News Analysis

What the US is actually getting right on the North Korean issue

US President Donald Trump once offered a relatively optimistic view of how he'd deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whom he described as a "pretty smart cookie" he would be "honoured" to meet. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - It's tempting to give into doom and gloom when we think of North Korea policy.

The rapid advances in Pyongyang's weapons technology, coupled with its provocative propaganda about the supposedly impending devastation of America, are enough to make many lose hope for any solution to the current crisis.

US President Donald Trump, of course, plays a prominent role in that despair. Mr Trump once offered a relatively optimistic view of how he'd deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whom he described as a "pretty smart cookie" he would be "honoured" to meet.

But Mr Trump's sanguine mood about North Korea has apparently vanished. To him, Mr Kim is no longer a naive kid but the nefarious, unstable "Rocket Man".

In one tweet over the weekend, Mr Trump suggested that negotiations with North Korea were useless. "Only one thing will work!" he said, vaguely and ominously. On Monday (Oct 9), he continued this line of reasoning in another tweet that attacked the economic incentives offered to North Korea under previous administrations. "Policy didn't work!" Mr Trump proclaimed.

The wording of that tweet may have made some Trump critics chuckle - the idea being that under the current administration, the United States doesn't have a North Korea policy at all.

But despite Mr Trump, the United States actually does have a pretty clear plan for containing North Korea, and it's made enough progress to be ever so cautiously optimistic.

The most obvious successes of this new policy are the increased economic and diplomatic pressures being placed on North Korea. UN sanctions, in particular, are a big win for the United States, especially as they have at least some backing from Beijing and Moscow.

We are seeing some of the effects of their actions every day: Four ships were banned from international ports on Tuesday because of links to North Korean cargo, a move that was described as unprecedented by one UN official.

There are other signs of economic pressure at work. Countries such as Qatar and Kuwait have stopped renewing visas for North Korean workers, potentially cutting off another source of income.

Countries such as Egypt and Sudan have faced economic pressure to break their own covert ties with Pyongyang. Several countries, such as Japan, have imposed their own unilateral sanctions against North Korea in addition to UN and US efforts.

On the diplomatic side, Italy recently became the fifth country to expel a North Korean ambassador, and the US government claims that more than 20 countries have restricted North Korean diplomatic activities this year.

There has also been military pressure via numerous demonstrations of military might by the United States and, to a lesser extent, its South Korean and Japanese allies.

This isn't a perfect policy. Notably, there remain serious doubts about the extent to which China and Russia are really willing to turn the screws on North Korea.

But many experts think these are steps in the right direction after years of seemingly fruitless "strategic patience" during the Obama administration.

"(The policy) seems to be working," senior fellow Anthony Ruggiero at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies and a former US Treasury Department official, wrote in an e-mail.

"The diplomatic effort is now supported by the threat of US secondary sanctions and (will) force companies/countries to pick the US or North Korea; as expected and as we saw with Iran, they pick the United States."

At an event on Tuesday, Mr Jonathan Pollack, a senior fellow in the John L. Thornton China Centre and Centre for East Asia Policy at the Brookings Institution, suggested that the Trump administration's policies on North Korea had had a unifying effect.

Many countries, including China, Mr Pollack argued, are now "singing from a common sheet of music" when it comes to putting pressure on Pyongyang. "The economic bite with this will be very significant," he said.

Mr Patrick Cronin, the senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Programme at the Centre for a New American Security, suggested that the Trump administration is looking for the right moment "to convert pressure into a possible freeze or pause in the action".

But how North Korea will respond to all this pressure is not clear. Even if there is economic distress in an isolated North Korea, Pyongyang seems unlikely to cave.

"They'd rather eat grass than give up their nuclear programme," Russian President Vladimir Putin said recently.

Others aren't so sure. As professor Victor Cha at Georgetown University, widely expected to be the next US ambassador to South Korea, put it in an interview this summer: "Everybody says sanctions don't work - until they work."

There are some positive signs for talks on de-escalation.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently acknowledged that a number of lines of communication to Pyongyang remained open despite the current tension. Careful behind-the-scenes diplomacy helped get US citizen Otto Warmbier released from a North Korean prison this year, although the tragic end result of that scenario understandably undercut any optimism.

Pyongyang's decision to allow several Western journalists to visit North Korea recently also seems to suggest a desire to be understood by the United States - and requests for meetings with Trump-linked American analysts clearly show a desire to understand the United States.

But something seems to be standing in the way: President Trump.

The president's bombastic rhetoric and pessimistic view of his own administration's work on North Korea hinder any chance for agreement, said associate professor of Chinese studies John Delur at the Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul.

"Rather than probe the North Koreans by empowering a high-level envoy to meet with them, President Trump is chiding his top diplomat and mocking the very notion of talks on Twitter," said Prof Delury.

If Mr Trump changes his tune, though, things may start looking much less bleak.

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