US President Donald Trump continues to issue incendiary statements and tweets on North Korea. As you may recall, there is the “fire and fury” statement, the “Rocket Man” mocking tweet, the “destroy North Korea” UN speech, and his “calm before the storm” boast, which has been interpreted as a threat to Pyongyang. In two October 7th tweets (see here and here), Trump wrote, “Presidents and their administrations have been talking to North Korea for 25 years, agreements made and massive amounts of money paid….hasn't worked, agreements violated before the ink was dry, makings fools of U.S. negotiators. Sorry, but only one thing will work!”
Combined, these statements and tweets suggest that Trump believes or at least wants Kim Jong Un to believe that military force, if not outright regime change, is on America’s agenda. Trump thinks that past American presidents have been far too lenient on North Korea and that tough talk, coercive actions, and maybe even military force are better courses of action. There is a place for coercion, actually. And I’ve advocated a combination of containment and deterrence as appropriate coercive maneuvers. As examples, strengthening America’s partnerships with South Korea and Japan, relying on the principles of Mutually Assured Destruction, boosting missile defenses in Asia and on the homeland, putting pressure on China to manage better North Korea, attempting to squeeze Pyongyang’s diplomatic space and contacts, pursuing economic sanctions, and tracking and punishing smuggling of all kinds—things Team Trump are, mostly, doing—are good, reasonable approaches.
However, the US can’t embrace an “all sticks, no carrots” approach, which is what Trump is doing. It makes the Kim regime feel as if it has no way out of its crisis with the US, no suitable policy off-ramp to avoid a head-on collision: either Pyongyang prepares for war or it capitulates to American demands. There has to be a blend of containment/deterrence with the hope of talks that offer some concessions—some policies and tools that allow Kim Jong Un to save face, feel less insecure, and trust the US in any potential negotiations.
With all this in mind, then, it’s fairly evident to me that Trump is bungling the North Korea crisis. And not only that, he’s getting quite a few fine-grained aspects of the crisis wrong. Please consider the below arguments and empirical realities.
1. Empirical research by the Center for Strategic and International Studies clearly indicates that engagement with North Korea—diplomatic outreach, promises of concessions, etc.—have consistently gotten Pyongyang to the negotiating table. Yes, once at the negotiating table, North Korea has posed problems: it has sabotaged talks and undermined nuclear deals that have been agreed upon over the last 25 years. That said, drawing Pyongyang to talks is a desirable thing. It lowers the tensions and hostilities, regionally and internationally, allowing all sides to take a breather. It also enables existing US-North Korean diplomatic channels to talk and coordinate without the unnecessary burden of a nuclear war looming in the background. And those two things, in turn, just might offer the proper conditions for a comprehensive nuclear deal to get done, finally. After all, that’s the goal, right?
2. Directly and obliquely threatening a very insecure and isolated Kim Jong Un only bolsters his inclination to stay away from diplomatic talks and expand his nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. The Kims have long believed that the US has designs on overthrowing their government, despite pleas to the contrary by various American administrations since the end of the Korean War. North Koreans think their predicament with the US is an existential dilemma. Upping the threats only plays into the long-held narrative about US intentions and motives vis-à-vis North Korea.
3. North Korea is especially insecure and vulnerable these days. It’s a cornered and isolated nation. Of course, Kim is shunned and threatened by America and its Asia allies, Japan and South Korea. But China, Pyongyang’s lifeline, is also alarmed and tired of Pyongyang’s antics, which only fuels North Korea’s sense of insecurity, particularly its feeling that it could well be abandoned and left unprotected by Beijing. Astonishingly, President Xi Jinping has yet to meet Kim, and there’s no sign of that happening anytime soon. And when Kim has his uncle killed in 2013, he eliminated China’s main contact to North Korea. Additionally, in recent years, and particularly this year, China has voted with the US on UN resolutions condemning North Korea and applying further sanctions on the Kim regime. Sure, there are reports of Russia filling in the economic gap vacated by China, but such activity merely helps to keep the regime afloat another day but doesn’t lessen much Pyongyang’s insecurity. North Korea knows that Russia isn’t attached to the Kim dynasty and doesn’t have strong historical ties and connections to North Korea, and so it’s unlikely that Pyongyang views Moscow as a potential savior. It’s this sense of isolation and danger that informs how North Korea views the world and how it interacts with it.
4. The North Korea problem is no longer a denuclearization problem, as has been suggested by various elements of Team Trump, but rather a deterrence puzzle. As soon as Team Trump realizes this, the better US foreign policy will be. Put simply, Kim has nukes and he’s not giving them up. Handing them over/dismantling them only exacerbates his political and personal insecurities and vulnerabilities, for it means he’ll no longer have the requisite capabilities to deter an American invasion. Plus, years of North Korean propaganda have made both the nation’s nukes and its nuclear scientists quite popular, offering a source of pride in what citizens believe to be an indigenously created and sustained program of scientific achievement. Furthermore, the nuclear program gives the Kim regime a veneer of legitimacy it sorely needs, as it fulfills the promise the Kims have made that they and only they can protect the nation from imperialists and other invaders seeking conquest of North Korea. Mothballing the nuclear program raises the possibility that North Koreans might begin to question the things that have been drummed into heads for decades, potentially leading to the whole house of cards falling down. Don’t underestimate Kim, he knows this. Hence, North Korean denuclearization is a longshot, best-case scenario, one that’s highly unlikely at the moment and thus should not be the focus of US foreign policy.
