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US misreads rhetoric for reality on North Korea

Trump should switch to explicit deterrence against attack by Pyongyang

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reacts during a test launch of ground-to-ground medium long-range ballistic rocket Hwasong-10.   © Korean Central News Agency/Reuters

The raging war of words between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may have quietened down, but the nuclear saber rattling between Washington and Pyongyang continues. The rhetorical battle is a sideshow, however, to Kim's real strategy of making "peaceful coexistence" a credible and attractive alternative to a war that would remove the North's nuclear capability. By engaging in tit-for-tat public threats, and by sticking to the chimera of denuclearization, Trump and his advisers risk playing into Kim's hands.

The administration deserves credit for trying to forge a serious international response to Pyongyang's nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile programs. The latest United Nations sanctions program, passed in early August, aims to slash Pyongyang's export revenues by at least $1 billion, in particular by cutting off its trade in coal. In addition, nine North Koreans and three North Korean banks have been added to the list of sanctioned individuals and entities.

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., has described this as "the most stringent set of sanctions on any country in a generation," and Trump boasted of Russian and Chinese support for the resolution. Yet the sanctions leave many loopholes, and are highly unlikely to force changes in Pyongyang's behavior or in its subtle strategy.

Subtlety is not the first word that comes to mind when discussing North Korea. As the world's last totalitarian state, it is a throwback to the days of full-blown personality cults and outrageous political rhetoric. After Saturday's U.N. vote, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho warned that the U.S.'s actions will only "speed up its own extinction." A few days later, the regime said it was planning to launch four ballistic missiles toward Guam, home to thousands of U.S. military personnel. Such is the measured diplomacy the world has come to expect from the dictatorial Kim regime.

Yet as Pyongyang moves steadily toward its goal of functional nuclear weapons and ICBMs it is pursuing a three-pronged strategy designed to fracture the emerging foreign front against it. Ignoring the long-term nature of this strategy may instead help to bring about its success.

First and foremost, Pyongyang is focused on painting Trump and the U.S. as threats to stability. The North declares that it could peacefully coexist with all nations if Washington would accept that Pyongyang's nuclear weapons are for legitimate self-defense. When North Korea credibly demonstrates the capability to launch a nuclear attack, the siren song of coexistence may play more loudly in the ears of Asian and American publics, and Washington's insistence on threatening the regime may well come to be seen as a bigger threat to peace than Kim.

Second, Pyongyang is attempting to split the U.S. from its allies and partners. Ri promised explicitly in a recent statement that no other countries will be targeted by the North's nuclear weapons, unless they join a U.S.-led military attack. This approach is designed primarily for consumption in South Korea, where a new and liberal president, Moon Jae-in, has already reached out for fresh talks with Pyongyang, and in Japan, whose public remains deeply worried about the North's aggressive intent but wary of being pulled into a Korean conflict.

By offering these guarantees the North hopes that it will neutralize both Seoul and Tokyo, thereby isolating the U.S. and leaving it the only major power preparing for conflict with the North. Moon has already warned Trump not to attack the North unilaterally, and has claimed that negotiations are the only way to resolve the crisis.

Suicidal specter

The third prong of North Korea's strategy is designed to sow doubt inside the U.S. Few Americans take seriously the idea that Kim would be suicidal enough to attack an American city, but the mere specter may be enough to raise questions about why the U.S. remains committed to South Korea's defense. Once North Korea has a confirmed nuclear ICBM capability, the specter of a nuclear exchange may eat away at the foundations of U.S. security policy in Asia, as a concerned American public becomes wary of escalating even low-level conflict with the North.

The U.S. administration is also sowing confusion among skeptical publics with contradictory statements. The president's belligerence is watered down by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's comments that the U.S. is not North Korea's enemy. The words of Steve Bannon, recently fired as Trump's senior adviser, to the effect that there is no military solution to the North Korean crisis, will linger, undermining assertions to the contrary by Trump and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.

As in all administrations, the president's policy will ultimately prevail, but such confused messaging makes it more difficult for the administration to signal to Pyongyang, Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo just what U.S. priorities and policies are.

Underestimating Pyongyang's strategy would be a dangerous error. The White House risks being outflanked in the global public relations competition. It seems bizarre to think that Pyongyang could successfully portray itself as a victim, but such a David versus Goliath approach may fall on receptive ears, given 15 years of unending U.S. combat operations overseas and the disdain in which Trump is held abroad.

More worryingly, if Trump misreads the level of pacifist feeling in South Korea and Japan, or frightens their populations with more aggressive rhetoric, it is not impossible that their alliances with the U.S. could be damaged more than Washington expects. Any divergence of opinion on how to prepare for a North Korean crisis will call into question the credibility of the political relationship between Washington, Seoul and Tokyo. Diplomatic pressure from China could also drive a wedge between the allies, since Beijing would strongly push negotiations at the expense of any serious military threat to Pyongyang.

Finally, if Trump backs down abruptly from his threats to impose the severest costs on Kim, his credibility may be just as impaired as if he had aggressively pursued war. The countries of Asia have become used to America doing very little in response to North Korean provocations; Washington risked being seen as a paper tiger during the administration of President Barack Obama. By upping the rhetorical ante Trump runs a different risk -- that of saying too much and delivering too little.

What, then, to do in a crisis to which there is no good solution? Resuming the suspended Six Party Talks between the U.S., North Korea, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia -- as called for in the recent U.N. resolution and urged by Tillerson -- will not resolve this quarter-century-old problem. The Trump administration should take Pyongyang at its word that "under no circumstances" will it negotiate away its nuclear and ICBM programs.

Instead, it is time to acknowledge North Korea as a nuclear weapons-capable state and adopt an explicit deterrence strategy as the most credible U.S. approach. Further, sanctions should be seen as purely punitive measures, crimping the North's revenues as much as possible, instead of as sticks to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table.

In the short run, Trump's rhetoric may have served to cause Kim to shelve his reckless plan of launching missiles toward Guam, where thousands of U.S. forces are stationed. Yet while further flamboyant threats by both sides may be entertaining, mistaking them for the real game is a recipe for North Korean nuclear success.

Michael Auslin is the Williams-Griffis Fellow in Contemporary Asia at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author of The End of the Asian Century (Yale).

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