One of us experienced war firsthand at the age of 23 serving in the US Army in Korea in 1952. The other first learned about war 20 years later by asking about the ribbons on his father’s uniform hanging in the closet. The son went on to serve as a civilian in the United States Department of State and the White House National Security Council (NSC) staff, working on defense policy and nuclear arms-control issues, some involving North Korea.
Both of us understand the nature of the North Korean regime. Its civilian and military leaders are and have always been brutal, deceptive and uncompromising. North Koreans suffer unimaginable isolation, deprivation, torture and murder. Our longtime family physician was taken captive in the first months of the Korean War, spending much of the next three years in a North Korean prison camp where he was tortured, starved and brutalized. In the headlines just last week, we read that North Korea’s 33-year-old leader, Kim Jong Un, (likely) had his older half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, assassinated in Malaysia.
We also understand what a second war on the Korean peninsula would mean: the loss of tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of lives in North and South Korea and Japan—including heavy American casualties. The economy of a vital region would be severely disrupted for decades, costing America alone billions of dollars. It could involve, as it did over 60 years ago, a military conflict between North Korea’s patron, China, and the United States. It could also involve either the use of nuclear weapons or their falling into the hands of non-state actors during the fog of war.
Last September, North Korea tested a nuclear weapon estimated to be the size of the atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima. This was North Korea’s fifth nuclear test—and its largest to date. It has short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles that could carry a nuclear warhead and target South Korea and Japan; it is working to develop solid-fueled missiles that will be harder to defend against and longer-range missiles that could possibly hit the United States with a nuclear warhead. The growing stockpile of nuclear weapons and materials in North Korea increases the likelihood of a nuclear weapon falling into the hands of terrorists or another unsavory regime, given the North’s willingness to transfer ballistic missile and nuclear technology to other countries. In short: it is hard to find a more serious threat for President Donald Trump, and his still emerging—and untested—government.
In reaction, there is now a growing call from political leaders, officials, analysts and pundits for the United States to “get tough” on North Korea—including then president-elect Trump, who after North Korea threatened to test an inter-continental ballistic missile in January, vowed to stop the North from developing a nuclear weapon, tweeting “It won’t happen!” Many say we must respond to North Korean provocations with tougher economic and political sanctions, an increased military presence in Northeast Asia, maybe even shooting down North Korean missile tests or preemptively striking nuclear and missile sites inside North Korea. What’s dangerously missing is a serious discussion of the likely North Korean response to these actions and what we would do next.
Enforcing existing sanctions, and crafting more effective ones, is required—albeit not without uncertainty (the impact of sanctions on North Korean behavior is at best uncertain), and not without risks (including the possibility that more sanctions will merely provoke the North to action, or that secondary sanctions applied to China will backfire against the United States). That said, the announcement last week that China will suspend all coal imports from North Korea this year is a welcome development. If strictly enforced by Beijing, it should increase pressure on Pyongyang, given that coal accounts for 34-40 percent of the North’s exports.
But one thing we know from our experience with North Koreans: If we start shooting at them, they will shoot back, and perhaps more. The assumption that the United States and its allies could carefully and gradually escalate military pressure on the North Korean regime to achieve a political outcome without precipitating a military conflict is a weak and dangerous plank for US policy.
The other part of “getting tough” with North Korea, many say, is that the United States should not have formal talks with the regime unless the regime first agrees that the goal of the talks is to abandon its nuclear and missile programs, or stop testing nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles. In other words: Be tough, and don’t talk until North Korea agrees to the objectives and conditions we have set for negotiations, in effect renouncing a number of official statements by the North Korean leadership over many years.
But insisting on preconditions—or pre-concessions—for negotiations along with escalating military pressure is likely to accelerate us down a path toward war, without having truly tested what could be achieved through talks.
Here’s the stark choice for our new president, made even starker by the increasing nuclear and missile threat from North Korea: Do we, or do we not, sit down with the North Koreans in direct formal talks, before this crisis escalates even further?
Supporting negotiations with North Korea without preconditions would take a measure of strength and toughness going well beyond what is required to post a late-night tweet. Does Trump have what it takes to take the heat for agreeing that the United States should sit down with North Korea with no preconditions? Is he tough enough to take the pressure while negotiations are hammered out? Is he strong enough to consider incremental steps that could reduce nuclear dangers, then build support for those steps with our allies, Congress and the American people? Is he secure enough to risk negotiations failing—as the odds for success are certainly not great? Is he tough enough to level now with the American people about the real risks of military action against North Korea’s nuclear and missile program and explain the consequences?
We may know the answers to these questions quickly. North Korea’s most recent test of a ballistic missile this month suggests they have begun probing the new American administration. North Korea may accelerate this process quickly, responding to US and South Korean military exercises beginning in March. That gives Trump and his national security team precious little time to formulate an approach to negotiations, let alone a strategy, for engaging Pyongyang. And time, as they say, may not be on our side.
Particularly troubling is the dearth of senior officials and expertise in the relevant departments and agencies for the new president to draw upon. The White House National Security Council (NSC) staff is a mess. Even after the appointment of the highly respected Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster as the new National Security Advisor to replace the departed General Michael Flynn, the NSC may lack relevance if it is not given its historic mandate by the president to effectively coordinate foreign and national security policy across departments and agencies—which will be critical in formulating and executing a new strategy with North Korea that may require years to implement and the involvement of several agencies. Key to the NSC’s ability to do this will be the perception across the government that it knows the president’s mind, and speaks for the president. This is not easy with Trump, to say the least.
Rex Tillerson, our new Secretary of State and possibly the president’s designee for conducting diplomacy with the North, is now the only Trump appointee in the Department. If he and the president have agreed on who they want to staff the upper echelons of Foggy Bottom and support him in these negotiations, it remains a mystery to outside observers. That said, what is known is that once nominated, it could still take months for the Trump/Tillerson team at State to be confirmed. The situation in the Pentagon is similar, with Secretary of Defense James Mattis still assembling—and clearing with the White House—his senior policy team. None of this bodes well for quick, agile, or thoughtful approaches to the issues surrounding North Korea.
One thing is certain: we are past the point of hoping to muddle through, waiting for sanctions alone to do the trick or for the North Korean regime to collapse or transform itself in ways that solve this problem for us. In the absence of a new diplomatic initiative, the already dangerous situation on the Korean peninsula and the threat posed to America, will get worse. Leaders in Seoul—now gripped by political turmoil that has the country on edge—and Tokyo will get more nervous. The complications in the relationship between China and the United States will get more serious. And Kim Jong Un will get more reckless.
In 1995, the two of us had the honor of attending the dedication of the Korean War Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC. The statues there are a moving tribute to all who served and sacrificed their lives in what was a brutal war. Let us all hope that our new president and the team he has selected have the strength and wisdom to fully test diplomacy before taking military action on the Korean peninsula.
Ottar Andreasen served as a corporal in the Army’s 72nd Tank Battalion 2nd Infantry Division in Korea. His son, Steve Andreasen, was the director for defense policy and arms control on the White House National Security Council staff from 1993 to 2001. This piece is adapted from a commentary that appeared in the Chicago Tribune on September 15, 2016.
-  Choe Sang-Hun, “China Suspends All Coal Imports From North Korea,” New York Times, February 18, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/18/world/asia/north-korea-china-coal-imports-suspended.html?_r=0.