×

There’s only one way to fix North Korea problem now

  • Instead of issuing empty threats, the president and his advisers need to get serious about developing an effective diplomatic plan for containing the North Korean nuclear problem.
  • It's time for the self-proclaimed 'master of the deal' to get to work on a coordinated strategy.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during the first party committee meeting in Pyongyang, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) December 25, 2016.
KCNA | Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during the first party committee meeting in Pyongyang, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) December 25, 2016.

In response to the latest missile test and provocation from North Korea, President Donald Trump has vowed to respond "very strongly" with "severe things."

Instead of issuing empty threats, the president and his advisers need to get serious about developing an effective diplomatic plan for containing the North Korean nuclear problem. It's time for the self-proclaimed 'master of the deal' to get to work on a coordinated strategy.

There is no viable alternative to diplomatic engagement. Military threats and punitive measures against North Korea have not worked in the past and are unlikely to succeed now. The leaders of North Korea are paranoid and insecure. The more we threaten them, the more they cling to the bomb for survival.

In April, Trump spoke of the risk of "major, major conflict" with North Korea. Since then the president has backed off such comments. His military advisers know that even a so-called surgical strike could have devastating consequences in the region and would probably not succeed in eliminating the North's nuclear and missile infrastructure.

Diplomacy has worked in the past with North Korea and it could succeed again now. In the 1994 Agreed Framework, Pyongyang froze its nuclear weapons program in exchange for promises from Washington to move toward diplomatic normalization and provide economic aid for the North.

"There is no viable alternative to diplomatic engagement. Military threats and punitive measures against North Korea have not worked in the past and are unlikely to succeed now."

The agreement broke down after eight years as each side reneged on its promises. A new agreement was reached in 2005 in the six-party talks. North Korea pledged to abandon all nuclear weapons activities, and the United States offered security guarantees by disavowing any intention to invade or attack the North. That agreement broke down largely over verification issues.

A new diplomatic initiative is needed now. As former Defense Secretary William Perry has argued, the immediate goal of diplomacy should be to seek a verifiable halt to further nuclearization. The long-term objective is a fully denuclearized Korean peninsula, but that is not feasible in the short term, and an insistence on it at the outset will impede efforts to get talks underway.

President Trump knows that diplomatic success will require cooperation with China. Beijing and Washington share many of the same objectives in Korea. Both want to halt further proliferation and avoid military confrontation. China has supported UN sanctions against North Korea. They favor negotiations and would be prepared to offer inducements in the form of economic assistance and security guarantees as part of a diplomatic package.

China is opposed, however, to any action that might bring down the Pyongyang regime, which would create a huge economic and refugee crisis and increase the risk of war and instability spreading across their border.

If the U.S. and China can agree on a joint strategy, they will have the support of their partners in the 6-party talks (South Korea, Japan and Russia) and the UN Security Council.

The diplomatic package might include the following: an immediate freeze on further nuclear weapons testing and development, a halt to ballistic missile tests beyond an agreed range, the opening of U.S.-North Korean talks on diplomatic normalization, renewal of U.S. security assurances, and a package of economic inducements to encourage private sector development in the North.

A major challenge will be developing a robust international inspection regime to verify compliance with a nuclear freeze. The parties could learn from the UN verification system established for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which contains the most rigorous on-site inspection system ever negotiated. The presence of third-party UN monitors might be acceptable for Pyongyang and would provide assurances for the U. S. and other countries that violations by the North will be detected and promptly addressed.

The proposed agreement would need to be backed up by the credible threat of more effective sanctions. Additional sanctions could be incorporated into a new Security Council resolution, which would go into force if North Korea refuses to negotiate or does not agree to verifiable steps toward restricting its program. The proposed resolution would include a commitment to lift sanctions when international inspectors verify that the North has frozen its nuclear program.

The proposed strategy may not work, of course, but it is necessary to begin the process and hammer out a deal to contain the North Korean nuclear threat before it gets further out of hand.

Commentary by David Cortright, director of policy studies at the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, within the university's new Keough School of Global Affairs. Prof. Cortright is the author of "Uniting Against Terror: Cooperative Nonmilitary Responses to the Global Terrorist Threat" (with George A. Lopez), among other titles.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.