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Trump’s Options for Dealing with North Korea Are All Terrible

The 85th anniversary of the founding of the North Korean military. (Kyodo via AP Images)

Experts explain how we got here and run through the options for avoiding a devastating regional war.

As President Obama was leaving office, he imparted (roughly) the following piece of wisdom to Donald Trump: Good luck with North Korea. For years, his administration had been engaging in what’s known as "strategic patience"—foreign policy speak for steering clear. The idea was that by ignoring Kim Jong-un, America might actually convince the despot to stop building a nuclear arsenal, or at least make him less dead-set on acquiring one.

But that approach was probably far too sanguine, if not downright naive. After all, it’s written right in the North Korean constitution that the nation is governed by the idea of "songun," or putting the military above all else. Paranoia about foreign invaders is the principle that justifies the quality of life in the so-called Hermit Kingdom. By telling citizens that their land is constantly about to be attacked by a malevolent foreign power, and that preventing an invasion is of paramount importance, the government has been able to invest almost all of the money it receives from Chinese trade deals into high-grade weapons while its citizenry struggles in poverty.

Songun was on full display earlier this month when North Korea celebrated its founder’s birthday. The holiday, which is known as the Day of the Sun, is usually an occasion to display Pyongyang’s latest military hardware. This year, observers reported the addition of two new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) canisters, which promptly put much of the planet on edge. No one really knows what’s in the canisters, so it’s impossible to say if the missiles have the capacity to reach the United States (or almost any other given country) with a nuclear weapon onboard. Meanwhile, North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests over the past 11 years, and many experts are bracing for a sixth.

The immense volatility of the situation became clear when NBC News reported earlier this month that the US was willing to hammer North Korea if it believed the country was about to carry out another test, followed several days later by North Korea’s warning of a "super-mighty preemptive strike" if provoked. Many speculated that if a sixth nuclear test were to occur, it would likely take place on Tuesday––the 85th anniversary of the founding of North Korea’s military––though the event was marked instead by a large, live-ammo artillery drill. Still, Trump somewhat ominously announced on Monday that all 100 Senators will meet on Wednesday to discuss the developing situation at the White House.

The distrust between America and North Korea dates back to the middle of the 20th century and, of course, the Korean War. As part of the armistice agreement signed in 1953, the US pledged to always have South Korea’s back, and to keep troops in the area in the event of a conflict. This has left America in something of a quandary, according to Rodger Baker, a political forecaster and strategist who focuses on North Korea for the military intel firm Strafor. "The US and the North Koreans can’t fully trust each other," he told me. "The North Koreans never fully believed the US won’t attack them, and the US never fully believes that the North Koreans have any intent to give up weapons. Meanwhile, the North Koreans feel they need the weapons because they can’t trust the United States, and the United States says they can’t talk to North Korea unless they get rid of the weapons."

Baker says that there was one instance in 1994 when relations with North Korea nearly flipped. That year, when the United States was on the brink of nuclear war with the country, ex-President Jimmy Carter ended the crisis by taking a three-hour trip down the Taedong River with Kim il Sung. "I think that had Kim il Sung not died in his summer house that year, that we’d probably not be in this position now," says Baker. "I think we would have seen a unified if not confederated Korea."

The next concerted US attempt to improve ties with North Korea came in the form of the so-called Six Party Talks, which were held alongside Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea between 2003 and 2007. The mass meeting was kind of a mess that resulted in well over a dozen bilateral agreements. But they too deteriorated, along with the health of then-leader Kim Jong-il.

"We were getting close to the end of Kim Jong-il––he had been sick and then came back in power and was looking for succession," says Baker. "He realized he had to have some real strength to give his successor because none of his sons were prepared to lead the country."

Back in June, Trump talked up how he would pull a Jimmy Carter, despite the fact that the US government does not have any formal diplomatic relations with North Korea these days. During a rally in Atlanta, he made fun of Hillary Clinton for being a "rank amateur" who didn’t know how to talk to people––part of the larger narrative he spun during his campaign about being an expert negotiator who could apply business tactics to foreign policy. Instead of using tired old tactics, he said, a President Trump would open a dialogue with Kim Jong-un over a hamburger at the White House.

"That’s not gonna happen," said Stephan Haggard, a professor of global policy and strategy at UC San Diego. "The hamburgers thing was cheap talk."

