Donald Trump's warning that he would deal with North Korea "with or without China's help" may in fact have a chance to succeed as a viable new alternative. It reflects a judgment on China's role on the matter and hints at shifting to a "Plan B." It is disempowering China from its "larger-than-role" stake on the international policy narrative on North Korea. Solving the North Korean conundrum with the U.S. initiative would mean sustained American leadership and enlarging U.S. interests in the region where the two major powers are increasingly competing against each other.
Trump did not specify what unilateral options he would take. Therefore, it's more objective to state "all options" are on the table (borrowing from Secretary of State Tillerson's words), ranging from a military strike on North Korea to direct diplomatic talks. Yet it is reasonable to expect that Trump will exhaust an inventory list of non-kinetic options first before he finally arrives at the conclusion that it's time to authorize the military option. Taking this sequential approach is also more likely to garner more international support for U.S. actions.
The key policy logic here is to make China "irrelevant" in dealing with North Korea, including the credit China has either received or claimed as the host of the six-party talks. More importantly, the U.S. has a winning chance to unilaterally engage North Korea, if carefully and strategically oriented, and clinch a "grand bargain" with Pyongyang. The aim is not to prop up the regime, but to destroy it by implosion. It's an engagement strategy to topple the regime. Engagement is a Trojan horse in Trump's deal-making world.
The first step is for Pyongyang and Washington to reach a deal in which the North makes reasonable concessions on its nuclear programs, and the two sign a peace treaty. As a second step, Washington will set up an embassy in Pyongyang and vice versa. This is important and shouldn't be seen as "rewarding" the regime. The embassy is the Trojan horse.
One of the most persistent challenges for Washington in dealing with North Korea has been an utter lack of intelligence and figuring out its intentions. With an embassy, it can better gauge the state of affairs locally and establish communication channels with the North's leadership.
Third step is economic engagement. Instead of imposing sanctions on North Korea, the Trumpian strategy would be to do the reverse. The aim is twofold; to reduce the ubiquitous Chinese economic presence in North Korea; and also to habituate North Korean workers with Western capitalistic practices, including the nine-to-five routine, improved sanitation and respect for workers' human rights.
Fourth, U.S. businesses will enter North Korea, including some signature American cultural products such as Hollywood and the entertainment industry. The obvious aim is to gradually spread "capitalist elements" within the North Korea and expose its population to outside information.
This obvious Trojan trick will be obviously noticed by the North Korean authorities but the economic incentives are something they themselves desire as human beings. Similar strategies worked in the former East Germany. It worked (somewhat controversially) during the so-called "Sunshine Policy" period by the previous progressive South Korean governments too.
The North's authorities were very aware of the danger, a former senior government official who negotiated with Pyongyang told me. "But they agreed, because they judged that the incentives outweighed the risks." It tells us something about human nature. By modifying some of the mistakes and lessons learned from past experience, things can be worked out.
Finally, the key to "Operation Trojan Horse" is to run it as gradually as possible over a long period - for 30 or 40 years, if the German case serves as an indicator. The real aim is to change North Koreans' mindset and induce a peaceful implosion. If it is done peacefully, even China won't mind it.
Tillerson said "all the efforts" of the past 20 years on North Korea have failed. Nah, that ain't true. There is one trick that has not been used. The U.S. "going it alone" without China to deal with the North is not Bush-era unilateralism. But it can be seen as a viable alternative to everything else that has been tried and not worked.
Lee Seong-hyon, Ph.D., is a research fellow at the Sejong Institute. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.