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Trump Reviews Policy on North Korea Amid Talk of Regime Change

  • Jenny Lee

FILE - A TV screen shows pictures of then-U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, right, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Nov. 10, 2016.

With the White House reviewing its policy on North Korea, discussions are taking place among former U.S. officials and experts on whether regime change is a viable option for U.S. President Donald Trump in tackling North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

Recently, North Korea threatened to test-launch an intercontinental ballistic missile, claiming it can do this at any time from any location. In prepared testimony submitted to the House Armed Services Committee this week, John McLaughlin, former acting CIA director under President George W. Bush, said there is a "looming prospect of [North Korea's] intercontinental ballistic missile exploding somewhere on the U.S. soil."

Many North Korea watchers believe that former President Barack Obama’s policy of "strategic patience" has failed to curb North Korea's nuclear development.

FILE - Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 18, 2017.
FILE - Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 18, 2017.

U.S. Senator Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, told a Senate hearing on North Korea this week that even as the U.S. ramped up sanctions against the North, the "current approach is not working" to rein in the regime's weapons program.

New approach

"We have an obligation to the American people to challenge existing assumptions and explore policy alternatives," Corker said.

Quoting two unnamed White House officials, the Financial Times reported Thursday that the Trump administration has already launched a review of its North Korea policy.

Also speaking at the Senate hearing, Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, said: "For over 20 years, I've been arguing that the North Korean nuclear problem is the North Korean regime, and we won't have denuclearization until we have a better class of dictator there."

Kathleen Hicks, who served as the U.S. Department of Defense director for policy planning in the Obama administration, told VOA that "it looks very unlikely" that the Kim Jong Un regime would step away from its nuclear arsenal without regime change.

FILE - North Korea leader Kim Jong Un smiles as he visits Sohae Space Center in Cholsan County, North Pyongan province for the testing of a new engine for an intercontinental ballistic missile in this undated photo.
FILE - North Korea leader Kim Jong Un smiles as he visits Sohae Space Center in Cholsan County, North Pyongan province for the testing of a new engine for an intercontinental ballistic missile in this undated photo.

"At present, I do not see a set of incentives that seem to be powerful enough," said Hicks, who is now director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Regime change

Speaking to VOA, Sue Mi Terry, a senior analyst on North Korea at the CIA from 2001 to 2008, said pursuing diplomatic dialogue with Pyongyang would prove little.

"I really don't think that the regime could be persuaded to give up its nuclear program," Terry said. "Washington has been trying to deal with North Korean threats through negotiations, through engagement, and we know that North Koreans have been happy to pocket the aid and various concessions but they have not really delivered on any of their promises of ending their nuclear program."

Scott Snyder, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, suggested during an interview with VOA that "regime transformation" was a possible option.

"Essentially what [regime transformation] means is that it includes the possibility that the regime could change direction voluntarily, but it also includes the possibility that if the DPRK doesn't change direction, then it could also be achieved through coercion," he said. North Korea's official name is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK.

FILE - A man watches a TV news program showing a file image of missile launch conducted by North Korea, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Oct. 20, 2016.
FILE - A man watches a TV news program showing a file image of missile launch conducted by North Korea, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Oct. 20, 2016.

Some experts, however, are skeptical of regime change as a policy option for the Trump administration, believing that there is still room for talks.

Negotiations possible

Dennis Wilder, former senior director for East Asian affairs at the National Security Council in the administration of President George W. Bush, said if pressure is put on North Korean elites, then they would talk Kim into changing his mind and returning to the negotiation table.

"If they are suffering enough, then he has to think about his survival, and while he says that he wants to keep his weapons, I think that the more important thing to Kim is surviving," Wilder said in an interview with VOA.

Ken Gause, director of the International Affairs Group at the Center for Naval Analyses in Arlington, Virginia, told VOA that instead of aiming for regime collapse that comes with great calamity, the U.S. should open up an aperture of engagement and give the Kim regime something that will offset the nuclear weapons program — for example, economic assistance.

"Hopefully, over time, as North Korea becomes more engaged with the outside world, the regime begins to slowly evolve into something that will be able to peacefully reunify with South Korea," he said.

On Friday, Seoul announced that Pyongyang had dismissed its minister of state security, Kim Won Hong, in what appeared to be another purge of a high-level official. Jeong Joon-hee, spokesman for the South Korean Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, told reporters that the dismissal could lead to instability in the North's leadership.

Baik Sungwon contributed to this report.

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