The absurdity of Trump’s statement notwithstanding, Haggard said it wouldn’t make much sense for the United States to just up and recognize North Korea on the world stage. For one, there’s the optics of legitimizing a territory you’ve previously insisted is a bad actor. Second, it’s just bad strategy to give someone what they want without any promise they’re going to hold up their end of the bargain.

"The thing is, if the US recognizes first, first of all you’ve got a problem of a president recognizing a country that he’s said is an absolute mortal threat, which is politically kind of a non-starter," he told me. "Meanwhile, there’s also this sort of political problem that the North Koreans might negotiate this and then drag out the nuclear negotiations forever, and so you’ve recognized North Korea and you’re back where you were, where they haven’t done what they need to do."

There is, after all, precedent for this: That Jimmy Carter sailing trip in 1994 paved the way for what’s known as "Agreed Framework." Under that policy, Bill Clinton gave North Korea two nuclear power plants in exchange for the country freezing their weapons program, and it took the US eight years to find out Kim Jong-il ignored his end of the bargain.

Another touchstone of Trump’s campaign was claiming that he would be tough on the Chinese government, which he previously called "currency manipulators." But earlier this month, Trump invited President Xi Jingping down to Mar-a-Lago for a visit. While they had steak and pan-seared sol rather than hamburgers, the two discussed trade and the rising threat of North Korea.

"I think what’s happening is that the president is giving Xi Jinping a couple of months to see what he can do in terms of ratcheting up pressure, making a diplomatic approach to the North Koreans and so on with the ultimate objective of getting them back into some sort of formalized talks about denuclearization," says Haggard.

In the past, economic pressure from the United States has not worked, even as North Korea suffered a famine from 1994 to 1998 that killed millions. Haggard says it’s possible that things might have changed in the decades since, as the country has taken on big construction projects in Pyongyang, which requires importing building materials from China. Today, just less than 90 percent of North Korea’s external trade is with China, and the key to denuclearization might come from exploiting that relationship.

Haggard believes that nothing significant will happen for at least a few months. If no major developments come out of the Mar-a-Lago chats, he suspects America might try to impose sanctions on Chinese firms that do business in North Korea. The other option, he says, is to go kinetic, a.k.a. use military force, after a calculation of what North Korean targets might be hit and which ones the US can afford to lose.

"North Korea is not Syria, and it’s not Afghanistan, and there is obviously opportunity for the North Koreans to retaliate against things of value to the US, whether US forces, or South Korea itself, or Japan," the professor said. "So the ability to go down the military route is really a function of your tolerance for risk."

In more recent years, pulling out of South Korea entirely has been presented by some skeptics as a self-preservation tactic. By getting out now, they argue, America could potentially avoid being drawn into a war that would not affect actual American citizens all that much. That assumes, however, that a war in the region wouldn’t escalate to a global crisis and that North Korea might not take advantage of US capitulation to sell a nuke to an even more unpredictable enemy like ISIS. And besides that, military strategist Baker says that such a withdrawal would destabilize the whole region—something that is definitely not in America’s best interest.

A huge part of that risk would be economic, he explained. For instance: an active war zone in the Yellow Sea would likely close up Chinese ports, stop shipments off the west coast of Japan, and freeze all the technology exports coming out of South Korea. So looking at the situation holistically, he says, the US is extremely unlikely to do anything unless the North Koreans strike first.

"Right now they don’t have the proven capacity to be able to strike the United States," he told me. "They say it all the time, but they also said they tested a hydrogen bomb and at one point Kim Jong-il had 100 holes in one in a single golf round."

What we do know is that they can hit South Korea, most of Japan, and Beijing. If any of those targets were hit, the US would likely do anything necessary to take out North Korea’s front line artillery, air defense, and mobile missiles by using cruise missiles and submarines in the region, aircraft carriers, and long-range bombers currently located in Guam.

It probably won’t come to that. Baker says he doesn’t want to be dismissive about the possibility of war, but that all the recent jockeying is more likely to indicate a relatively mundane shift in policy than the onset of cataclysmic destruction. What he jokingly calls ‘strategic impatience’ will probably be Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asking the UN to re-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism on Friday.

"Things could happen," he says. "There’s a lot of tension, and a lot of misunderstanding. Those types of things can trigger the unexpected or the unfortunate, but right now I would say the overall situation is such that they’re really gonna do whatever they can to prove that they’ve exhausted the diplomatic and financial means before they finally resort to military means."

Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.