Addressing the U.N. Security Council on Friday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson once again repudiated the policy of “strategic patience” toward North Korea adopted by the Obama administration. He then proceeded to describe “a new campaign” that sounded very much like the old one. Washington, he said, would not be drawn into empty negotiations with the regime in Pyongyang. Instead, “North Korea must take concrete steps to reduce the threat that its illegal weapons programs pose to the United States and our allies before we can even consider talks.” In the meantime, the administration would press for tough new sanctions, particularly by China.
That was “strategic patience”: waiting for the regime of Kim Jong Un to credibly commit itself to giving up its nuclear warheads and missiles, while pushing Beijing to lean on its neighbor. It did not work when President Barack Obama tried it. The regime implacably continued to build up its arsenal, while China, shirking in implementing even those U.N. sanctions it had voted for, insisted that it was up to the United States to solve the problem through direct negotiations with North Korea.
In truth, it is not a fault that the Trump administration has ended up in the same policy rut as its predecessor. Options for dealing with the isolated and unpredictable Kim regime range from the bad to the truly terrible. Military action, which could lead to a devastating war on the Korean Peninsula, is not conscionable except in extreme circumstances. Past attempts at negotiations have led to a frustrating cycle of blackmail and betrayal by Pyongyang, which pocketed U.S. political and economic concessions while secretly continuing its nuclear work.
Administration officials argue, with some truth, that President Donald Trump at least has tackled the problem with more energy and urgency. Importantly, the new president put North Korea at the center of his first engagement with Chinese President Xi Jinping, explicitly offering to set aside bilateral economic disputes in exchange for more cooperation. There are hints that Beijing is complying: It has reportedly turned back shipments of North Korean coal and threatened harsher measures if there is another nuclear test.
Tillerson is right to point out that existing sanctions can be much more strictly enforced, and new ones applied. His call to downgrade diplomatic relations with the Kim regime, cut off its export of guest workers to other nations and tighten sanctions on individuals and companies involved in the weapons programs ought to be embraced by the same coalition that successfully sanctioned Iran into compromising on its nuclear program. Applying such pressure may not work, but it is the best available option that has not yet been tried.
Unfortunately, Trump has a way of sabotaging his own administration’s initiatives. In an interview with Reuters on Thursday he blurted out that South Korea should pay for a U.S. anti-missile system being deployed on its territory. That was a gift to the front-runner in South Korea’s May 9 presidential election, Moon Jae-in, who has been at odds both with the missile deployment and the tough U.S. approach to North Korea. Trump can hardly expect to deter U.S. enemies if he wages political war with key allies.