The following are excerpts from The New Yorker:
This week, as tensions between Washington and Pyongyang flared, I spoke to Wendy Sherman, who was the State Department’s policy coördinator on North Korea under Clinton and was also on Albright’s trip. Later, under President Barack Obama, she was the State Department’s lead negotiator on the more successful Iran nuclear deal, in 2015. I asked her about whether diplomacy was still an option—given past U.S. experience—and whether Kim Jong-un, who has been in power since 2011, could ever be trusted.
“The North Koreans are not crazy in the sense that we use the word in the vernacular,” she told me. “They have a paradigm under which they operate. It’s regime survival. They believe if they don’t have nuclear weapons they won’t survive. They’ve seen leaders deposed or killed because they didn’t have a deterrent against the powerful United States.”
Diplomacy is still an option, she insisted. “Whether it can work now that they have nukes and are well on their way to a system to deliver them—it’s much, much, much, much harder,” she said. “But the Agreed Framework, as imperfect and ultimately doomed as it was, worked. For the eight years it was in place, North Korea did not get one ounce of plutonium. It did not get a nuclear weapon. And it did not get an intercontinental ballistic missile. So diplomacy is worth one more try. The consequences are so huge, and war is such a horrible option.”
On Wednesday, I asked Michael Hayden, a former four-star general who has served as the director of both the C.I.A. and the National Security Agency, how the crisis could be defused. There is no military option short of a potentially costly and deadly war that would result in many thousands of military and civilian casualties, he said. Covert action might slow North Korea’s nuclear program, and thus relieve some of the tensions, but it couldn’t halt the country’s program. Trying to shoot down missiles in flight would be more palatable—except for the danger that it might fail. U.S. technology is not there yet. In Hayden’s view, diplomacy is still the best way out. “Yet any deal will have to, in one way or another, concede North Korea’s nuclear status,” he said. “No other deal is possible.”
James Winnefeld, a retired Navy admiral and a former vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered a more sanguine prognosis. “Grin and bear it,” he told me. “Let them stew in their own juices.” Negotiations are worth a try, but “we could end up negotiating with ourselves as they cross their arms and stick to their position. The North Koreans will never give up their program. This is an impoverished, authoritarian country, and this is their insurance policy. At the same time, they will never use it. They know it will be the end. And they’re not suicidal.”
The United States, he said, can fortify its deterrent capabilities—for instance, by strengthening its missile defenses. It can exert greater economic and diplomatic pressure on the regime, or mobilize allies in joint actions. “But it’s a fool’s errand to expect China to solve this for us,” he noted. If North Korea shows signs of proliferating—that is, trying to export—its nuclear technology, the U.S. should be prepared to impose a blockade, complete with search and seizure of ships, to inspect everything that goes in or out of the country. “We Americans tend to want closure, an endgame,” Winnefeld said. “But it’s not going to happen with North Korea. So you should put yourself in the best possible position—and go on living.”
Analysis: It’s hard to disagree with these assessments. But it’s also difficult to ignore the Trump administration’s very clear messages to North Korea, namely that the president is not prepared to simply allow Pyongyang to develop nuclear weapons and the means to threaten American cities with them.
The Trump administration has warned Pyongyang repeatedly that it would not accept a nuclear-armed North Korea. Then again, there have been some public reports that the Trump administration has been secretly negotiating with the Kim regime via back channels. Also, the current annual U.S.-South Korean war games that launched today involve fewer American troops than in the past, which some are interpreting as a sign from Washington that it is willing to negotiate its positions.
I find it difficult to believe that President Trump is itching for a war in North Korea. But he also seems very willing to use force in circumstances when he believes it is warranted; the massive Tomahawk strike on Syria and the use of the MOAB ordnance in Afghanistan come to mind. North Korea, of course, is a very different and far more difficult problem. While military options do exist, it’s true that none of them could prevent major loss of life…on both sides. I also have no doubt that his military and diplomatic advisors are well aware of the pitfalls of any new war on the Korean peninsula.
But as Hayden noted, “no other deal” with North Korea “is possible” without the recognition that North Korea is a nuclear state. Fair enough, but if the Trump administration is forced to begin any new negotiations with Pyongyang under the recognition that North Korea is a nuclear state, then what sort of “deal” would the administration pursue? The goal thus far of American diplomacy has always been to end North Korean nuclear weapons development. An acknowledgment that the country has become a nuclear power negates that objective, leaving the question, “Now what?”
That is what the Trump administration now must decide: Can it “go on living” with a nuclear North Korea, especially after so forcefully (and publicly) claiming it couldn’t.