With a much anticipated meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korea dictator Kim Jong Un looming, the Center on National Security hosted a discussion on April 3 between noted national security scholar and prolific author Philip Bobbitt and former Central Intelligence Agency director John Brennan to examine the next steps in the nuclear stand-off between the countries.
During his opening remarks, Bobbitt outlined three “unrealistic” courses of action the United States could take in the crisis—continued pursuit of diplomacy, military intervention, and tacit acceptance of a nuclear North Korea—before introducing a fourth option. According to Bobbitt, the Trump administration should seek to induce a Helsinki Accords-like nuclear guarantee for the North Korean regime from China, ensuring the borders and governments of all states of the region. Getting under China’s “nuclear umbrella” now could provide North Korea its only chance for long-term regime survival, once its small nuclear arsenal becomes vulnerable to rapidly advancing first strike technologies, Bobbitt explained.
Kim’s recent meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing is an important indicator that North Korea could be receptive to utilizing China as an interlocutor, Bobbitt added. If a nuclear agreement occurred, Kim would accomplish something neither his father nor grandfather achieved—ending the Korean War.
“I can’t say I have any confidence this proposal will be accepted, or that if it is accepted it will lead to aggressive denuclearization,” conceded Bobbitt, the co-chair of the Program on National Security Law at Columbia Law School. “What I can say with confidence is the way we’re heading now is most unpromising and that if we have a summit and it does break down, there will be more momentum for use of force.”
Brennan shared the same concern, notably that hawks within the Trump administration would call for immediate military action if North Korea didn’t agree to denuclearization terms. Incoming National Security Advisor John Bolton wrote a Wall Street Journal editorial in February advocating for a preemptive strike in North Korea.
“There is no good military option with North Korea,” warned Brennan, the distinguished fellow on global security for the Center on National Security. “You’re going to lose hundreds of thousands, if not more, with some type of military conflict.”
Bobbitt’s proposal of a guarantee between North Korea and China should be given “serious consideration,” Brennan added. Otherwise, allowing North Korea to become a de facto nuclear state sends “very bad signals” to our allies in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as other countries that would seek to gain nuclear capabilities.
Another potential concern surrounding the summit, according to both speakers, is that President Trump will impulsively agree to a deal that will sell out Japan and South Korea, longtime U.S. allies, in order to win some type of short-term gratification.
“I hope we’re not receding from the global responsibility we’ve held the last 75 years, in terms of being a champion of liberal democratic order,” said Brennan, before lamenting that the United States has already lost significant ground in the region to authoritarian China due to the Trump administration’s abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership—and could stand to lose much more when Trump meets Kim.
At present, America should be more focused on the risk of South Korea requesting the United States leave the Korean peninsula and renounce their alliance, in order to prevent war, rather than a potential nuclear strike of the U.S. mainland, Bobbitt said.
“Time is not on our side,” he said. “I think we’ve wasted a good deal of it already on wishful thinking.”