Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal published a story under the celebratory headline “U.S. Pressure on North Korea’s Global Ties Bears Fruit.” It offers a revealing look at the State Department’s efforts to pressure Pyongyang by coercing third parties to downgrade ties with the regime:
U.S. officials have asked countries to shut down businesses owned by the North Korean government, remove North Korean vessels from ship registries, end flights by the country’s national air carrier and expel its ambassadors. At the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit earlier this year, U.S. diplomats made sure North Korea couldn’t secure any bilateral meetings.
Mexico, Peru, Spain and Kuwait all expelled their North Korean ambassadors after the U.S. warned that Pyongyang was using its embassies to ship contraband and possibly weapons components in diplomatic pouches and earn currency for the regime. Italy became the latest country to do so on Oct. 1.
Kuwait and Qatar, among other countries, have agreed to reduce the presence of North Korean guest workers, according to U.S. officials and people familiar with the matter.
The story goes on to explain how the State Department has assembled a “to-do list” that outlines all of North Korea’s known economic interests and relationships around the world. American diplomats have then been approaching their counterparts with specifically tailored requests to sever those links, no matter how small: for example, the U.S. convinced Germany earlier this year to shutter a hostel in Berlin accused of laundering money for Pyongyang.
This is a trend that we at TAI have noticed ourselves: in May, for instance, the State Department publicly pressured ASEAN countries to cut off funding streams to North Korea, and it recently denied economic aid to Egypt for failing to suspend such illicit ties. Combined with the escalating sanctions from both the UN Security Council and the Treasury Department, it all adds up to a picture of Trump putting a serious squeeze on North Korea.
But here’s the rub: for all its tactical successes, the Trump administration is pursuing a strategic aim that the intelligence community overwhelmingly believes to be unachievable. The WSJ again:
U.S. policy makers, led by Mr. Tillerson, have said they hope that Mr. Kim eventually will conclude his program comes at too high a cost to his regime and his nation and enter disarmament talks.
The likelihood of success has become a matter of debate. The U.S. intelligence community has concluded that no amount of pressure would convince Mr. Kim to disarm because the North Korean leader sees the nuclear and missile program as his regime’s ticket to survival, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said at a recent hearing.
“Tillerson’s working against—I applaud what he’s done, but he’s working against the unified view of our intelligence agencies, which say there’s no amount of pressure that can be put on them to stop,” Mr. Corker said.
The fact that Pyongyang will not disarm unilaterally should not come as a revelation; both common sense and carefully considered intelligence have long suggested that to be the case. But that assessment, which is increasingly being voiced aloud, speaks to a fundamental disconnect between means and ends on our North Korean policy. This is a longstanding tension that has yet to be resolved by the Trump Administration.
Ironically (and despite dramatic pronouncements to the contrary), Trump’s policy is in many ways an extension of Obama’s. According to the WSJ, State’s campaign to tighten the screws on Pyongyang’s enablers began in early 2016, when the intelligence community saw the regime making nuclear advances much more rapidly than previously foreseen. Tillerson embraced and intensified the campaign to isolate Pyongyang, but the tactics he is using are not fundamentally new.
What is new, of course, is the President’s singular rhetorical approach: his blustery talk of “fire and fury,” derogatory nicknames (“Little Rocket Man”), and threats to “totally destroy” North Korea. But as the WSJ story hints, those rhetorical thunderbolts are at best irrelevant and at worst counterproductive to the real work at hand. Effective pressure on Pyongyang’s enablers is not coming from the President’s Twitter feed but from the State Department and Treasury—the same “deep state” bureaucracies that Trump so reviles. In short, the Administration’s success stories have happened in spite of Trump, not because of him. This only makes the President’s recent rift with Tillerson more regrettable, since it undercuts Tillerson’s standing as a credible interlocutor and could cut off promising diplomatic avenues.
State and Treasury will likely keep doing their work in severing Pyongyang’s funding sources, despite and through the President’s outbursts. But ultimately, Trump will need to wed those tactics to an achievable end goal. A policy based on economic pressure and angry Tweets, with Pyongyang’s willing disarmament the desired result, may well be doomed.
President Trump ominously tweeted this week that there is “only one option” left, and Secretary of Defense Mattis is publicly urging military leaders to prepare for possible conflict. Another bluff? Only time will tell. But ultimately, the “only one option” left to President Trump might be an old-fashioned one: deterrence and containment. That is a policy that may well require the marshaling of substantial military resources, along with an intensified version of the economic pressure that State and Treasury are already applying with some success. But it will also require the sort of painstaking diplomatic engagement that the President has been quick to denigrate—and a coherent strategic vision that he has yet to articulate.