S.-ROK alliance and for the nonproliferation regime in general, even though these are legally distinct issues and the fears are often overblown.
Whatever his justifications may have been, Trump failed to resolve the Korean security crisis. The probable consequence is that we’ll soon see intercontinental ballistic missiles take off from North Korea, as its scientists finish ensuring reliability in hitting targets like New York or Washington. Military options make as little sense as they did two years ago. Trump will also struggle to get more sanctions through the Security Council, first because there is little left to sanction beyond maximum pressure, and second because China and Russia are increasingly impatient with U.S. rigidity on North Korea. Sooner or later, a U.S. president will have to decide to invest the political capital in achieving peace. It may be easier than it seems: a recent poll showed 67% of Americans support a peace agreement with North Korea, rising to 76% among registered Republicans.
Henri Feron is a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington D.C. Follow him on Twitter @henriferon.