Experts' Letter to Trump on North Korea
President Trump should carefully review, and summarily reject, the recommendations laid out in a letter from six self-described “experts with decades of military, political, and technical involvement with North Korean issues.”
The experts (some of whom I have worked with or under, directly or indirectly, in government or academia, and greatly respect), are well-regarded in their fields and as well-meaning and patriotic as any of the rest of us.
But their call for the immediate and unconditional opening of talks with North Korea defies the history in which they have been involved. They state something they know to be refuted by experience, their own and others’:
“Talking is not a reward or a concession to Pyongyang and should not be construed as signaling acceptance of a nuclear-armed North Korea.”
Yet, that is precisely how it will be seen by Pyongyang and its supporters (Beijing and Moscow), collaborators (Iran, Syria, Pakistan) and other rogue states and parties who defy and undermine the international order (Cuba, Hamas, Hezbollah et al.)
The writers believe it is incumbent on the United States “to show good faith … and make clear that Washington does not have hostile intentions toward North Korea and wants to explore peaceful paths forward.” This after sixty-four years of North Korean aggression, insults, and provocations, American restraint in declining to resort to it its overwhelming military power, and endless appeals for a peaceful resolution accompanied by generous economic rewards to North Korea.
“In return,” they write, “ Pyongyang could announce a freeze on tests of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. We expect China would support such talks and help to bring them about.” (my emphasis).
As the authors know from their own painful dealings with the regime’s negotiators, they have previously announced good things only to cheat and renege at the earliest opportunity. And China is only too happy to go along with the charade.
Nevertheless, the experts argue: “[S]anctions alone will not solve the problem. Pyongyang has shown it can make progress on missile and nuclear technology despite its isolation.”
But that is only because serious, biting sanctions have never truly been tried. Beijing, and Moscow to a lesser extent, have consistently opposed, undermined, circumvented, or simply ignored previous sanctions regimes, doing just enough to show the West their own “good faith” but never enough to actually incentivize North Korea to halt its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Indeed, China now openly says it fears North Korean regime collapse more than a nuclear North Korea and that collapse would occur if it imposed substantial economic pain on the regime with tightened sanctions.
In other words, the Kim family dynasty would choose regime suicide rather than give up deliverable nuclear weapons—and China cares more about the regime’s survival than does the regime itself!
Yet, the experts tell us : “Kim Jong Un is not irrational and highly values preserving his regime.“
"Instead the primary danger is a miscalculation or mistake that could lead to war". True, and such miscalculation can arise precisely from a perception that the West lacks the will to confront the danger: “there are no good military options.” There rarely are, but dangers only increase when allowed to by indecision and self-delusion. As Henry Kissinger said of the Korean War: “We did not expect the invasion, China did not expect our response".
President Trump has made it clear he is not deceived by China’s protestations of innocence and impotence regarding the growing North Korean threat to South Korea, Japan, and the United States.
At some point, Washington policy-makers will come to the full realization that Beijing has all along colluded with and "enabled" North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. They have provided a major diplomatic distraction and resource diversion for the West and a great strategic advantage for China, allowing it to pose as a responsible stakeholder and good-faith negotiating partner.
Successive presidents, including this one up to a point, have made preemptive concessions to Beijing on trade, human rights, Taiwan, the South China Sea because “we need China on North Korea.”
President Trump is well-positioned to put an end to that destructive dynamic and has given signs he intends to do just that.
Joseph Bosco served in the office of the secretary of defense, 2002-2010.