December 6, 2017

Why President Trump Can’t Compel North Korea to Denuclearize

A certain real estate-mogul-turned-president named Donald Trump has a line in one of his books stating “leverage: don’t make a deal without it.” While the quote is used in reference to business transactions, it is also applicable to international affairs where leverage is vital to successful agreements. However, leverage is created differently in international affairs. As president, Trump has three tools he can reach for to produce leverage in the ongoing crisis with North Korea: effective sanctions that can damage an economy; military power, which can force cooperation through threats or direct action; or the use of informational warfare to change public opinion.

North Korea is developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that can deliver a nuclear warhead to the United States. As with many other countries, President Trump has made it clear that this is not acceptable and, in a step towards diplomacy, last month urged the North Korean government to “come to the table and make a deal” regarding denuclearization. The implication of this demand is that the United States can compel the North Korean regime to denuclearize if necessary. However, this is groundless. The United States does not possess any substantive economic, military, or informational warfare advantage that could be used to force the North Korean government to negotiate its nuclear weapons program. The Trump administration would be far better served accepting a nuclear-armed North Korea and working toward a peaceful de-escalation of tensions.

As the deal concerning Iran’s nuclear program demonstrated, economic leverage is a stern motivator to bring about negotiations and favorable deals by the sanctioning country. Yet, the situation in North Korea today is different than the years leading up to the Iran deal. First, unlike Iran, North Korea already possesses nuclear weapons. But even if that were not the case, without any direct trade between the United States or its close allies and North Korea, the United States is unable to use its own sanctions or sanctions from allied countries as effective leverage. It must rely instead on China, which, as President Trump claims, “could easily solve this problem” through sanctions. While it is debatable how “easily” China can force denuclearization, President Trump is correct that China holds significant economic power over North Korea by purchasing 90 percent of its exports.

However, China would be particularly unwilling to enforce sanctions on North Korea. Severe economic sanctions enacted by Beijing could cause a North Korean regime collapse from public uprising and lead to a regional problem for China. The most glaring consequence would likely be a refugee crisis along the Chinese-North Korean border. China, understandably, does not want to bear part of the economic burden of this humanitarian disaster, which some estimate could cost as much as $3 trillion.

A North Korean regime collapse also would impact China’s international standing. The collapse of the Kim regime would undermine the perception that China—North Korea’s closest ally—can maintain stability within the region, which is already plagued by tensions over the South China Sea and historical animosities. Thus, China’s interests are best served by keeping a relatively friendly North Korean regime economically stable—nuclear weapons or not. Sanctions targeting a regime that relies so heavily on Chinese trade are therefore problematic and not a strategy Beijing is likely willing to use to an even modest capacity. The United States’ economic leverage is therefore minimal.

The other traditional source of leverage for the United States is its military power. Since World War II, the United States has consistently used this leverage to create common defense agreements like NATO or to coerce countries to align with its security goals. However, North Korea has remained largely immune to U.S. military leverage. Regardless of how great the disparity in overall military power, the United States still could not effectively attack and eliminate North Korea’s military capabilities without severe repercussions.

A conventional war with North Korea, or one drawing the Kim regime’s stockpile of chemical weapons, is certain to cause significant loss of life. As one study points out, using its suspected chemical weapons, North Korea would need only one cumulative hour of successful chemical artillery attacks on Seoul to cause an estimated 2.5 million fatalities and up to a total of 7 million casualties from chemical weapons. Adding to the potential risk is North Korea’s recent development of the possibly nuclear-capable Hwasong-15 ICBM that may have the capability to reach the densely populated east coast of the United States. There is little doubt the United States would ultimately win a war against North Korea, but the cost in terms of human lives would be very high and the results would likely not justify the means.

The final source of leverage that the United States could use is internal pressure within the North Korean state in the form of information warfare. As 2016 defector Yong-ho Thae advocated in testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs last month, the United States can pressure the Kim regime by spreading information about the oppressive regime to North Korean citizens. The most optimistic result would be an ousting of the current government in favor of a friendlier one. However, the problem with this type of leverage is akin to the military leverage dilemma: The risks are extremely high.

It is almost certain that if the United States was found spreading negative information that threatens the regime’s hold on power, tensions would escalate substantially and could result in a North Korean attack based on an attempt to dismantle the regime. Even if the information warfare worked in a covert fashion, the internal dissent could become violent and lead to a civil war between the hardline supporters of the current regime and an organized rebel group. This scenario would certainly cause a massive loss of life, while it is unclear that the rebel side could win and maintain stability in the aftermath. There is also the increased risk that nuclear weapons could be used if the Kim regime begins to lose power. Additionally, if the United States sided with the rebels, it would become a target for North Korea’s ICBMs and potentially face large military losses. In any event, the risks of information warfare are too high for it to be a viable option.

Leverage is supposed to provide a way to coerce someone or group into a desirable outcome. However, the United States can do very little to coerce the North Korean regime into giving up its nuclear weapons program. It cannot enforce economic sanctions except through an unwilling China. The direct military option is too high in costs to be pragmatic. And fueling a rebellion through information warfare risks sparking a deadly civil war in North Korea.

So what can the United States do with North Korea? To start, it can accept the reality that North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons program and there is not much the United States can do about it without inciting severe consequences. As journalist Ankit Panda and political scientist Vipin Narang wrote about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, “Washington will have to learn to practice deterrence with North Korea” if negotiations toward peace are going to move forward.

President Trump should take a passage from his own book and understand that the United States has no economic, military, or informational leverage in negotiations with North Korea. The United States would be far better served accepting that it will have to deter North Korea, while also working toward establishing better ties with Pyongyang, than it is pursuing denuclearization without any leverage to do so.