The North Korea Crisis: Could a Freeze-For-Freeze Deal Avert a Showdown?

    Josh Cohen, Nicolai N. Petro

    Security, Asia

    Military officers follow a mass dance event marking the 105th birth anniversary of the country's founding father, Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang, North Korea April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

    The Trump administration faces a series of very unpalatable policy options on North Korea. Could one of Washington’s adversaries have a solution?

    As President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un trade public insults the world now faces the very real possibility that a nuclear skirmish could break out on the Korean Peninsula. The two sides need to find a way to step back from the brink of war.

    The problem, however, is that Washington and Pyongyang possess completely different—and apparently irreconcilable—positions. The official position of the U.S. government is that North Korea must end its nuclear program and give up all of its nuclear weapons, while North Korea demands that the world accept it as a nuclear power.

    At this point, the Trump administration faces a series of very unpalatable policy options on North Korea. While the president and his staff publicly maintain that a military strike to destroy North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is a viable option, the reality is that it is not. Tens of thousands—if not millions—of people would die in a full-scale war, and with Pyongyang’s weapons and facilities spread throughout its mountainous territory, it is far from assured that an American “shock and awe” first strike would fully eliminate North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure anyway.

    By the same token, however, the policy pursued by Presidents Bush, Obama and now Trump —sanctioning North Korea and pressing China to cut off Beijing’s support for Kim’s regime—has never really worked either. China, in particular, fears that if the Kim regime were to suddenly collapse, then it would bring a stream of North Korean refugees across its border, while a united Korea allied with the United States could bring American troops right up to China’s border with North Korea on the Yalu River, which was the original reason for why China intervened in the Korean War.

    What is to be done?

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