As is frequently the case, foreign policy initiatives tend to stall amid the brawl known as presidential elections. Incumbents generally don’t seek to interject unpredictability into the race, nor is there much desire by challengers to sound war drums, particularly when the incumbent has steadily avoided putting American troops in harm’s way. Yet foreign policy crises — intrigue and unpredictability alike — have their own timeline. As we use to say in war planning in the Army, “the enemy always gets a vote.”
Take North Korea’s latest fulmination that it has “no choice” but to “counter nuclear with nuclear” over the “hostile policy” of the United States, a policy Pyongyang claims is the reason bilateral talks failed. Despite their arguments, they do have a choice. And the vote they are casting is to escalate their rhetoric and misbehavior — particularly in nuclear proliferation — to influence the outcome of an American election. As the young newspaper boy called out to baseball player Joe Jackson, who had admitted helping to fix the 1919 World Series, “Say it ain’t so, Joe!” So.
North Korea is doing what it has always done. Bait and switch, lie about their intentions and seek to gain advantage wherever they can to preserve the criminal cartel that is their form of government. In this sense, the health of leader Kim Jong-un, the petulant enfant terrible that heads the North Korean mafia, is not a factor. If he were to disappear tomorrow, the same survival jujitsu would be utilized by any successor to save the dictatorship and preserve the Kim dynasty over it.
Mr. Kim’s young and cunning sister, the minister of propaganda Kim Yo-jong, waits in the wings. But succession is not the issue here. Survival is, and Kim Jong-un is moving to reestablish a dominant place at the negotiating table. Chief among his goals is to end U.S. sanctions that have crippled his treasury while preserving the nuclear arsenal that he considers vital to his longevity.
Why has Mr. Kim chosen now to escalate tensions? To be sure it’s the 70th anniversary of the Korean War, a defining moment in the rise of the Kim family dynasty. But like succession, this isn’t about anniversaries either. It’s about President Donald J. Trump. The president had been a thorn in the side of the Korean dictator since he rebuffed staid diplomacy to engage Mr. Kim directly over nuclear disarmament. It was a bold and promising move.
It hasn’t worked out well. Nevertheless, if the president is reelected, Mr. Kim knows that President Trump will relentlessly reengage him over the issue, holding firmly to sanctions and insisting that if North Korea wants war, it will end very badly for Mr. Kim. That has been the policy up until now. The president should sustain it until North Korea denuclearizes.
Consequently, Mr. Kim has decided to implement his version of regime change by doing all he can to highlight the lack of progress between the U.S. and North Korea in recent months in order to enhance the election possibilities of former Vice President Joe Biden. Mr. Kim knows Mr. Biden will be more susceptible to manipulation, just as Mr. Kim was able to buffalo former President Barack Obama for eight years. And that is why it is more important than ever to keep President Trump sitting across the table from Mr. Kim.
It’s time for the president to turn that table around on Mr. Kim and set the conditions for his ultimate cooperation. First, the president should tighten the grip on Mr. Kim beyond sanctions, including any leakage of financial support from China to the Hermit Kingdom.
Second, the United States should make clear that it has no intention of reducing its force structure in the region, indeed that we will increase it, not only to contest a belligerent North Korea, but to counter China’s hegemonic goals throughout the region. Both objectives are symbiotic.
Third, the president should consider extending an olive branch in the form of an expanded demilitarized zone between the two Koreas. Currently, North Korea has thousands of cannons and rocket launchers sheltered in reinforced artillery sights near the DMZ that can range Seoul, the capital of South Korea.
In reality, that conventional threat could devastate South Korea in a barrage of destruction. Expanding the DMZ, in both directions, could be used to reduce this threat by limiting the number and type of military units permitted in it. Finally, the president should make clear that once North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is eliminated — completely — and verified with onsite inspections, the United States will lift punishing sanctions and agree to a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.
Bold? Yes. But no one can accuse the president of not possessing that instinct. More now than ever, President Trump needs to reset the table in his effort to denuclearize the Kim cartel. In that regard, he too has a vote.
• L. Scott Lingamfelter is a retired U.S. Army colonel and former member of the Virginia General Assembly. He commanded a U.S. Army artillery battalion in South Korea and authored “Desert Redleg: Artillery Warfare in the First Gulf War.”
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