Almost three months into Donald Trump’s presidency, I argued that while the “strategic patience” policy employed by the Obama administration against North Korean aggression had been ineffective, Trump threatened to swing US policy toward the rogue nation too far in the opposite direction. I opined that a balance between the policies of the Obama and Trump administrations could lead to the best possible outcome on the Korean Peninsula and for US foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific at large. Although I thought a legitimate improvement in US relations with North Korea under Trump was exceedingly unlikely, I hoped that his unpredictable, oddball nature might lead him and his administration toward positive results. Unfortunately, my hope has not been fulfilled at all.
Up to this point Trump has demonstrated no awareness of the delicacy of the North Korean situation. He has tackled the problem with emotion-driven impulsivity and has no strategy beyond constantly threatening North Korea’s very existence and berating Kim, the country’s young hereditary dictator. The escalation of tensions with North Korea and subsequent instability in the surrounding region under Trump menaces US foreign policy goals and the safety of our allies. Rather than lambast and insult North Korea and heighten international tensions, the Trump administration must attempt to understand North Korea’s primary motive—survival—and negotiate with Kim using diplomacy and tact instead of unhinged rage.
Kim’s reaction to Trump’s insults should not surprise anyone. It has long been established that the North Korean regime is hell-bent on developing operable nuclear weaponry and will retaliate with erratic statements or attempted intimidations when the United States directly jeopardizes that goal and, by extension, the regime’s survival. But Trump’s behavior, while equally unsurprising to many, is incredibly disappointing. The president of the United States is tasked with acting as the face of opposition to North Korea in the Asia-Pacific and as a staunch defender of democratic allies like South Korea and Japan. Trump has jeopardized our allies’ security in order to go after Kim with belittling insults and massive, overblown threats of annihilation that are beneath the dignity of his office and detrimental to America’s foreign policy goal of maintaining stability in the Korean Peninsula.
Trump might have called Kim a “Rocket Man” as a mocking reference to North Korea’s missile tests, but the implication of the insult—that Kim is crazy, mad, and deranged—can easily apply to Trump himself. The American public already knew what to expect from Kim, but now Trump has carried his irrational emotional tendencies from his presidential campaign into the presidency and onto Twitter. He has, as far as North Korea goes, mimicked and matched Kim threat for threat, insult for insult and bluff for bluff. In the process, Trump has also reduced the North Korea situation into a melodramatic standoff befitting of two toddlers—but one in which literally millions of lives are on the line.
When thinking of different methods that Trump could use to approach Kim and North Korea, a familiar Sun Tzu quote comes to mind: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” Trump does not appear to have tried to grasp the North Korean perspective that Kim represents. If he put himself in Kim’s shoes for a moment, he might develop a more insightful way to engage with North Korea and help achieve greater stability on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea apparently understands this better than Trump does: officials from the rogue nation have reportedly reached out to Republican analysts to better understand Trump’s conduct—and his proclivity for Twitter in particular. If even the supposedly deranged North Korean regime can try to fathom Trump, then we should expect and perhaps demand that Trump do likewise as commander in chief.
Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, North Korea has been forced to survive in a highly hostile geopolitical environment—even more so after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. The country has done so all while preserving its hereditary dynasty, from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un. It has all but lost its greatest historical ally, China, and has repeatedly heard the United States (especially under Trump) assert that its days are numbered. Given its position, the best possible course of action for North Korea to pursue to ensure survival is nuclear proliferation; for all the terrors of nuclear weapons, nuclear deterrence remains a force in international politics today. When Kim and other North Koreans hear Trump describe the United States’s ability to wipe their country and regime off the Korean Peninsula, their determination to pursue nuclear capabilities is only hardened.
It suffices to say, then, that President Trump needs to stop disparaging North Korea and Kim on the basis of their supposed craziness. Underestimating North Korea is the last thing US foreign policy needs in this scenario. North Korea has made the international community aware of several desires, including acknowledgement of its government and an end to economic sanctions (either of which would require a formal end to the Korean War as well). Both aspirations are clearly linked to North Korea’s goal of continued political survival. It is not out of the realm of possibility that Pyongyang would exchange concessions such as these for a reduction or elimination of its nuclear program as long its survival as a country appears guaranteed.
Thankfully, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has publicly noted that the United States and North Korea have been engaging in some degree of diplomatic communication through backchannels and other indirect methods. This is a positive sign for the Trump administration and its need for improved North Korea policy, but President Trump must stop hampering his government’s efforts in this area for these communications to bear fruition in a substantial way in the long-term (assuming Trump and his cabinet have actually etched out a long-term North Korea strategy thus far, which seems dubious at best). This would require less provocative and unproductive tweeting and more attention to patient, meticulous negotiation with Kim’s regime.
The Trump administration, knowing that survival is North Korea’s highest priority, needs the president to aid in brokering productive talks with Pyongyang. Any diplomatic process would undoubtedly take years and have to endure many pitfalls, but treating North Korea’s regime as an intelligent government entity and appealing to its core survival instinct could help relax tensions and create greater stability in the region. Even if such an initiative ultimately fell flat, trying to engage with North Korea as an actual authority would certainly open up more promising strategic avenues than Trump’s present inflammatory approach ever could.
It would certainly be preferable to having two rocket men hurl petty insults across the Pacific at one another while imperiling millions of lives.