“There are no easy answers here,” said former U.S. diplomat Joseph DeThomas, now professor of practice at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs. “There isn’t an option that just magically fixes this anymore.”
The dynastic regime’s 33-year-old leader, Kim Jong Un, has been in charge since 2011 and conducted more ballistic missile tests and twice as many nuclear weapon tests as his father and grandfather did during their rule.
“This regime, at the end of the day, values one thing — and that’s its own power and survival,” said DeThomas. “At some point, it made the conclusion that the only way its power and survival would be guaranteed is if it had nuclear weapons with which it could hit American targets.”
Experts also believe the latest international sanctions on their own probably won’t change the minds of the North Korean leader.
“I wouldn’t be putting my hopes that any kind of sanctions that we can put on them are going to change things,” DeThomas. He also said in a recent blog post that there are ways for North Korea to evade some of the sanctions.
“I don’t think sanctions at this point are a tool that can achieve that for you alone,” DeThomas said in an interview. “They take too long to to work — and the price you have to inflict on North Korea that thinks its survival is at stake would be huge.”
DeThomas, who served abroad in U.S. foreign service posts during a three decade career in government and is a former U.S. ambassador to Estonia, said what’s needed is for the Trump administration to have a “very clear deterrence policy — not this kind of fly-off-the-handle and say something one day, and then say something the opposite the other day.”
Indeed, experts cited mixed messages just in the last week from the administration and other instances too.
Over the weekend, Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said the Trump administration won’t talk to North Korea and then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Monday the U.S. could hold a dialogue to North Korea. Also, experts say there have been conflicting statements by Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo and Tillerson about regime change in North Korea.
“There’s been a series of statements that contradict each other,” said Klingner, adding that his conversations with Japanese and South Korean officials indicate the U.S. Asian allies are now “very confused and concerned.”
That said, Klingner said he believes there’s plenty of blame to go around since South Korea has also at times contributed to tensions rising on the peninsula. For example, he said, at one point the Seoul government had warned about preemption if it detected an attack from the North was imminent. In turn, North Korea warned back.
“You have three large militaries in close proximity to each other, each talking about kind of a hair trigger response or even preemptive or even preventative attacks,” said Klingner.