The previous two presidential administrations have failed to pressure the Kim government to abandon its nuclear ambitions. President Bush’s hardline approach towards North Korea resulted in the Kim regime restarting its nuclear weapons program and later successfully conducting its first nuclear weapon test in 2006. President Obama’s strategic patience was a disaster as it gave the Kim regime time to further develop its weapons program. President Trump may have succeeded where his two predecessors have failed; he is pressuring the Kim regime. However, it is necessary to display to the Kim regime that the United States is no longer interested in regime change, just an abandonment or freeze in its weapons program.
Several generations of Kim regimes have kept their faith in nuclear proliferation despite the best American efforts.
The Kim regime is experiencing unparalleled external pressure from the international community. During the first year of President Trump’s presidency, sanctions have expanded to an unprecedented degree, many governments are expelling North Korean diplomats, and China is evidently cooperating in pressuring the Kim regime. This pressure is costing North Korea hundreds of millions to billions of dollars. Several reports have indicated that the standard of living has already decreased. This year, reports have revealed that North Korean gas prices have skyrocketed and government rations have decreased. North Korean Ambassador Han Tae Song even blamed sanctions for women and children not receiving proper medical treatment.
External pressure may have been effective, as North Korea has been quiet lately. After testing thirteen missiles this year, North Korea did not test another missile from September 15 to November 30, when it was listed as a sponsor of terrorism. Furthermore, there was little activity from the Kim regime despite President Trump’s visit to Asia in November. In the last two years, North Korea has used weapons tests to distract the international community when the United States was acting aggressive towards it. For example, in September 2016, a nuclear test occurred towards the end of President Obama’s trip to Asia in which he discussed North Korean provocations with Asian leaders. In May 2017, a failed missile launch occurred after Secretary of State Tillerson called for more action against North Korea. In July 2017, a launch came after President Trump had a discussion concerning North Korea’s weapons program with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, and Chinese president Xi Jinping over telephone. However, North Korea has not responded to the most recent insults from President Trump with a test since the newest sanctions.
Nonetheless, pressuring the Kim regime will not compel it to freeze its weapons program, it will encourage it to persist even more. There are two things that we know about the Kim regime; its survival is its number one priority and it will do anything short of war to achieve it. The Kim regime understands that it cannot win a war against the United States, but it realizes that the United States is reluctant to get enmeshed in a conflict in the Korean peninsula. For this reason, the Kim regime has been confident in provoking the United States for political purposes, as the United States will not retaliate unless it believes that it is absolutely necessary for its national interest. In its history, North Korea has kidnapped international citizens for espionage training purposes, bombarded Yeonpyeong island to defend its prestige, and has undertaken illicit trade to increase cash inflow. This year, North Korea assassinated Kim Jong-Un’s half-brother, Kim Jong-Nam, at a Malaysian airport. The Kim regime displayed no remorse in jeopardizing its good relationship with Malaysia. To the Kim regime, damaging diplomatic relations with one of its closer allies is a small price to pay to eliminate a potential rival of Kim Jong-Un.
The shelling of Yeonpyeong Island showed the lengths North Korea was willing to go to to defend its prestige.
Knowing that the Kim regime is willing to take drastic measures, it is not a wise strategy to make it desperate. In a best-case scenario, due to pressure from the within, specifically the elites, the Kim regime is forced to negotiate its weapons program. However, in a worst-case scenario, realizing that its days are numbered, the Kim regime bombards Seoul and launches ICBMs towards Japan and the United States in an act of desperation. While, the worst-case scenario is extreme and will likely not occur, given the aggressive history of North Korea it is likely that the Kim regime would not respond quietly to vulnerability.
It has been over seven decades since the Korean peninsula has split and the circumstances have changed. The North Korean leadership is currently more concern towards its own survival than conquering South Korea and may not even want to unite the peninsula under its terms. North Korean leaders have subtly expressed this by focusing their official statements towards nuclear weapon proliferation and developing the state’s domestic economy. For this reason, the United States should show good will towards the Kim regime in that it is no longer interested in regime change. Doing so could encourage the Kim regime that it may not need nuclear weapons without endangering the lives of millions. However, this cannot be accomplished through weightless words, it has to be done through sincere actions. One way that this could be achieved without jeopardizing military preparedness would be to pull military exercises further south of the demarcation line and reduce the aggressiveness of such exercises. If the Kim regime responds positively, U.S. officials could then proceed from there.
There are concerns about showing goodwill to an undemocratic regime that is accused of human rights abuses, especially North Korea. However, creating a desperate North Korean government may put tens of millions of lives at risk in Japan, South Korea, and potentially the United States. To protect the lives of our allies, it is necessary to display to the Kim regime that that United States is no longer interested in regime change, just an abandonment or freezing of its weapons program. The worst that could come from showing goodwill towards the Kim regime is that it is ignored and the United States is forced to continue applying maximum pressure. However, in a best case scenario, the Kim regime responds positively and relations gradually gets to a point where the Kim regime freezes its weapons program.
In order to avoid endangering the lives of millions in Japan, South Korea, and potentially the United States, it is necessary for the U.S. government to consider showing signs of goodwill to the Kim regime. This would show the Kim regime that the United States is no longer interested in regime change and give the regime a chance to show that it truly desires peace. If both sides can show goodwill towards each other, then future negotiations would be more likely to lead to the Kim regime to at least freezing its weapons program.
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Casey is a graduate student in the Masters of International Policy and Practice program at the Elliott School of International Affairs, with a regional focus in the Asia-Pacific, particularly North Korea. He has experience in researching and writing about economic and developmental issues related to North Korea.