Foreign Policy Blogs

North Korea, Iran, and the Nuclear Posture Review

Recently, the Trump Administration decided against nominating Victor D. Cha as Ambassador to South Korea due to his opposition to the “bloody nose” strategy against North Korea advocated by the White House. On the heels of this report, U.S. disarmament ambassador Robert Wood declared that North Korea stands only months away from the ability to hit U.S. territory with a nuclear weapon.

During such a time of uncertainty, it would stand to reason that appointing a qualified ambassador to a long-standing ally neighboring a nuclear-armed country that has threatened the United States would rank as a top priority for President Trump. Nevertheless, the United States is left without the diplomatic expertise of someone like Cha and armed instead with a Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) that promotes a greater use of nuclear weapons than ever before.

The “bloody nose” strategy, opposed by Cha but favored by National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, argues for a preventative military strike against North Korea that would inevitably end in an untold number of causalities in South Korea and Japan—where combined more than 60,000 U.S. troops are stationed—as well as possibly in nearby China. This is not to mention the fate of U.S. coastal cities and territories such as Guam, who already has been threatened by the regime in Pyongyang partly as a result of bellicose, ignorant remarks by President Trump. There is far from any guarantee that North Korea would submit after an initial strike given Kim Jong Un’s erratic, unpredictable behavior, and with the recent NPR in hand, the United States could enter into a war with Pyongyang armed with even more readily deployable nuclear weapons.

The Trump Administration’s record thus far in handling nuclear threats and nonproliferation has only served to ratchet up tensions rather than make Americans any safer. In addition to provoking the regime in Pyongyang, President Trump has repeatedly threatened what’s commonly known as the Iran Deal. After “decertifying” it in October, he then only issued the waiver of key sanctions in January after saying it would be the last time.

The concerns behind these decisions—that the deal did not address Iran’s continued funding of terrorism, testing of ballistic missiles, and oppression of its citizens—are valid. The nuclear negotiations, however, were focused on removing nuclear weapons from Tehran with the understanding that further diplomacy would be required to address the other bad behavior. And currently, the deal is achieving what it set out to do: 17,000 centrifuges and 95 percent of Iran’s highly enriched uranium stockpile have been removed and Iran’s only plutonium reactor has been disabled. Plus, trust in Tehran’s word is not needed to verify these achievements because the best nuclear inspectors in the world are on the ground, watching Iran’s uranium from the mines to the laboratories.

Undermining this deal would only result in setting the United States on a path to war with Iran. So rather than continuing down that course, the Trump Administration should instead encourage the enforcement of bipartisan, smartly targeted sanctions against Iran that do not violate the terms of the agreement. After all, sanctions, when used correctly, can be a strong tool—as seen when crippling sanctions helped move Tehran towards the negotiating table in the first place.

Just as sanctions have a role with regard to Iran, so do they have a role in pressuring North Korea. Last week, Vice President Mike Pence stated that the administration will soon roll out “the toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea ever.” Carefully targeted sanctions are a smart step towards what must be the end goal in North Korea: phased denuclearization. This next round of sanctions will follow one announced two weeks ago, and it would similarly be best geared against those individuals and entities who are allegedly financing Kim’s nuclear programs—but specific details have yet to emerge.

Such economic action is a much surer and safer path what the NPR encourages. The review called for developing new, expensive nuclear weapons and stated that nuclear weapons will only be used in “extreme circumstances,” which could include “non-nuclear strategic attacks” such as cyber attacks. For decades, the United States has led the global charge to reduce nuclear weapons, but now, it is reversing course with unnecessary nuclear weapons and a lower threshold to using them—making nuclear war all the more likely.

So as the Trump Administration continues to grapple with charting the path through current nuclear issues facing the United States, they must set aside the unnecessary and expensive expansion of nuclear weapons as encouraged by the NPR. As evidenced by the succeeding Iran Deal, diplomatic and economic action remains the best bet in dealing with hostile, nuclear armed nations. Any brash military action and a withdrawal from diplomacy will only spark a war on the Korean Peninsula or in the Middle East respectively, risking the lives of Americans at home, abroad, and in uniform.

Shannon Bugos is the Communications and Writing Coordinator at Truman National Security Project. She is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Views expressed are her own.