For over 20 years, the enigmatic leaders of North Korea have been driving towards a nuclear weapons arsenal with global reach. In all that time, the only predictable thing has been unpredictability. The most recent case in point came on February 11. While President Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dined at Mar-a-Lago (dubbed the Winter White House), North Korea launched a new medium-range ballistic missile. The world now waits for a response from the untested Trump Administration, since for better or for worse, the international community still looks to the United States for leadership in confronting the North Korean nuclear threat.
As previous Administrations have found, the North Korean nuclear program is a problem that is hard to fix and easy to make worse. Despite this, there are a few initial steps that the Trump Administration should take to establish the firmest footing possible.
Step One: Appoint the relevant key leaders at the Departments of State and Defense. Given the recent missile launch and potential actions on the horizon, this should be a top priority. Civil servants can and will continue to stay on top of the situation, but it is senior leaders who can coordinate the large amounts of intelligence and present cogent policy options to the White House. Dozens of critical positions in the government remain open. Ambassadors serve as the front line of communications with our allies and partners in East Asia and right now, the United States has zero in place.
Step Two: Before formulating a new plan, the White House needs to do its homework and understand the lessons learned from past approaches. The North Korean nuclear problem has been worked by some of the best minds in the United States from both political parties. The progress they made and the obstacles they faced can provide a roadmap. It is also important for the Trump Administration establish a clear leader on this issue within the bureaucracy. Regional policy experts have typically led internal efforts. Given the lack of progress, perhaps it is time to consider having a technical expert take the reins and focus on the nuclear program separate from the broader issues with North Korea. No matter what, the White House needs to realize that they will never have all the answers and that they need the assistance and wisdom of the civil service.
Step Three: Stay in close and constant communication with allies and partners when deciding what to do about the North Korean nuclear program. No matter the approach, an engaged and informed regional and international parties will be integral to the successful implementation of any plan. Further, the White House must accept that both Russia and China have a role to play in this process and pretending otherwise will likely ensure failure.
Having taken those three steps into account, the Trump Administration will be better prepared for North Korea’s next moves.
Should North Korea test more missiles or nuclear weapons or take aggressive action against its neighbors, the Trump Administration should not do anything rash. The new U.S. President has prided himself on being hard to read, but even he should admit that when it comes to unpredictability, no one can beat Kim Jong Un. The young leader wants confusion, doubt and possibly escalation. It is up to the United States and the world to remain calm, resolute and coordinated. With regard to the recent missile launch, the United States should consult with partners in bilateral and multilateral fora and come up with a proportionate response.
Also, and this should really go without saying, but if and when North Korea makes another provocative move, the President and his staff should be in a secure facility when reviewing the situation. Once ready to make a statement, the White House should deliver a clear message and reassurances to all relevant allies. Unlike many of his predecessors, President Trump does not appear to be comfortable speaking “off the cuff” about nuclear weapons policy. Until he is, there is no shame in sticking to the script.
Should North Korea decide that they want to come to the negotiating table, the Trump Administration should be open, but cautious. The United States and the international community have entered dialogues with Pyongyang before and multiple deals have been made by various leaders. While political debates can rage endlessly on why each of the previous agreements have failed, one thing is clear - North Korea has continued to push ahead in its nuclear program. If the United States and its allies enter another negotiation, international and domestic support for the agreement must be acquired and expectations should be low.
There is no way to predict what will happen with North Korea tomorrow, but it is easy to see how the costs and consequences of a conflict with North Korea can range from dire to unimaginable. That is why the new U.S. Administration must get its house in order and begin to prepare its own approaches for the best and worst case scenarios. As that process evolves, all efforts should focus on containing the North Korean nuclear threat, not exacerbating it.
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