As an American who has worked for over 20 years in both the US government and as a private citizen to try to resolve the security challenges facing your country and mine on the Korean peninsula, I hope you will allow me to offer some advice on how to deal with the current mounting crisis over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
I don’t have to tell you how serious the situation is with North Korea’s growing ability to strike targets in the United States as well as the mounting threat to your country and the region. We can, of course expect more tests of a variety of missiles. We can also expect more nuclear tests—although those are less predictable—since the North is almost certainly working on a warhead design for its long-range missiles as well as a more powerful hydrogen bomb. Given Pyongyang’s further development of these weapons, a tough response is appropriate, whether that means enacting additional sanctions or other steps intended to strengthen our alliance and to defend ourselves against this danger.
But, based on my years of experience dealing with North Korea, I am certain that those steps ALONE have almost no chance of stopping Pyongyang from moving forward. Sanctions are important but there are no sanctions in the world—short of bone-crushing measures that we enacted against Iraq in the 1990s—that are going to stop the North Korean freight train in time—and those measures are totally unrealistic in the face of Chinese opposition. Bolstering deterrence and containment is also fine but we shouldn’t just meekly throw our hands up in resignation and acquiesce in whatever the North Koreans want to do.
We need a strategy for dealing with Pyongyang which combines all of the measures available to our two countries, a strategy that, of course, seeks to put pressure on the North, that bolsters the strength of our alliance to deter and contain Pyongyang, and, most importantly, a strategy that also explores the possibility of finding peaceful paths forward through dialogue and diplomacy.
It is hard for me to understand why so many Americans and South Koreans oppose diplomacy. Much of this opposition is based on the myth that past diplomatic initiatives have failed. In fact, the record is mixed, some have failed and some have succeeded. For example, it is hard to understand why anyone in your country today would prefer the failed policies of Presidents Lee and Park over Kim Dae-jung’s “Sunshine Policy.”
History’s verdict is clear: the past 10 years have been a disaster.
Opponents of diplomacy who view dialogue as appeasement, a sign of our weakness and lack of resolve, have it wrong. Five months ago, long before Pyongyang tested its ICBM, a former US ambassador to South Korea and Six Party Talks negotiator accused me of being an appeaser when I suggested that we should seek dialogue with Pyongyang starting with a moratorium on its missile and nuclear tests. I am not sure what he would say today. The fact is, we should view our willingness to engage in talks as a sign of our combined political, military and economic strength—not weakness—and approach them with confidence and determination.
The task before us is to develop this strategy—a joint strategy that combines all of these measures. Over the years, I have heard many Americans express the opinion that South Korea should play the leading role in dealing with the North. And I know many South Koreans would like to be in the “driver’s seat” when it comes to solving this problem. But that approach is doomed to fail. Based on my discussions with North Koreans over these past two decades, without the United States playing an active positive role in moving forward with such a strategy, Pyongyang is unlikely to respond. After all, for the North, the United States remains the main threat to its security and well-being.
Rather than South Korea sitting in the driver’s seat, our two countries need to take turns and sometimes we need to have both our hands on the steering wheel. In short, the United States and South Korea need to work out a joint strategy based on a division of labor for dealing with North Korea. Washington should play a leading role in dealing with some issues—particularly trying to stop the threat posed by the North’s nuclear and missile programs—while closely consulting with South Korea. South Korea should play the leading role on others—especially all issues related to improving North-South relations—while closely consulting the United States. And both our hands should be on the steering wheel when it comes to sanctions, bolstering the alliance and topics for dialogue such as replacing the temporary armistice that ended the Korean War with a permanent peace treaty.
Mr. President, the threat is growing. However, I believe we still have time to move forward with this approach although time is running short. The North Koreans have been signaling privately, since just after President Trump was elected in 2016, that they were willing to reengage with the United States in a dialogue on the main topics of concern to us—their nuclear and missile programs—and, of course, as part of that dialogue their security concerns would have to be addressed as well. Unfortunately, for one reason or another—whether it was the political transition in the United States or Pyongyang’s continued provocations—we have been too slow in the past eight months to explore this offer seriously. As a result, the overall situation has continued to deteriorate.
In view of the deteriorating situation as well as this month’s upcoming joint US-ROK military exercises, which are only likely to result in greater tensions on the peninsula, it is absolutely essential that you and your government immediately engage in serious, detailed talks with President Trump and his top advisors to work out a joint strategy and division of labor so we can move forward together. Without such a strategy, we will have no choice but to acquiesce to a North Korea armed with a growing nuclear and missile arsenal and a Korean peninsula plagued by dangerous tensions for many years to come.
Senior Fellow, US-Korea Institute
Co-Founder, 38 North