5. Team Trump has no clue how to communicate threats to North Korea. Scholarly research shows that whether threats are deemed credible depends crucially on the interests and capabilities of the actor who issues them. If an actor issuing a threat is viewed as powerful, and if that threat covers issues seen as vital to that actor, it's likely those threats will be perceived as credible or believable. On those counts, US threats to North Korea are indeed credible. Keep in mind, though, there are other factors that can enhance or weaken the credibility of threats: most notably, consistently and clarity. Deterrence/compellence scholars have argued that threats are credible if the same message of those threats is explicitly and overtly communicated on a repeated basis. More specifically, (1) the issue at stake, (2) the policy or behavior that is sought by the actor issuing the threat, and (3) type or form of punishment if compliance isn’t forthcoming absolutely must be clearly and repeatedly communicated to the threated side/actor. If not, there is room for the threatened to misinterpret or misunderstand the threat, which can throw both sides into a conflict that might have been otherwise avoided.
On this matter, on consistently and clarity, the Trump administration is performing extraordinarily poorly. In his public statements and tweets, Trump brandishes bellicose rhetoric. In fact, his statements are tweets have been so outside of the norm of past US administrations that North Korean diplomats have been left puzzled by their meaning. As Evan Osnos reports, they’ve been desperately searching for clues in their efforts to decipher the meaning and intent of Trump’s wild and brazen threats. So that, by itself, is a major problem. But additionally, Trump’s statements and tweets are often at odds with public comments made by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Tillerson has repeatedly offered very cautious remarks meant to lower hostilities and make clear that the US seeks diplomacy rather than war. But Trump has, on several occasions, undercut him, arguing that diplomatic overtures are a waste of time. As a result, the North Koreans don’t know what to think. Is Trump simply playing good cop/bad cop with them? Or is Tillerson irrelevant? Is US foreign policy made by Trump via Twitter? Given this sense of uncertainty, and given Pyonyang's insecurities, it makes loads of sense for North Korea to assume and prepare for the worst: that the US, led by an unpredictable and rash leader, isn’t just looking to bully Kim but seeks war against him and his state.
6. The North Korea problem can’t and won’t be solved, whenever it’s eventually ameliorated, by force. On this issue, the much-lampooned Steve Bannon is correct. The US is unable to take out all of North Korea’s nuclear facilities and its missile systems. What this means, then, is that if the US did attempt degrade North Korea’s military capabilities, Kim will have a residual force that could be used to strike against US interests in Asia, enough to cause significant death and destruction—including the deaths of hundreds of thousands American troops and civilians who are stationed/live in the region. Regime Change is also a no-go because Kim would very likely use his nuclear arsenal in response. North Korea’s nuclear doctrine is probably one of “asymmetric escalation,” a term coined by Vipin Narang. This refers to the prospect of North Korea quickly escalating an ongoing conflict, one in which conventional weapons are used against it, to the nuclear realm. Regime change is precisely the kind of conflict that would trigger asymmetric escalation.
Moreover, using military force against North Korea raises the thorny issue of Chinese behavior. In short, what would China do? Would a fed up and disgusted let Kim fall? In that case, it might stay on the sidelines or perhaps even coordinate with the US—so as to ensure that it has a say in what a future North Korea looks like. But the US should by no means assume this behavior by China. For example, what if China fears that regime change equates to North-South unification, Seoul as the capital, and a unified Peninsula, on its border, inside the Western camp, an outcome akin to Germany in the early 1990s? This is exactly the kind of outcome China fears and wants to avoid. So what does China do? Does it rescue Kim?
7. Making Kim believe that the US is hell-bent on using military force against North Korea could cause him to launch a pre-emptive war against the America and South Korea. In other words, coercive pressure by the US could backfire and produce the outcome that everyone globally is looking to avoid. This is a problem that Trump has single-handedly caused: his “madman” approach to North Korea, allegedly inspired by Richard Nixon’s policy posture and decision-making during the Vietnam War, has led Pyongyang to conclude that the Trump administration is looking for a fight. Unfortunately, though, if Kim thinks that no matter what he does—no matter what kinds of policy changes he enacts on the nuclear issue—the US will deploy force against North Korea, then he has incentives to order a first-strike with the hope of gaining early advantages on the battlefield. And as outlined above, given North Korea’s probable asymmetric escalation nuclear doctrine, a first move with conventional forces greatly enhances the likelihood that nuclear weapons will quickly enter the picture. This is the most likely route in which a rational Kim Jong Un, responding to perceived threats and pressures, uses nuclear weapons against the US territory and US interests.
8. Trump’s preference to decertify Iran only makes the North Korean problem more difficult. Surely, Kim is looking Trump’s effort to abrogate the Iran deal and sees this as evidence of the US as being an untrustworthy partner, one whose word is effectively meaningless. Specifically, I’m sure Kim is struck by two things: (1) a deal negotiated by one US government can be stymied by its successor; and (2) Trump wants out of the deal based on details that are unrelated to the actual specifics of it. The IAEA, Mattis, the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, the Europeans, various nuclear watchdogs, and so on, all say Iran is upholding its end of the nuclear bargain and that the US ought not take measures to scupper it. Hence, Trump can’t really say that Iran’s violating the deal; instead, his claim is that Iran is repudiating the “spirit” of the deal by conducting missile tests and arming extemist/militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah—bad things, yes, but outside the purview of the deal as negotiated by Iran and the P5+1. With this in mind, why should Kim go ahead with nuclear talks if the US will break its promises down the road? Pushing to renegotiate the Iran deal—a tactic known among Congressional Republicans as “fix it or nix it”—only deincentivizes North Korea to come back to the negotiating table.