The Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against North Korea is working. That is, if “working” is defined by creating an environment in which Kim Jong Un has great incentive to cooperatively dismantle his nuclear missile program. That doesn’t mean Kim will cooperate. But if there is any chance of solving the North Korea nuclear problem without war, this is how it’s done.
The backbone of the pressure campaign is Trump’s credible threat of military force if the alternative is living with a belligerent North Korea with reliable nuclear missiles. When the president and Defense Secretary James Mattis warn that the United States is ready to “handle” the North Korean problem if it comes to that, they should be taken deadly seriously.
Having said that, Kim’s recent China visit with Xi Jinping strengthens North Korea’s position ahead of the Trump-Kim talks. Before the Kim visit, the alliance between North Korea and China was on the rocks. But it appears the meeting was a success, the alliance was repaired, and that means North Korea has what it has always desperately relied on to persist and improve as a nuclear power and weapons proliferator, which is diplomatic cover from China.
China has long been the nation to water down U.N. sanctions against North Korea, helping to keep the regime and its weapons program afloat. Remarkably, the Trump administration has successfully persuaded China to cooperate with several rounds of biting sanctions, and while China remains North Korea’s main trading partner, due to the pressure campaign, trade between the two countries continues to plummet. Still, China has been caught violating sanctions, keeping with its long-established pattern of behavior.
Additionally, an improved Chinese-North Korean alliance reduces the likelihood the United States could preemptively use military force against North Korea without it escalating into a larger especially nightmarish war with China. In 1961, China and North Korea concluded a treaty that says China will come to the aid of North Korea if it was attacked, and North Korea would do the same for China. Although China has not recently reiterated its commitment to North Korea’s defense, a state-run “news” outlet did recently publish an editorial that said as much.
U.S. officials can continue to credibly threaten the possibility of military force against North Korea’s nuclear missile program, but the result of the Xi-Kim meeting almost certainly signals that U.S. military force would have to be in response to a clear and obvious act of aggression against the United States or Japan or South Korea. Kim isn’t suicidal, but he could miscalculate, so it remains a real possibility.
As disappointing as Xi’s decision to meet with Kim ahead of the Trump-Kim talks is, it does not mean the Trump administration’s strategy against North Korea is doomed to fail. Trump’s insistence on continuing the maximum pressure campaign leading up to and during the forthcoming meeting with Kim is absolutely necessary. Because Trump realizes this, his agreement to meet with Kim has little risk and potentially great reward.
Trump’s choosing John Bolton to lead his National Security Council just as preparations are being made leading up to the talks is a masterstroke. I’ve known the ambassador for several years, as our paths have periodically crossed in the Washington think tank community. He is radically clear-eyed about the danger of the North Korean regime improving (and proliferating) the means to deliver nuclear weapons, and he possesses the spiritedness required to see to it that Kim will not be permitted to hold the American people hostage to nuclear attack.
He is thoughtful, highly experienced, and despite what is often repeated by his critics, a team player. There is no doubt Bolton will provide the president with warnings of potential land mines and reminders of mistakes of previous presidents, and perhaps most importantly, will encourage Trump to walk out of that meeting as soon as it’s blatantly obvious that Kim is doing what he has done in the past, making unreasonable demands and revealing that he is disingenuous about surrendering his nuclear program.
If this happens, Trump could honestly say he was willing to try negotiating, that he did so by going straight to the murderous dictator himself, and that Kim chose to make impossible demands and act defiantly. The maximum pressure campaign would continue unabated, the alliances between the United States and Japan, and the United States and South Korea, would remain soundly intact, and the threat of U.S. military force would continue to loom overhead like a storm cloud.