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Moon, Trump on the same page?

[Trump and Moon] are in the same bed dreaming different dreams about… North Korea.
July 31,2017
President Moon Jae-in and his advisors like to point out that he and U.S. President Donald Trump are “on the same page” regarding North Korea. Certainly, there were few collisions on North Korea policy during the Moon-Trump summit in Washington on June 29. President Moon’s speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) was well crafted and widely praised in Washington. Though he clearly had a more progressive view of the prospects for engagement with Pyongyang than the Trump administration, he was careful to emphasize his support for sanctions and pressure on the North and continued solidarity with the United States under our alliance. President Moon also made a positive impression in his joint trilateral summit with President Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the margins of the Group of 20 meeting.

Yet there also appears to be some evidence that the two leaders are in the same bed dreaming different dreams about what can be done about the North Korean nuclear and missile programs.

On the U.S. side, there were multiple contradictory messages on North Korea this past week. In Aspen, Colorado, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford stated publicly that it would be a mistake to assume that the military option is off the table with North Korea. Then Acting Assistant Secretary of State, Susan Thornton, testified in the Congress that current pressure tactics are potentially opening the way for dialogue with Pyongyang. Meanwhile, at the same Aspen forum as General Dunford, the new CIA chief, Mike Pompeo, argued that the administration is preparing a range of options that included regime change.

Dunford and Thornton are excellent professionals in the military and diplomatic service and Pompeo is one of the stronger cabinet choices in the Trump administration. One could also point out that a review of options with North Korea should include everything from diplomacy to military and other coercive means. Yet the variance in presentations also revealed the still dysfunctional policymaking process in the Trump administration. It is often pointed out that the national security team of Mattis, Tillerson and McMasters is steady and strong. They are all men of high principle and experience. Yet the policymaking process, including on North Korea, is still not functioning. The lack of political appointees at the assistant secretary level in Defense and State and the constant feuding of factions within the White House — not to mention the President’s own style of policy-by-tweeting — have resulted in uncertainty about what the administration’s strategy on North Korea actually is. To be sure, the pressure on the North through military deployments and sanctions legislation in Congress was necessary to offset North Korea’s provocative testing, but to what end? To contain the North? Deter the North? Overthrow the North? Set the stage for diplomacy?

The Moon administration, in contrast, appears to have a very clear concept of how to stage engagement with the North to achieve a result. The first stage involves using pressure to get the North to the table; the second stage involves some kind of freeze-for-freeze or early confidence-building moves; then the process would move forward in subsequent stages towards eliminating the North’s nuclear weapons program. There is one very big problem, though. What if the North refuses to cooperate even at stage one? What if Pyongyang is not really interested in a step-by-step move towards denuclearization? What if Pyongyang really intends to follow the Constitutional changes in 2012 that established the country as a nuclear weapons state? Looking at Pyongyang’s accelerating nuclear and missile programs — and lack of interest thus far in responding to engagement offers from the South — it is hard not to conclude that Kim Jong-un’s primary intention is to complete and keep the nuclear weapons capability and status sought by his father and grandfather. Just as the Trump administration is not sure where pressure leads with North Korea, the Moon administration is not sure what to do if its optimistic assumption about Pyongyang responding to the South’s overtures proves wrong.

It seems to me that a realistic strategy would focus on containing, constraining, deterring and over the longer term reversing the North Korean missile and nuclear programs in the following ways.

Containing it by cutting off any economic benefit to North Korea under the current circumstances.

Constraining it by pressuring China through secondary sanctions to shut down entities that violate Security Council resolutions on North Korea and by increasing interdiction of North Korean shipments and cashflows related to nuclear and missile programs.

Deterring it by demonstrating solidarity to respond against North Korean conventional provocations; increasing cooperation on missile defense; and taking steps to modernize U.S. nuclear weapons strategy vis-à-vis the North.

Reversing it by keeping up pressure and gradually testing dialogue with the North, but never in a way that trades deterrence and defense for hollow North Korean promises . . . and never premised on the false hope that Pyongyang will be seduced off its current path in the near term by grand bargains, peace treaties or other pieces of paper.

In 2003, former U.S. President George W. Bush and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice asked for options papers to deal with North Korea. My colleague, Bob Joseph, who was in charge of proliferation strategy, wrote a paper on “tailored containment,” which was similar to the four points above. I was asked to write a contrasting paper using an “international approach.” While the president and some principals were attracted to “tailored containment,” he ultimately used the “international approach” in the Six Party Talks. It was probably worth trying, but I think all of us in the Bush and Obama administrations — no matter which side of the debate we were on — would now acknowledge that something like “tailored containment” is our only realistic option. The Trump administration and Congress are moving in that direction. I suspect Moon will disagree. As allies, we will have to manage these differences before we are really on the same page.

*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Michael Green