What Would Gates Do? A Defense Chief’s Plan for North Korea — “China is still the key no matter how you slice it.”

Robert Gates, the most seasoned senior U.S. national-security official of the last half-century, lays out a response

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Robert Gates.  DoD photo by R. D. Ward.

July 10, 2017 10:33 a.m. ET?

Everybody who’s ever wrestled with the North Korean nuclear problem agrees on one thing: There are no good options for solving it.

That bleak reality grows ever more apparent as North Korea fires off increasingly sophisticated missiles that could one day carry a nuclear weapon. So the pressing question is: Among all the imperfect options for dealing with North Korea, what strategy holds the best hope?

Few are more qualified to offer an answer than Robert Gates, the most seasoned senior U.S. national-security official of the last half-century. He spent almost 27 years as an intelligence official, including a stint as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, worked in the White House for four presidents of both parties, and was defense secretary for both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama.

As it happens, Mr. Gates has a plan, which he explained in an interview. It’s worth listening to at a time when tensions are rising rapidly.

North Korea reached a milestone as it test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching Alaska. What could happen next, as tensions escalate? Here are some of the possible scenarios. Photo: Getty Images

The Gates proposal proceeds from several basic principles.  First: There simply is no good pure military option for attacking North Korea. The sheer destruction and danger of an all-out war on the Korean Peninsula take that idea off the table.

Second: “China is still the key no matter how you slice it,” Mr. Gates says. As has been noted by every recent American administration, China is the one country with sufficient leverage over North Korea to make a difference.

But Mr. Gates also says he agrees with President Donald Trump and his aides that it’s time to “disrupt the status quo” by trying a different approach with the Chinese.

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Which leads to the third principle: “It seems to me the need is for a comprehensive strategy you would lay out to the Chinese at a very high level, which would basically have both a diplomatic and a military component.” In other words, make a deal with China before you deal with North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong Un, directly.

Under the Gates approach, the U.S. would make China the following offer: Washington is prepared to recognize the North Korean regime and forswear a policy of regime change, as it did when resolving the Cuban missile crisis with the Soviet Union; is prepared to sign a peace treaty with North Korea; and would be prepared to consider some changes in the structure of military forces in South Korea.

In return, the U.S. would demand hard limits on the North Korean nuclear and missile program, essentially freezing it in place, enforced by the international community and by China itself.

“I think you cannot get the North to give up their nuclear weapons,” Mr. Gates says. “Kim sees them as vital to survival. But you may be able to get them to keep the delivery systems to very short range.”

In addition, the U.S. would tell China that in any diplomatic solution the North Koreans would have to agree to invasive inspections that could insure a limited nuclear stockpile of no more than a dozen or two dozen nuclear weapons, as well as inspections to ensure they aren’t developing more weapons or further capabilities for delivery.

Crucially, the Chinese would be told that any diplomatic solution is one they would be expected to help enforce.

On the flip side of that offer, Mr. Gates says, the U.S. would present a tougher alternative for China: “If that is not an outcome you can accept, we are going to take steps in Asia you hate.”

Absent such an agreement, the U.S. would “heavily populate Asia with missile defenses.” That would include missile-defense buildups in South Korea, Japan and aboard additional American ships stationed in the Pacific. In addition, the U.S. would declare that it would shoot down “anything we think looks like a launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile” from North Korea.

In short, lacking a diplomatic solution, “whatever means we need to take to contain this regime, we will take.”

For China, he says, the meaning of such a plan would be clear: “All those measures you will see as hostile to China. Your military response will cost you billions.”

In reality, the U.S. would be threatening only to take military steps that would be inevitable in the absence of a negotiated solution in any case: “If option number one doesn’t work, option number two is what you’d need to do anyway.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis would present this proposal to the Chinese. If Beijing signed on, only then would direct talks with North Korea begin.

Mr. Trump already has accepted the idea of a diplomatic approach when he said he would be “honored” to meet Mr. Kim “under the right circumstances.” Mr. Gates offers a smarter way than that to get onto the diplomatic track.

Write to Gerald F. Seib at jerry.seib@wsj.com

https://www.wsj.com/articles/what-would-gates-do-a-defense-chiefs-plan-for-north-korea-1499697227

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