The Duck of Minerva

Does the U.S. Have a North Korea Strategy?

24 March 2018

A Presidential summit in May is not a high risk / high reward scenario. It is Russian roulette.

Last November the media poked fun when inclement weather kept Trump from getting his opportunity to stare down the enemy at the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea. While Trump was reportedly frustrated with being denied this photo-op, it is regrettable for us all that he never made it. Despite the pageantry that comes with these visits, I know from experience that there is something visceral about standing at the world’s most heavily militarized border. There is a certain tension that cannot be faked. And for a moment, you cannot help but think of the consequences if this precarious peace was broken. While no one can claim to know what Trump is thinking at any given moment, I would like to believe that such an experience would inform his decision to either stare down or embrace North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un in a possible meeting between the two leaders.

Does the U.S. have a strategy to address the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons? The evidence from the past few weeks strongly suggests no. Trump’s announcement that he would meet with Kim Jong-un in May took everyone by surprise, including his staff, most notably the then Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, the Japanese (whose Prime Minster received a hasty call after the announcement), and presumably, Kim Jong-un, who has yet to give any official reply. It was surreal watching the South Korean national security advisor, Chung Eui-yong, read Trump’s hastily written press announcement accepting Kim Jong-un’s invitation for a Presidential summit, without a single White House official being in attendance. Even though the agreement to meet was impulsive, we might still be able to deduce a strategy if the goals are clear. So what does Trump want?

This is THE question that has puzzled analysts and warranted concern over how these talks could ultimately affect the relationship between the U.S. and North Korea. Only two days after Trump’s announcement, White House Press Secretary, Sarah Sanders began to walk back the commitment to a Presidential summit by stating that “Trump won’t meet with North Korea unless they offer concrete concessions beforehand.” To date these desired concessions remain unspecified. Moreover, the signals from the Trump administration seem to indicate that policy leans toward military aggression rather than diplomatic engagement.

Furthermore, not only is Trump’s foreign policy team in complete disarray, but the very people who had the inclination and experience to make talks with North Korea successful have resigned or been pushed out. Prior to his surprise announcement, Trump withdrew the nomination of Victor Cha as the Ambassador to South Korea on the grounds that Cha opposed the utility of preemptive military strikes. Just days later, the special envoy to North Korea, Joseph Yun, quit over his perception that his job to talk to North Korean officials had been made irrelevant to the administration’s North Korea policy. The firing of the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, another strong advocate of diplomatic engagement has added to the confusion over Trump’s approach to North Korea. Although not directly related, it is also unsettling that General Vincent Brooks, commander of the United States Forces Korea (USFK), recently announced that he will be stepping down for “personal reasons.”

Meanwhile, the voices advocating for military engagement with North Korea have gotten louder. The weekend before Trump announced his willingness to meet, influential conservatives, including the new National Security Adviser, John Bolton, and Lindsey Graham, were making the case that preemptive strikes would be worth it for the United States in the long run. Additionally, the new Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has repeatedly inflated the threat from North Korea . In January, Pompeo warned that North Korea would not be content to use a nuclear weapon as a deterrent, but would seek to coerce the South and reunify the Peninsula on its terms. This logic is baffling as it assumes a completely complacent South Korea who, despite its alliance with the United States, would be unable to defend its territory. It also supposes that the North Korean leader is an irrational actor who would risk his survival in a conflict he is sure to lose. In fact, when it comes to Kim Jong-un vs. Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un has demonstrated a greater rationality in pursuit of a strategy to achieve his own wealth and prestige.

Crucially, the lack of a strategy means that engagement—whether through diplomatic talks or military threats—leads to greater instability on the Korean peninsula by increasing the risks of a miscalculation that could start a war. It is true that the different approaches taken by previous administrations—Bill Clinton, George W Bush, and Barak Obama failed to prevent the development of nuclear weapons in North Korea. They did, however, maintain stability on the heavily militarized peninsula. Trump’s lack of strategy towards this issue should not be viewed as a radical new approach, but rather as an action that interjects a dangerous uncertainty over what the United States wants from North Korea and what it is willing to do to obtain it.

Active negotiations with North Korea are critical to achieving the duel goals of containing the regime’s nuclear capabilities and establishing a permanent peace agreement on the peninsula. In the current environment, however, direct talks between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un carry a significant risk of making tensions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program worse. No doubt there are many hardworking and patriotic individuals doing everything in their power to provide the groundwork for progress. But as Donald Trump has repeatedly told us, he is the only diplomat that matters.