President Donald Trump’s State of the Union pledge of "total American resolve" to denuclearize North Korea signals that we are now in a period of heightened danger in Northeast Asia. Despite a pause in tensions during the Olympic Games, competing strategies on the Korean Peninsula suggest the chances of conflict are rising.
The president’s bold attempt to maximize pressure builds on the key insight of Admiral Turner C. Joy, who negotiated the 1953 Armistice: namely, that the Kim family regime will not reward weakness.
But it is imperative that the president couple strength and patience with diplomatic agility. Pyongyang faces a crucial choice in the months ahead, and we need to work in lockstep with Seoul to ensure that we maintain pressure together while simultaneously opening the door to serious negotiation.
This point was underscored by the fact that on the same day as the State of the Union speech, news broke that the administration’s presumptive nominee to be ambassador to Seoul had been rejected. A year into the Trump era, not only is there no permanent ambassador to South Korea, but now the long wait for Dr. Cha to be nominated and confirmed must begin anew with other candidates.
This gap is ameliorated by the presence of a truly capable charge in Marc Knapper, but that does little to address another, bigger concern about diplomacy. After all, Victor Cha immediately took to the oped pages to make clear he supported a muscular defense and diplomacy policy, but not a preventive war that might follow a so-called “bloody nose” military option against North Korea’s emerging arsenal of nuclear-armed missiles.
If all this posturing is mere pre-negotiation with North Korea, that would be a great outcome. However, if it puts us on a march to war, that would a calamity, in which the United States would have allowed a small power to back a great power into a nightmarish geopolitical corner.
The idea of a “bloody nose” strategy, a punitive strike to thwart Pyongyang from completing its nuclear-armed missile capability, received some additional advice this week from the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Air Force General Paul Selva. General Selva announced that the United States has the means of destroying the bulk of North Korean nuclear-armed missiles. But, he added, preemption is not the American way of war. Rather, said General Selva, "Our method of warfare: If they launch one, then game on.”
It is imperative that the president couple strength and patience with diplomatic agility. Pyongyang faces a crucial choice in the months ahead, and we need to work in lockstep with Seoul to ensure that we maintain pressure together while simultaneously opening the door to serious negotiation.
This assessment means that the decision for war or peace hinges on Kim Jong Un’s future moves. His brinkmanship based on deception and guile could step across a red line and he could miscalculate. In other words, at some point, North Korean brinkmanship could meet the limits of deception and guile and come face-to-face with American and South Korean firepower and force.
All of this posturing could be nothing but protracted pre-negotiation. Perhaps the Olympic respite could open up critical space for diplomacy. But this would require the Kim regime to change course and take seriously a policy path alternative to building up and deploying a nuclear arsenal.
In this test of wills, both Trump and Kim are seeking to influence the other’s calculations. Trump’s strategy of maximum pressure is evocative of the ancient axiom preserved by Thucydides in the famous Melian dialogue: “the strong do what they can while the weak must suffer what they must.” “Total American resolve” could inflict untold damage on North Korea, whose leader Kim Jong Un must choose his next steps carefully. President Trump prefers to use strength and cunning to walk Kim back from the brink of igniting a war Pyongyang cannot win.
Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un, using an old family playbook, is seeking to leverage a far weaker hand to divide the constellation of forces arrayed against him. His asymmetrical strategy relies heavily on bluff and deception to convince stronger powers that they are somehow weaker.
Julius Caesar used divide-and-conquer tactics to expand the Roman Empire. But the classical idea of divide-and-conquer describes a means employed mostly by weak actors seeking to overcome more powerful forces. Long a proponent of such tactics, the Kim family regime appears determined to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States. Kim thinks nuclear-armed missiles will safeguard him from superior alliance firepower, while simultaneously separating the two allies over time and thereby leaving Pyongyang to deal with Seoul on its own. Surely, a wedge strategy helps to explain Kim’s abrupt conversion to inter-Korean relations while also doubling down on alleged American hostility.
The problem with divide-and-rule or wedge strategies, however, is that they seldom work. The Soviet Union spent decades failing to break transatlantic bonds and the Kim family regime has a perfect record in not achieving a serious split in the ROK-US alliance. The United States and South Korea share a history of success founded on strong common interests, values, and institutions. For Pyongyang, splitting an alliance as successful as the ROK-US relationship is a wedge too far.
While deterrence and containment of North Korea could endure for decades more, there will be a heightened risk of living with a nuclearized peninsula. The longstanding cold war could become a hot war in an instant. The Moon administration’s resolve to seek engagement without reducing the maximum pressure strategy may yet help persuade Kim that there is a less risky and more peaceful path forward. The United States and South Korea have achieved much in the past seven decades; they need to work more closely together than ever if they are to be able to say the same thing throughout this century.
Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington, D.C.