The recently unveiled US policy on North Korea centers on economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats made it clear in their joint statement Wednesday that North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is “an urgent national security threat” and “top foreign policy priority.”
“The president’s approach aims to pressure North Korea into dismantling its nuclear, ballistic missile and proliferation programs by tightening economic sanctions and pursuing diplomatic measures with our allies and regional partners,” the statement said.
On the surface, the Trump administration’s North Korea policy appears similar to the Obama government’s policy of “strategic patience” that unless the North decides to denuclearize itself, the US will not talk with it and instead strengthen pressure and international sanctions.
But the two administrations are different from each other in terms of crisis awareness and the urgency of their response.
Trump invited the entire Senate to the White House on Wednesday for the three senior officials to brief them about the escalating confrontation with North Korea. The rare briefing underlines the urgency with which the Trump government is treating the North Korean threats.
The Trump administration has considered all possible options including preventive strikes and other military actions. It has extended the deployment of the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group to waters off the Korean Peninsula in response to the North’s possible atomic bomb test.
Notably in the statement, the US sent a message that the door is still open for talks. It is the first time Trump has raised the possibility of dialogue with the North.
However, in view of the Trump government’s responses so far to North Korean threats, it will likely reject dialogue for the sake of dialogue.
It is expected to keep up pressure as long as Pyongyang hangs on to its nuclear missile programs. Though the statement did not mention military responses, the US made clear its intention to exercise military options by saying, “We remain prepared to defend ourselves and our allies.” US Pacific Command commander Adm. Harry Harrison testified on Capitol Hill on the same day that the US has “a lot of pre-emptive options.”
Dialogue is an ideal and peaceful way to remove the North Korean threats, but in reality, it will likely go nowhere as long as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un persists in perfecting the country’s nuclear missile program and unless it entails sanctions and pressure.
For now, the North is likely to refuse talks aimed at scrapping its nuclear weapons, but likely to accept dialogue on its nuclear freeze if it is forced to attend talks.
The problem is the sincerity of North Korea. The US needs to consider what the country has done. It escalated tension to the extent of the US considering a strike on its nuclear facilities, then accepted an offer for dialogue and made a deal. Then, it walked away from the dialogue, falsely blaming other participants for breaking their promises, and conducted atomic tests, further raising tension again.
The Trump administration’s tough actions against the North seem to have worked. Beijing took its nukes seriously, too, and warned against its possible provocations. Pyongyang did not conduct its sixth atomic test or launch missiles on the two days when it was expected to -- April 15, the birthday of Kim’s grandfather Kim Il-sung, and on April 25, the anniversary of the foundation of the North Korean Army.
Other worrisome issues include some South Korean presidential candidates’ unnerving views on national security and North Korea. In principle, they are not different in calling for the North to discard its nuclear programs, but some of them place dialogue before pressure. What concerns voters is discord with the US and a shaky US-Korea alliance.
Candidates need to note that the two allies’ North Korea policies will likely work best when they are in sync.