Cold War lessons in coercive diplomacy for dealing with North Korea today

Photo by South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty Images.

By Michael McFaul, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI).

Unfortunately, like many national security debates these days, our national discussion about how to address the growing North Korean threat has quickly become polarized between two extreme positions. In one corner, President Trump has threatened a preemptive military strike in response (I’m paraphrasing his remarks into more analytic terms) to new threats from the North Korean regime. In reaction, Trump opponents have advocated the exact opposite — talks with Kim Jong-un. Both of these options are insufficient. In fact, threatening nuclear war or proposing talks are only partial strategies at best, slogans at worst, for dealing with one of our most pressing national security challenges. What we need instead is first a clearly defined objective, then second a smart mix of both diplomacy and pressure — coercive diplomacy — to achieve that national security goal.

Coercive diplomacy served the United States well in deterring and then reducing the Soviet threat during the Cold War. This same strategy can also work against a much less formidable North Korean foe. Like Stalin, Kim Jong-un is a ruthless dictator, capable of unspeakable crimes against his citizens. But he is not irrational. Like his grandfather and father, he can be deterred. And he might be capable of doing a deal.

All effective national security policies must start with defining the objectives before pivoting to discussions about how to achieve them. Right now, our objectives regarding North Korea are ill-defined and many. Some, including Trump administration officials, argue for denuclearization. Others seek regime change and reunification. Diminishing the North Korean nuclear program through limited military strikes is a third objective proffered. A fourth camp advocates the removal of Kim Jong-un, or decapitation of the regime. A fifth group advocates a more modest goal — the resumption of talks with the North Korean government. The Trump administration itself sends conflicting messages about its objectives.

All of these must be set aside for now. While Kim Jong-un and his regime remain in power, denuclearization is not a realistic goal. The North Korean leader rationally believes that possession of nuclear weapons helps to deter threats to his regime, including first and foremost from the United States. No amount of coercion or diplomacy will ever convince him otherwise. Foreign induced regime change or leader decapitation also is not a realistic goal. Tragically, the North Korean dictatorship has demonstrated real resilience in the face of famine, sanctions and international isolation. American efforts to strengthen internal opposition have not produced pressure on the regime. Assassination or decapitation, even if it could be done (and I am skeptical) would not compel the next North Korean leader to give up his nuclear weapons. On the contrary, the effect would be the exact opposite. And nothing more will rally North Koreans to defend their government than such an action. Nor should resumption of talks be the goal of our efforts. Talks are the means to achieve other objectives, not the objective in and of itself.

Instead, our singular focus for the short term must be to freeze the North Korean nuclear weapons and missile programs. Early arms control during the Cold War (SALT) slowed the acceleration of nuclear weapons acquisition, creating the predicate for eventual weapons reduction in later negotiations (START). The same sequence must be embraced now with North Korea. The objective of freezing North Korean nuclear and missile programs would enhance American national security as well as the security of allies. This objective is also obtainable.

The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) aimed to curtail the manufacture of nuclear missiles by the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Photo by CSIS.

Not obtaining this goal now also generates negative security outcomes. If Kim Jong-un continues to develop North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs unabated, South Korean leaders will feel compelled to acquire their own nuclear weapons. If South Korea moves in this direction, Japan will follow. The Trump administration also will not watch patiently the improvement of North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Strategic patience is not a viable strategy.

Once the goal of freezing North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs is clearly established, we then must pursue a complex, nuanced, multi-faceted strategy for achieving it, combining both carrots and sticks: coercive diplomacy.

The first step in articulating and implementing an effective strategy for achieving this objective is clarity. Kim Jong-un must understand without a doubt what we seek to achieve. Equally important is to state clearly that regime change, preemptive strike or talks are not our goals. Ambiguity concerning our objectives serves no strategic purpose and could trigger dangerous North Korean actions based on misperceptions. For instance, Kim Jong-un needs to understand precisely that new American military deployments aim to deter North Korean attacks and are not preparations for a preemptive strike.

The second step of a successful strategy of coercive diplomacy is to obtain consensus about our goal among the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. China of course is the pivotal country in this step of the strategy, but Beijing will find it easier to endorse our objective if done in a multilateral context.

