There’s good reason why U.S. presidents have kicked the can down the road on confronting North Korea. But as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley put it this week, “there is no more road left.” Maybe. What are President Trump’s options, then?
Option 1: Strike a grand bargain.
Begin with the “triumph-of-hope” scenario — a brokered deal between North Korea, the U.S. and other stakeholders (read: South Korea, China, Japan and Russia) that eliminates the nuclear threat from Pyongyang while allowing for continued survival of the Kim regime. Problem is, those two goals appear mutually exclusive. Kim Jong-un is aggressively pursuing nuclear weapons because he believes they offer his only real guarantee against a future U.S.-led regime change. Is he wrong? Ask Saddam Hussein.
But any deal that allows Pyongyang to keep a nuclear weapon that it can attach to a missile capable of hitting the U.S. is a non-starter for Washington; some analysts estimate that threat will become a reality as soon as next year. There’s no middle ground. Even China and Russia’s proposed temporary “freeze” on North Korea’s nuclear program in exchange for the U.S. ratcheting down its military exercises is too much for Washington, which bristles at the implied equivalency between legal military exercises with South Korea and the illegal pursuit of nuclear weapons by North Korea.
Option 2: Impose more sanctions.
If, as Vladimir Putin correctly noted this week, Kim will eat grass — or let his people eat grass — to keep his weapons, more sanctions won’t make a difference. The U.S. and the U.N. have had sanctions in place against North Korea since 2006 (when Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test). According to a study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, sanctions only work about a third of the time in getting countries to change their behavior somewhat, and they’re most likely to work when the goal is “modest and limited.” It also helps when the government burdened with sanctions wants to escape international isolation. That’s not the case here.
Of course, North Korean sanctions are really sanctions against China, North Korea’s main benefactor. China provides more than 90% of Pyongyang’s trade and most of its food and fuel. The U.S. has already sanctioned some Chinese entities doing business with North Korea, with little result. But there’s a limit to how much the U.S. can push China before it triggers a full-blown trade war —…