If anyone knows what the Trump administration is up to when it comes to North Korea, Sen. Ben Cardin should. The ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Cardin is is typically kept in the loop when the White House is weighing major foreign policy moves — including those with the potential to spark war with a nuclear-armed power.
But when reporters spoke with Cardin about the North Korea meeting scheduled for Wednesday afternoon — a highly unusual classified briefing for all 100 senators held on the White House grounds — he expressed genuine confusion about what the Trump team was up to.
“I have heard nothing [from the White House],” he said. “In my congressional career, there’s never been a similar type of meeting held at the White House.”
He cautioned the press not to read too much into the meeting — “there’s a lot of things that have happened since Mr. Trump has been elected that are unprecedented” — but also emphasized that he found Trump’s overall policy on North Korea to be genuinely baffling.
“I really don’t understand what the president’s game plan is to get North Korea to change,” he said. “I haven’t seen very much [except for] language.”
The fact that Cardin is so confused about this is telling. The truth is that despite weeks of amped-up tension and heated rhetoric, there really has been no Trump strategy when it comes to North Korea. So far, the administration has kept a lot of Obama policies in place but paired them with aggressive and at times contradictory rhetoric — confusing virtually everybody.
"What particularly worries me is the blustery rhetoric we are seeing from administration officials, which seem to be completely divorced from any practical steps or strategy,” Laura Rosenberger, the National Security Council’s director for China and Korea from 2012 to 2013, tells me.
If this weird meeting with all of the senators accomplishes anything, it will be to clarify what’s actually going on when it comes to Trump and North Korea. Otherwise, foreign leaders will have to keep guessing in a way that’s less than ideal for one of the world’s most dangerous conflicts.
North Korea policy is really tough — and it’s not obvious what Trump is doing with it
In policy circles, the cliché about North Korea is that it’s the “land of terrible options.” In this case, the cliché is true: Stopping North Korea’s nuclear program is a deeply difficult task, one that three successive administrations have failed at.
Nobody wants to see the US go to war with Pyongyang, as the costs could be unimaginably high. As Alex Ward noted at Vox, North Korea is pointing thousands of artillery pieces at the South Korean city of Seoul; one war game estimated that North Korea could kill 100,000 people in the city within the first days of a war. What’s more, it’s not clear that the US could destroy all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons before the country could fire a missile — and its shorter-range missiles are capable of hitting Japan, South Korea, and the tens of thousands of US troops stationed in the two countries.
So there isn’t a US military option that anyone would really want to risk. This is a point that American policymakers are well aware of, and why experts weren’t super worried about the US naval deployment to the Korean Peninsula being a harbinger of a coming war. Nobody in Washington, Seoul, or Tokyo wants one.
This means that the US has to somehow persuade North Korea to give up parts of its nuclear program, through some combination of carrots (offers to remove sanctions) and sticks (putting economic pressure on the Kim Jong Un regime). Combine this with negotiations and you have the playbook that the Obama administration used, successfully, to strike its nuclear deal with Iran.
North Korea wonks have some ideas as to how Trump could keep the contours of Obama’s approach but use it more effectively.
One option, presented by former Deputy CIA Director David Cohen at the Washington Post, is something called “secondary sanctions.” These are sanctions that don’t target North Korea, but rather Chinese banks that supply the regime with much-needed cash. In essence, they would give these corporations a choice: Either you can do business with the United States or you can smuggle cash into North Korea, but you can’t do both.
“Adopting secondary sanctions against North Korea could cut the last tendrils of its access to the international financial system,” Cohen writes. “[China]’s deep-seated fear of a military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula means its pain tolerance for secondary sanctions against North Korea [quite high].”
This strategy isn’t guaranteed to work: The North Koreans have been quite resilient to economic pressure so far. And even if it does bring them to the table, it’s not clear how much of their nuclear program they’d be willing to give up in exchange for sanctions relief.
“The North Koreans have always been super clear that they’re willing to trade away stuff that they haven’t done yet for promises of a better relationship, but they’re not willing to trade away stuff that they have done,” Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, told me in an interview last year. “Making a deal with North Korea is going to require accepting that they have a certain amount of nuclear capability that will threaten South Korea and Japan.”
The point is that even a best-case scenario for North Korea policy, one that grows out of a very sophisticated and tailored set of US decisions, is very much less than ideal. Yet there are no indications that the Trump administration is pursuing anything like this option — or indeed, anything at all.
On the one hand, you have some blustery rhetoric that suggests serious escalation. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in mid-March that the US would only negotiate with North Korea after they gave up their nuclear weapons — and said military action against Pyongyang was “an option.” In an April statement, he said that “the United States has spoken enough about North Korea” and was ready to act, alone if necessary. The Trump administration also deployed a (famously waylaid) aircraft carrier group to the Korean Peninsula, seemingly to provide backing to the bluster.
But that’s not been the uniform line. Just two weeks after Tillerson’s April statement, Vice President Mike Pence said the United States was attempting to resolve the North Korean situation “through peaceable means, through negotiations.” They’ve also continued some Obama-era programs, like deploying the THAAD missile defense system to South Korea. And President Trump himself has famously changed his mind on the Korea situation — specifically, China’s ability to pressure North Korea into submission — after a short meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” the president told the Wall Street Journal. “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power [over] North Korea. … But it’s not what you would think.”
All of this has led North Korea experts to throw up their hands. They have no idea what the administration is trying to accomplish — if, indeed, there is any kind of unified strategy at all.
"It is important for the administration to continue implementing steps the Obama administration had underway,” Rosenberger added — but she couldn’t see how the harsh language worked together as part of a consistent policy.
Add that all up and here’s what you have:
- North Korea is a hugely dangerous problem that lacks an easy solution.
- The White House hasn’t signaled that it’s going to embrace any of the more sophisticated policy options, like secondary sanctions, and has said contradictory and confusing things about what their actions so far have been aimed at accomplishing.
- Neither leading members of Congress nor experts on the Korean Peninsula seem to have any clue what the Trump administration is up to.
All of which makes this high-profile Senate briefing vital: The Trump team finally has a chance to correct the record. The question is whether they’ll take advantage of it.