Pressuring China “to solve” our conflict with North Korea will not work. President Xi has a different assessment of the North Korea threat than President Trump, and the United States cannot marshal enough coercive power against China to induce its leadership to pressure Kim Jong-un. Instead, our approach towards China must be cooperative; if we work together to freeze the North Korean nuclear program and missile arsenal, then the specter of war will be removed, the threat of regime change will diminish, and normalization and stability will be enhanced. That’s a better value proposition to Chinese leaders than a punitive strategy to pressure them to coerce North Korea alone.

Soldiers ride across the Yalu river that borders both China and North Korea. Many FSI scholars agree that China’s cooperation is key in finding a solution with North Korea. Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images.

Third, once consensus about the goal among the permanent members the U.N. Security Council is reached, then Kim Jong-un must be offered two choices: more pressure in response to continued intransigence; less pressure in response to cooperation. The U.N. Security Council must signal clearly that sanctions will tighten — including most importantly the reduction of oil imports and the interdiction of ships coming in and out of North Korea — if Kim Jong-un continues to develop his nuclear weapons and missile programs. There is no need to wait for another ICBM test to ratchet up pressure. In parallel, however, the U.N. Security Council must communicate clearly that sanctions will be reduced incrementally if the North Korean dictator agrees to freeze his nuclear and missile programs, and allow international inspections to verify North Korean compliance. To bolster the probability of an agreement, the United States must pledge publicly to not attack North Korea preemptively. The Trump administration also must signal a willingness to adhere to the nuclear deal with Iran. If we cannot keep our commitments with Iran, why should the North Korean regime believe that we would honor a new agreement with them?

The modality for making this deal should follow the dual-track approach that the United States used with Iran over the last several years: one quiet bilateral dialogue and a second more public multilateral negotiation. Instead of the P5+1 format used with Iran, the Six-Party Talks (China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the United States) should serve as the proper format for conducting multilateral diplomacy.

Fourth, in parallel to communicating to Kim Jong-un his two options, the United States and our allies must bolster deterrence, both to signal to the North Koreans the dangers of war and to reduce anxieties of our Asian allies. Bolstering missile defenses at all levels — Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea, Japan, Guam and Hawaii; SM3s and SM6s on Aegis ships in the Pacific Ocean; and Ground Based Interceptors (GBIs) in Alaska and California — is essential. If North Korea launches a missile off the shores of Guam, we should shoot it down. China will not be pleased, but President Trump should offer Beijing the same trade that President Obama proposed to the Russians regarding our missile defense deployments in Europe against Iran: “If the Iranian threat is eliminated … the driving force for missile defense construction in Europe will be removed.”

In addition, the United States and South Korea should agree to allow Seoul to purchase and deploy more missiles to increase our ally’s deterrent capability on the Korean peninsula. Reagan’s deployment of Pershing missiles in West Germany, in response to the Soviet Union’s deployment of Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles helped to trigger serious arms control talks with the Soviet Union. These talks eventually resulted in the I.N.F. treaty eliminating this kind of missile for both of our arsenals. More generally, the deployment of greater American military assets deployed in Asia, started by the Obama administration, should be accelerated.

Fifth and finally, we should maintain quietly a long-term goal of denuclearization, but realize that the most likely strategy for achieving this outcome is gradual international integration, not confrontation of this already very isolated state and society. Over the long haul, greater engagement with the North Korean government and society — through trade, travel, people-to-people exchanges, increased information flows —will eventually create the permissive conditions for internal political change, as occurred at the end of the Soviet Union. In particular, the more knowledge North Koreans obtain about life in South Korea, the faster they will demand the same. Reagan’s engagement with Gorbachev, not isolation or confrontation, helped to create the benign international environment conducive for internal political change within the Soviet Union. Confronting the North Korean regime has only strengthened totalitarianism, giving Kim Jong-un the enemy — the United States — he needs to justify dictatorship. Over time, a strategy of engagement and fostering greater openness will have the opposite effect.

Coercive diplomacy towards North Korea has failed in the past. But these earlier attempts, including most boldly during the Clinton administration, defined denuclearization as the ultimate objective. Changing the goal from denuclearization to freeze is obviously not ideal. No one wants to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea. But declaring denuclearization as the goal without an effective strategy for achieving this outcome is not a policy, just a hope. We need a short-term strategy for freezing the North Korean nuclear program now to have any chance of achieving denuclearization in the future.




The Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies is Stanford’s premier research institute for global affairs.

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FSI Stanford

FSI Stanford

The Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies is Stanford’s premier research institute for international affairs. Faculty views are their own.

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