Missile diplomacy: U.S. must be inventive in responding to North Korea

In early January, Donald Trump, then the U.S. President-elect, tweeted that North Korea would never develop a “nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S.”. But Pyongyang appears to have done exactly that, defying warnings issued by Washington. Tuesday’s test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, that appears to be capable of striking Alaska, poses perhaps the greatest foreign policy challenge so far before Mr. Trump. And he appears to be lost for an effective response. While senior officials of the Trump administration have consistently talked tough, they have banked heavily on China, North Korea’s most crucial political and economic ally, to rein in its missile programme. Mr. Trump had even offered China a better trade deal for its help in addressing the crisis and appreciated President Xi Jinping’s efforts. But neither the tough posturing nor banking on China’s help seems to have worked, and Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s Supreme Leader, remains as defiant as ever. Washington’s response to the missile test was typical. The U.S. and South Korea immediately conducted missile exercises to counter “North Korea’s destabilising and unlawful actions”, and the State Department asked for more UN sanctions on the North.

But had sanctions and threats been effective as a strategy, Mr. Kim would not have carried out the ICBM test in the first place. Ever since he took power in 2012 he has steadily expanded North Korea’s missile programme; challenging the U.S. is central to his foreign policy doctrine. All these years the U.S. has stepped up sanctions and taken an incrementally harsher line towards the Kim regime. Mr. Trump has simply followed the Obama administration’s stick-and-sanctions policy towards the North, but with a China emphasis. But he is now back to square one, with very few options. Though the administration has said all options are on the table, even a limited military strike would be dangerously risky. Given the unpredictability of the Kim regime, any attack could be tantamount to a declaration of war on the Korean peninsula. Another option is to continue the tested-and-failed policy of sanctions and international isolation, which would mean more trouble for the North Korean people with an uncertain effect on the roguish regime. It is also unclear whether China will back such isolation. A third option, something that both the Obama and Trump administrations have seemingly overlooked so far, is to hold direct negotiations with Pyongyang. It may appear strange given the current hostility, but that remains the only realistic option before Washington. Mr. Trump has a counterpart in Seoul, Moon Jae-in, who is more inclined to addressing the issue through diplomacy. Besides, there is the history of the North freezing its nuclear programme for nearly a decade in 1994 after a deal with world powers. Mr. Trump should take a realistic view of the crisis rather than immediately opt for retaliatory and punitive measures.

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Printable version | Apr 23, 2021 11:18:55 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/missile-diplomacy-us-must-be-inventive-in-responding-to-north-korea/article19217009.ece

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